It was easily the most difficult stage of the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18, and the sailors will almost certainly rank it as one of the hardest in the history of the race.
But Bouwe Bekking used his veteran nous to fight through all the challenges and lead Team Brunel to an incredibly narrow win over Charles Caudrelier’s Dongfeng Race Team. After racing nearly 7,800 nautical miles over the ground, the margin at the finish was less than 15 minutes.
“It’s been an unbelievable leg,” Bekking said. “We are sad in our hearts about the loss of John Fisher (SHK/Scallywag) and that sits very deep with us, but from a sporting standpoint we sailed a very nice leg so we take confidence from that.”
Nominally a 7,600 nautical mile race from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajaí, Brazil, Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race took the teams deep into the Southern Ocean, with an amended Ice Exclusion Zone set at far south as 60-degrees south latitude.
Down in the ‘Furious Fifties’ (south of 50-degrees latitude) the wind and cold was relentless. Steady gale force winds of 30-35 knots, with 4 to 6 metre seas was a normal day. Squalls could bring gusts upwards of 50 knots and towering seas. The temperature plummeted to just above freezing and snow and hail were common.
The teams jostled for position throughout the first 7 days of the leg, but as the boats gybed along the Ice Exclusion Zone, Brunel slid south from a position slightly further north of the leaders, and emerged with a 20-mile lead.
Bekking and his navigator Andrew Cape were able to hold this advantage past Cape Horn, picking up the first bonus point available on this leg. And apart from one position report three days ago where Dongfeng showed as the leader by virtue of a slightly more westerly position, Brunel has nursed this delicate lead all the way to the finish line in Brazil.
It hasn’t been easy. In the final 48 hours they’ve had Dongfeng close to within one mile, and over the final hours, in the lighter, shifty conditions near the finish line, it was an open contest; either team could win.
For Brunel, the victory means the team has collected all 16 points available for this leg (14 for winning the double-point scoring leg, a one point bonus for Cape Horn and a one point win bonus) and nearly doubled its point total from 20 to 36 points. Bekking and Brunel are back in the game.
“We always wanted to aim for the maximum points this leg, as it means we would most likely be top three,” Bekking said. “From now on it will be a matter of just chipping away. We’ve seen stranger things happen in the past in this race so I think we’re now in great shape to go for the finish in The Hague.”
For Caudrelier, the second place finish and 12 points won may be enough to grab the overall lead from MAPFRE, who have led the race since Leg 2. With a damaged mast track and main sail, MAPFRE hasn’t been able to hold on to the leaders and is now in fifth place, battling to salvage two more points by trying to overtake Turn the Tide on Plastic. Those boats are not likely to finish until the weekend.
“It’s a fantastic result for us. We have managed to come back into MAPFRE after plenty of frustration on the previous legs,” said Caudrelier. “This time we’ve managed to keep them back and far away and if Turn the Tide on Plastic can hold on we have a chance to take the overall lead.
“But the first thing was to finish the leg with everyone on board and safe,” Caudrelier continued. “Of course we are thinking about what happened to Scallywag and John Fisher… I’m so sad for his family and the whole Scallywag team. That is a fantastic team and they lost one of their own… But we are here to push the limits; that’s why we sail in this area. Sadly, it happens, and it’s always too much, but I think about John and all of our team thinks about him and his family.”