They said that the first few days of Leg 4 from Sanya to Auckland would be tough, upwind conditions.
And boy, were they right. “We’re forecast about 30 knots or more – big waves,” said Team Alvimedica’s Alberto Bolzan. “We have to be smart and use the boat in the right way, don’t break it, keep it safe.”
But that’s easier said than done, and as the breeze battered, bruised and bashed the fleet, it seemed an almost impossible task.
“It’s in the top three or four worst parts of the race,” admitted Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Ian Walker. “The ones that I hate, along with the Algulhas Current.”
MAPFRE Onboard Reporter described it in plainer terms, as his laptop jumped around on the media station. “It’s like rodeo bull riding,” he wrote. “We are still seasick, and trying to switch to sea mode.”
Dongfeng, who had scored the perfect hat-trick in their home port of Sanya – a leg win, and In-Port win and the first to lead the fleet out of the bay – clung on to first place, by just 0.8nm, with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in second.
The boats were winging their way across the South China Sea toward the top of the Philippines – and then, on Day 3, the split came.
As they approached the Luzon Strait, Team SCA and Team Brunel tacked north, up the coast of Taiwan, whereas the other four boats continued across the top of the Philippines.
“We’re quite amazed that no-one else went this way,” smiled Bouwe Bekking on the Dutch boat. Nevertheless, the two that broke away had made a bold call, and sailing further than the rest of the fleet, sat fifth and sixth in the pack.
“We think that in the long run, the northerly route will pay off,” said Bouwe, confidently.
Meanwhile, the all-female boat suffered a broken halyard lock, which caused them to lose a few miles to the yellow boat.
Routing-wise, the plan was simple: head east, and head east fast. “There’s low pressure there,” explained Ñeti, on MAPFRE. “Afterwards, we should catch the trade winds of the northern hemisphere.
“Now, we have 10 days on port tack at 15 to 20 knots. We’re 2,700nm from the Soloman Islands.”
Day 5, and wet and wild conditions greeted the fleet – and a humble acceptance from the southern boats that, yep, they’d probably made the wrong call not heading north.
“I can tell you right now that it will play out,” said Ian. “The question is, will they be one or two hundred miles in front of us?”
“They will get the northerly wind first – and any opportunity to get the northerly or southerly wind enables you to reach to the east.”
Also reaching was Cupid, towards his bow – as Valentine’s Day put love in the air on Day 7.
Two teams sailing as a couple were MAPFRE, in second, and Dongfeng, in third.
The pair were locked in a battle which saw them neck and neck, the French team edging the boat speed race by just 0.3 knots.
“They settled in our wind line,” wrote MAPFRE OBR Francisco. “Everybody was fighting to keep the position, but gradually we were overtaken.”
Just 10nm behind them, more hearts on the horizon – those of Team Alvimedica. “Still wet and windy, still settling into our routines,” blogged their OBR, Amory Ross.
“All is good, another day closer.”
Then, darkness for MAPFRE, whose comms cut out, leaving them effectively sailing blind.
“We can still send and receive plain text but cannot send detailed weather data,” said Race Meteorologist Gonzalo Infante.
“Jean-Luc, our navigator, is very limited in his work and cannot forecast or work out future routes,” emailed OBR Francisco.
Despite the setback, the Spanish boat was still in the thick of the action, and just 74.4nm behind leaders Team Brunel on Day 8, with second-placed Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 9.5nm in front of that.
“We just sailed the boat the way we felt at the time, with the information we had,” smiled Brunel navigator Andrew Cape. His boat had just realigned with the rest of the fleet, sailing into their line – and leaving Team SCA out east on their own.
“We were hoping for better than this,” sighed Libby Greenhalgh on the magenta boat. “We still hope that our position to the east is going to be more favourable compared to the others.”
As the fleet entered the transition zone ahead of the Doldrums, the sailors prepared themselves for a further compression. “It’s never an easy place,” added Capey.
Dongfeng’s red boat wasn’t an easy place to be either, especially on Day 10.
With Charles Caudrelier’s crew at the back of the fleet, they suffered a further setback, as they discovered a problem with their mast track.
It was the third time this race that the Chinese team had suffered with the same issue, and it left Wolf in downbeat mood.
“The condition that we’re in isn’t ideal at all, that’s why everyone’s disappointed and a little upset,” he said.
Whilst Dongfeng were in the mental doldrums, the fleet was nearing the real thing.
“It’s cloud after cloud with some gusts and some rain – we’ve done lots of sail changes over the last couple of hours,” said Alberto Bolzan on Alvimedica, his boat sitting in third position after overtaking MAPFRE on Day 11.
Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing still sat second in the fleet behind Brunel, but the skipper was characteristically cautious. “We’ve got a big messy Doldrums ahead of us, I expect anything there,” he admitted.
And with a big Intertropical Convergence Zone, came massive choices. “The biggest decision is where we go through the Doldrums – east or west?” added Ian.
Well, the Emirati boat was certainly doing something right. In just 24 hours, they gained 17nm on their Dutch rivals, sailing an average of 3kts faster.
Day 12 saw the boats sail level with the Marshall Islands, some 400nm to their east – and the exotic conditions matched their exotic location.
“The waves are just big old rolling swells and the sailing is quite pleasant,” wrote Matt Knighton, onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. “Hot, and getting hotter, with small white clouds in the sky and intense star shows at night.”
Dongfeng hit rock bottom – falling all the way into last place, before battling their way back, one by one, into first place on Day 13.
“There is no relief, we’re not happy,” shrugged Kevin Escoffier on the French boat. “We’re focused because we’re in the Doldrums and anything can happen.”
And then, the change. After being in the lead for eight days, Team Brunel ran into bad clouds, light winds, and fell back to fifth place in the fleet.
“From the penthouse, to the shit-house,” was skipper Bouwe Bekking’s honest assessment of proceedings.
With 20kts of boat speed and the ideal angle to reach towards New Zealand, it was a very wet and very fun blast onboard – and the fleet compressed even more, all six boats within 60nm of each other.
“We’ve been sailing two or three miles away from Dongfeng for a couple of days now,” said Xabi Fernandez. “We’re doing more or less the same speeds.”
And so the pair continued to match-race, alongside leaders Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, ticking away the miles one by one.
“I feel like these two boats are attracted – I’m sure we’ll stay close until Auckland,” said stand-in navigator Erwan Israel on Dongfeng Race Team.
With less than 1,000nm to go until the destination, it was straight-line, sublime sailing. “There are no tactics involved, it’s a straight drag race,” blogged Matt Knighton.
“Sail as fast as you can in a straight line and show just how far you can push these boats.”
And the fleet certainly did that. As the day of arrivals dawned, MAPFRE overtook Dongfeng Race Team in first place, and then the Chinese team dropped back further to third.
Despite numerous clouds, squalls and lulls, the order remained the same – and as the first of the boats docked into Auckland, the City of Sails, at 0831 UTC on Saturday, the Spanish boat picked up not only their first podium place of the edition, but their first leg win, too.
That’s four legs, four winners. Some 5,264nm and just eight minutes between the front three – with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Dongfeng Race Team scooping silver and bronze.
“Super happy, super super happy,” beamed a relieved Xabi Fernandez, hanging over the side of the red boat.
“It was a very tough leg, and a very tough last few days especially.”
Willy Altadill, who had completed his first ever Volvo Ocean Race leg, smiled as he stepped back onto dry land.
“We were really victory-driven, and really focused,” he said. “Nobody ever complained.
“This, plus a bit of luck, made it possible.”