Bouwe Bekking stares at a crowded room, filled with Chinese journalists. In fifth place, Team Brunel has just crossed the finish line of Leg 3.
Right – it has been a long way from Abu Dhabi to Sanya and you’ve got to understand the Dutch skipper… 25 days and some 5,400 nautical miles (10,000km)* of light airs, complex tactics and dangerous floating debris would drain anyone.
But wasn’t there more to it than that?
Oh, yes. In fact, navigator Pascal Bidégorry, the brain behind Dongfeng’s victory, swears he “twisted himself in knots” at the chart table.
As the fleet sailed through the Gulf, along the Indian coast, around Sri Lanka and across the Malacca Strait to finally punch through the South China Sea, there have been plenty of milestones.
Exiting the Gulf
First, leaving Abu Dhabi wasn’t easy. A thick fog complicated the start on January 3, followed by a night of non-stop tacking in the Gulf. Some boats chose to sail through a gap between the islands north of Oman, but all remained in sight of each other.
24 hours after the start, Dongfeng Race Team took the lead. Spoiler alert – they would keep it for the rest of the leg, except for a glitch on January 7 when Team SCA briefly emerged in first position after a gybe.
After crossing the Strait of Hormuz, the fleet headed towards the open ocean. Drifting in light airs along the Iranian Exclusion Zone, they were aiming for the monsoon trades… but a high-pressure cell blocked them, and the sailors stuck to the Pakistani coast. They even got within a nautical mile of the shore.
“There are hundreds of fishing boats everywhere and a beautiful coastline that from afar actually looks like Cowes,” wrote Charles Caudrelier at the time.
He enjoyed the sightseeing, but Dongfeng’s skipper wasn’t relaxed leading the way into the Pakistani waters. “We were a little worried to go so close to the coast as we’re pretty sure it’s never seen a boat like ours.”
Then, on January 8, the whole fleet followed his red boat on its way south, some 400 nautical miles off the Indian coast.
Sailing along the Indian coast
East or west? This could have been the big question of this leg. It could have changed it all.
But on the way down the Indian coast, the chasing pack chose to follow Dongfeng to the west, avoiding the extreme easterly option closer to the shore.
“So far everyone has just sailed around following each other like sheep,” said Ian Walker. “The boats behind are keen to stay in touch with the leaders and therefore do not want to split and the leaders are more than happy to cover.
“At some point that will change,” added Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s skipper, always hopeful for a bit of navigation action.
“There remains a big choice over whether to sail a more easterly route close to the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka or to sail wide to the west.”
Rounding Sri Lanka
And a choice there was. Like a river avoiding obstacles, the highlands of southern India and Sri Lanka leave wind holes behind the mountains, and accelerations on the sides.
The Dongfeng men lost ground going through a windless area, spotting Brunel and Abu Dhabi’s lights on the horizon as the competition closed in, but they did maintain their lead.
Charles called it “a battle of nerves” – an expression he’d end up using lots during the leg.
Crossing the Bay of Bengal
10 days in, the boats left Sri Lanka behind and headed towards the entrance of the Malacca Strait, a further five days to their east.
At that point, Sanya was still 2,400nm and two weeks away, the whole fleet spread over 60nm from front to back. Dongfeng went all the way north, Team SCA 20nm south of them. The four others stayed in the middle, compressed within sight of each other.
Approaching Indonesia proved challenging. There were clouds and squalls, food and fuel rationing, a man down onboard MAPFRE – Anthony Marchand, sick and off watch for six days – and a padeye problem forcing Dongfeng to perform a repair at sea.
But the worst was yet to come.
Crossing the Malacca Strait
“The Strait will throw a lot at us,” anticipated Charlie Enright. Like most of the 57 sailors, Team Alvimedica’s skipper had never sailed in these waters before, and prepared himself for anything.
“We need to be ready for changing sails, changing game plans, ships, squalls, sleepless night… interesting part of the world we’re sailing in!”
A very random place to sail through, this busy maritime passage offers a lot of navigation hazards.
“The pollution in this part of the ocean is pretty unreal and tragic,” wrote Onboard Reporter Corinna Halloran, Team SCA. “We’re regularly catching debris on our keel and rudders.”
Local wind holes also threatened the fleet – especially Dongfeng. On January 19, they lost around 100nm to the competition overnight.
“Our boat feels completely stopped,” said Kit, one of his Chinese sailors. “Our competitors still have pretty good puffs at the back, so they’re catching up slowly.”
Just like Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Brunel and MAPRE, they ended up using their anchor to stop drifting in the wrong direction.
Two days later, the fleet finally exited the Strait and crossed the Singapore Channel. A little recovered from their fright, Dongfeng were still in the lead. The four boats behind were locked in an intense
battle, just 2.5nm splitting them, and Team SCA 70nm at the back.
Punching through the South China Sea
“12 hours into the long 1000nm beat to China and we are getting used to our new life with waves and full heel,” wrote Walker from the Emirati boat.
“Our ‘mini fleet’ of four boats are all parading out east towards the layline to the Anambas Islands and I am sure we will then see a very long starboard tack by everyone towards Vietnam.
“Tactical options are very limited right now so boatspeed is king. It is amazing to think how close the racing has been between the four of us. We have been in sight of each other pretty much since Sri Lanka.”
Not only did the intensity of the competition wear the sailors out, but all the unlit fishing boats along the Vietnamese coast drove them mad.
“It was the most intense night of sailing in my life,” confessed Alvimedica’s Enright.
“We just completed probably our 12th tack, amongst maybe 7,000 fishermen and three of our competitors.”
That, and Dongfeng’s cunningham/tack line of the J1 headsail suddenly broke on January 22, sending the sail shooting up the forestay.
But nothing could stop the Chinese team from finally winning the leg on January 27, delivering a mind-blowing, historical performance in their home port.
As his team crossed the line at sunrise, Charles sighed and said, “it was the most stressful leg I’ve ever done in my life.”
All of his competitors would agree.