Today Dongfeng Race Team are a ‘nose’ in front of the rest of the fleet: ‘Last night we passed both Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Brunel on speed alone! One less thing to worry about at least,’ said skipper, Charles Caudrelier, happy to know that they are not slower than the others downwind – very useful to know for when in the future (perhaps!) they can’t actually see the other boats. ‘Getting to the front isn’t the hardest, it’s keeping your position!’ The lead is tenuous – since the start there have been 16 lead changes (Three times that if the positions in between the three hourly reports are considered) with all of the boats taking a turn at the front at some point, and at most 15 miles separating the seven boats from first to last.
Chinese sailor Wolf is recovering slowly from the first few days that have been extremely demanding in terms of physical effort and lack of sleep. He took the opportunity yesterday to rest a little bit, to wash himself, to eat properly, but he is now realising how hard this race could be: ‘My dream was to do the Volvo Ocean Race and I am now living my dream, but this is different from what I imagined. After these first few days, I am now wondering if this dream could potentially be a nightmare…
From the start, it was a slow and arduous upwind slog as they cleared the Mediterranean Sea, navigating the Straits of Gibraltar early on Monday morning to reach the North Atlantic. Later that night the fleet headed west in to a weather front waiting for the more favourable north westerly winds, with strong winds and difficult seas, and tacked to the south in their first wet and wild conditions, ‘Sailing close to the wind under reduced sails… The boat rattles, bangs and shudders. Down below, water is starting to creep in, brought in by the soaking wet gear of the sailors. Every little movement is starting to feel complicated. To find the right balance, and to keep it despite the impact of the hull smashing constantly against the waves is a constant battle,’ wrote Yann Riou.
The route then took the fleet, still tightly compressed, right up the beaches of Morocco, with some tricky shifty winds to keep everyone on their toes. Last night the fleet played out a downwind gybing duel as they passed unusually to the east of the Canary Islands. The forecast of light (10 knot) winds, strengthening later as they get into what are still weak Trade Winds, coupled with the easterly position of the fleet, means the next few days are going to be downwind gybing, zig zagging their way to the south west. The next milestone is the Cape Verde Islands – 820 miles to the south – if Dongfeng is slow (slower than predicted) to that point they will probably stay hugging the coast, if they are faster they will probably go through the middle or to the west of the islands. Navigator, Pascal Bidegorry, will be working out Dongfeng’s strategy to cross the Doldrums – or Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) to give it its technical name – an area where what wind there is, is vertical not horizontal much of the time! Unless a boat has a problem, the fleet is likely to stay very close until the Doldrums, which in turn could turn the race on its head according to has the bad or good luck! Hopefully Dongfeng, the wind from the east bringing freshness and energy, as the Chinese saying goes, will bring us the luck that will be needed to escape in to the southern hemisphere.
The Volvo Ocean 65 one-design has taken the racing to another level and it will be as much a ‘mental’ game, as it is about tactics, sailing skill and optimum physical performance. There is no doubt, that the opening salvo of this leg have already tested the sailors – lack of sleep is taking its toll, the conditions from no wind and flat seas, to 30 knots and an uncomfortable, choppy sea state, endless manoeuvres and sail changes demanding the presence of all the crew, alongside a few breakages reported amongst the boats.
No one expected ‘Life at the Extreme’ to be easy but perhaps no one had truly anticipated just how close the racing would be.