By Rob Kothe
The Volvo Ocean Race Leg One started with drama and its continued all day.
On land, overnight Simeon Tienpont was reinstated as skipper on AkzoNobel, but at the cost of his navigator and watch captains.
On water, Charles Caudrelier’s Dongfeng forced penalties on his two closest rivals, Xabi Fernandez’ Mapfre and Bouwe Bekking’s Team Brunel at the final Alicante mark before heading out on the 45,000-nautical mile circumnavigation.
Dee Caffari drove Turn the Tide ide on Plastic into second place, ahead of the David Witt skippered Sun Hung Kai Scallywag, with Mapfre sailing back towards to sixth place. But another dramatic charge from the Spanish team who reeled in her rivals one by one and then took the lead from downwind specialists Dongfeng.
But it’s incredibly tight racing with regular lead swaps. Team Vestas took the lead shortly thereafter and AkzoNobel was close behind in third place as the fleet streamed south from Alicante on Leg One, towards the Andalucian corner Capo de Dongfeng.
This Leg has a notional distance of 1450 nautical miles (nm) or maybe more to Lisbon Portugal, via Porto Santo, a small island to the northwest of Madeira, 490 nm from Lisbon, well off the Morocco coast.
The fleet is scheduled to arrive in Lisbon next Saturday afternoon, highly desirable from a Corporate perspective.
But the strong conditions presenting in the weather forecasts suggest a fast passage, so Race Director Phil Lawrence has suggested that if these eventuate, a virtual waypoint, up to 250 miles due north of Porto Santo would extend the race so the leaders will arrive as scheduled. That can be done mid-leg, so the ETA can be very precise.
From the start, it is looking like a sleigh ride down wind and through the Gibraltar Straits, with following winds of 20 or so knots, making a Gibraltar exit in 24 hours.
Over the last few days a small low has stalled off the northern Portuguese coast and its progress over the next few days will be important, but right now all the models suggest that it will be a fast-downhill slide for most of the way to Porto Santo, then a southerly wind will continue the dream run up to the virtual mark, with the fleet then blast reaching to Lisbon. All in all, lovely first leg weather for all the VOR newbies, of which there are many.
There is general agreement amongst the VOR veterans that the quality of the crews for this 2017-2018 race is the highest in the race history, there are veterans aplenty with outgoing VOR CEO Mark Turner noting that many sailors from early races have returned and there has been a high-quality infusion of Olympian and America's Cup sailors.
Yesterday and today, there was perfect Spanish weather and each day crowds were pouring into the Alicante Race Village from early morning and by mid-day there were long queues at the security scanning points.
The Spanish entry Mapfre, the early race favourite after wins in two of three Leg Zero events, the Prologue win, and the In-Port winner, was naturally the magnet for the Spanish crowds as well as local politicians.
Xabi Fernández has assembled a strong experienced crew, reinforced with some short course speedsters, has had a good preparation and is delivering the results. On Friday he told the overflowing media press conference
‘We have to sail as fast as we can. I think we are ready but I know these guys around us, on the other teams, are going to be ready as well.'
Behind her, Charles Caudrelier’s Dongfeng is well funded, with much more depth in his team. It’s not just having plenty of preparation time it’s how you use it. His crew speak glowingly of his leadership style and with Stu Ballantyne, seven times race veteran saying ‘We have the speed and smarts to win. We beat Mapfre in the Fastnet and we’ve spent a lot of time preparing for the longer ocean legs and we think that will be our strength.’
Bouwe Bekking's Team Brunel second in the prologue is looking for his first win and he has the team to do it. It will be interesting to see how speedster Pete Burling goes in the long legs. But right now, Brunel is back of the fleet.
Those three boats are certainly podium favourites, but anything could happen over the next nine months.
First to be announced and funded the AkzoNobel team should have been best prepared, but they are certainly not. They inexplicably commissioned a new boat, which meant they lost valuable time. The boats old and new are strictly one design and the new build has shown no speed advantage but the AkzoNobel crew are clinging to the hope that by race end, the new boat will be more rigid and hence faster than its second time around rivals, but this scribe could find no one amongst the Boatyard Team nor amongst the fleet who felt that the tradeoff was worthwhile.
Yesterday it seemed that Brad Jackson, the newly appointed AkzoNobel skipper, was not phased having been thrust into the role, after Simeon Tienpoint's departure. He said yesterday 'I don't think much will change on the boat, but to be honest I wish we were sailing straight to Cape Town, (no doubt to escape media pressure).
However, the Dutch Arbitration Institute process threw a spanner in the works with Teinpont’s viewpoint supported and last night Tienpont returned as skipper.
More drama as former watch captains Brad Jackson and Joca Signorini along with navigator Jules Salter chose not to race with new-old skipper and were replaced with reserve and support crew, including Rosco Monson as the replacement navigator. We will hear much more about time no doubt.
Team Vestas, had a good start today, the old Alvimedica. Charlie Enright and Mark Towill had just one circumnavigator in the last edition, this time the crew has a total of 23, they are yet to show their best form, but could easily string Southern Ocean wins together and that would change the face of the race. Enright says 'We did not enter to come fourth. We are expecting to see rapid improvement as the team gels.'
The likely tail gunners?
Turn the Tide on Plastic Skipper Dee Caffari is proud of her relatively inexperienced fifty-fifty mix gender team and is expecting rapidly improving results as the race progresses. Liz Wardley, the Boat Captain spent six months skippering VOR65's after the last race and was then in the Boatyard for the full refit process. She says they are much more advanced than SCA was at the race start.
David Witt, skipper of Sun Hung Kai Team Scallywag had a great start today but fell back through the fleet this evening. Witt is the definitively the Wag of the seven skippers. He says, 'this race is the best way I know to lose weight.'
Witt believes his overall smaller numbered crew will help speed them on the longer legs. With a total of eight crew, any injury will leave them in a difficult position. However, the privately funded campaign has not got the enervating sponsor responsibilities at the many short stopovers.
Overall, the fact is that probably all seven of the boats will win legs, however the double points legs from Cape Town to Melbourne, Auckland to Itajai and Newport to Cardiff will surely sort the Men and Women from the Boys and Girls.
But the question tonight is can the Drama continue at today’s pace. It’s exhausting to even think about it.