The 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) has been a race of two halves, after the first three legs it looked like two red boats could run away with the race, but life is often not so simple. Once again Rob Kothe has been talking to skippers and navigators in Cardiff and provides this race analysis.

Leg 9, from Newport to Cardiff, day 7 on board Brunel. Nina Curtis takes a wave. 25 May, 2018.

Spain’s Mapfre skippered by the experienced Xabi Fernandez showed the benefits of good preparation and an experienced crew and a high work rate at the beginning of the race.

The Spanish entrant started strongly with a second place in Lisbon and back to back wins into Cape Town and Melbourne, but then the yips set in. Mapfre jagged a lucky win on the Itajai-Newport leg but needs more good results to secure the first ever Spanish VOR win.

The Franco-Chinese Dongfeng, skippered by Charles Caudrelier, experienced and well prepared started well and often led, so her speed was undeniable. She has sailed very consistently second, third and fourth all the way.

Charlie Enright and Mark Towill’s Vestas 11th Hour racing, the first leg winner seemed like a permanent podium player early on. But later events with a collision and a dismasting and four lots of zero point put paid to that.

AkzoNobel had a shaky start, and a mast track issue finished her last in the Cape Town to Melbourne leg. She was obviously improving, but it seems too little and too late for an overall race win.

Turn the Tide on Plastic and Scallywag both had insufficient experience amongst their crews to pose a real podium threat.

But at that point, the real story of the race of the race was the poor form from race veteran Bouwe Bekking’s Brunel. One of the last crews to enter the race, shuffling crew early on, she was back in sixth place.

A win in the double points leg from Auckland to Itajai followed by a second into Newport suddenly made them a podium player, but surely not a real threat to the two red boats at the top of the leader board?

Leg 9

So, now to the start of the 2978 nautical mile double points transatlantic leg 9 from Newport USA to Cardiff Wales and an early question to answer for the teams, which way to go out of Newport? The short way north into the cold Labrador Sea or the long way south-east to pick up the fast elevator ride from the Gulf Stream?

Four boats stayed south; AkzoNobel, Brunel, Vestas and SHK/Scallywag. While first to gybe north was Turn the Tide on Plastic (TTOP), then a little later Dongfeng, then Mapfre.

It seemed Mapfre was just covering her leaderboard rival, but that was not the case as Xabi Fernandez explained: “We were happy when we gybed (after the first night out of Newport), along with Dongfeng and Turn the Tide on Plastic. It was the plan we had even before the start, hoping to get the northerly winds soon after that but we never found the breeze that was forecast. Instead, we had a very slow transition to get to the north winds, and by then the four boats in the south had travelled a lot to the ESE.”

A slow transition indeed for the three northerners, a parking lot might have been a better description at times.

After two days, the two groups merged, with southerners 1,2 and 3, before they gybed into the Gulf Stream riding a solid frontal system. AkzoNobel kept the lead while breaking Torben Grael’s 2008 Ericsson 4 596.6 nm record with a run of 602.51 nm.

As AkzoNobel navigator, Jules Salter who was on Ericsson 4, explains: “I estimate that we gained 60nm with the current, but the key feature was the flat water in the Gulf Stream, which meant the bow did not dig in. it was a perfectly aligned long runway.”

While all but TTOP and Scallywag broke the 550 nm VOR 65 24-hour race record set by Abu Dhabi in 2014, the two Dutch boats extended with only Dongfeng able to hold onto them between 10-20 miles back in third place, She passed Vestas 11th Hour struggling with some unresolved speed issues in the easing winds at the end of the record runway.

AkzoNobel stretched through the high-pressure ridge, but Brunel gradually closed and took the lead, just 170nm from Cardiff, with Dongfeng a little back.

The 10-metre tidal range up the Bristol channel was now the challenge. As the tide rushed out, the two Dutch boats stalled, just 200 metres apart. But Brunel was first to pick up some new pressure to creep eastwards, grabbing a precious mile before AkzoNobel moved. With the tide now turned the yellow boat held on to take the win.

After eight and half days of sailing, the delta was just four minutes and five seconds. AkzoNobel crossed the line second, followed by Dongfeng and Vestas 11th Hour Racing.

Following his team’s win, Bouwe Bekking said: “Beating Dongfeng and Mapfre, with boats in between means that we have closed the gap with them.”

Peter Burling added: “It’s our second double point victory. Which has got us back in the race now after a slow start. Obviously, we want to have a change for the overall win going into The Hague. I think this win with the three-point prize kept that alive, which is pretty awesome, and it was a hell of a battle with AkzoNobel till the finish.”

“We pushed here to the finish line but its sailing, and sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t,” commented AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpont. “But I think we are all unbelievably happy with a second place and for sure proud of each other and we had a good leg. We enjoyed setting a record and hopefully it is going to be hard to beat again.”

Dongfeng finished third on the flooding tide, two places ahead of Mapfre and retaking top of the leader board with two legs to be sailed. Caudrelier said dockside “we made a mistake going north, but we recovered somewhat. Of course, things would be much different if we had not had that terrible finish in Newport where we led the fleet with 15 miles to sail only to cross the line in fourth place.

‘We are leading overall now, we feel the pressure, but we will deal with it. We just need a leg win and we need to finish in front of both Mapfre and Brunel now in these last two legs.”

Charlie Enright’s Vestas 11th Hour Racing finished fourth with the team’s navigator, Simon Fisher explaining: “We were in a strong position, and we should have been there mixing it with Akzo and Brunel in the drag race, but we had some speed issues, and we are not, to be honest, quite sure why that is. We have got to go and look at that and figure it out.”

Some hours later, Mapfre crossed fifth. At one stage she was 99 miles from the leaders in fifth place, while she closed that gap, she passed no one and as a result, surrendered the overall race lead.

Fernandez with furrowed brow said “We are determined to do better in these last two legs, it will be a hard fight all the way to The Hague.” It’s plain that the Spanish skipper is regularly reminded of his experiences on Telefonica Blue in 2008-9. That Spanish boat had a fast start with a second and two early wins and fading second half of the race with an overall third place, the memory obviously haunts Fernandez.

Behind Mapfre, TTOP and Scallywag again were marginally slower than the rest of the fleet, they fell back during the hard run north and then suffered as the high ridge moved east with them, taking them completely out of podium contention. Sadly it seems that unless a leg win comes their way, they will be fighting all the way to the Netherlands for the wooden spoon

And so, to the top of the leader board, Dongfeng 60 points, Mapfre 59, Team Brunel on 57, AkzoNobel 48 with 17 points still undecided.

Dongfeng should take the extra point for the fastest overall elapsed time in the race, and this could be decisive, although Mapfre has the in-port series point, a tiebreaker.

Before the Volvo Ocean Race sets course on Sunday, June 10 from Cardiff to Gothenburg (SE), there will be another In-Port race on Friday, June 8 in Cardiff.

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