2014-15: Highlights Leg 6 - From Itajaí to Newport
If you thought this 5,010nm voyage from Itajaí, Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island was going to be a piece of cake compared to the epic and extreme Leg 5, you were wrong.
Leg 6 saw damages, knockdowns and 50 knot gusts. But it all started, well, pretty slowly.
As the fleet left the Brazilian shores, they were clocking up speeds of around 2 knots – hardly life at the extreme.
"How long do you think this leg will take?" prodded Dongfeng Race Team OBR Sam Greenfield, as the sailors of the French-Chinese team scouted for wind.
"At this speed, a few years!" laughed Kevin Escoffier. "We'll come back and our wives will all have kids… and not from us!"But the flagging sails couldn't dampen the mood. The tropical stopover after an extreme Leg 5 had given the fleet a chance to reflect, and to rest.
"We've had the past five legs to gain experience, and show the progress that we've made," smiled Carolijn Brouwer, on Team SCA."We showed that we can stay close and competitive. That's what I'm looking forward to this leg."
It was Team Alvimedica who led the boats out of Itajaí – the Turkish-Americans desperate to weigh in with a good performance on their homecoming leg.
By close of play on Day 1, they'd been overtaken by Spanish boat MAPFRE.
The next 48 hours was plain sailing for the fleet – except for Dongfeng Race Team.
Charles Caudrelier's crew suffered bad luck when they dismasted in Leg 5, and it appeared that the curse still hadn't lifted, as their electronic water-maker stopped working within a couple of days of starting Leg 6.
It was a serious issue for the red boat. Without the use of their device, it took 15 minutes and much physical output to produce just a single litre of water.
"Let's do some maths," wrote OBR Sam. "Three to four bottles are required alone to make a freeze-dried meal. The guys eat three meals a day."
"There are nine of us onboard. Each of us can 'survive' on a single bottle of water a day. That's 18 bottles, so 4.5 hours of pumping per day just to get by."
It was to be another 48 hours before the Dongfeng Race Team sailors found a fix – handyman Kevin Escoffier coming up trumps under pressure.
On Day 4, the teams were still within 10nm of each other, and the Jekyll and Hyde conditions were causing frustration amongst the sailors.
"No one really knows what to do with this weather," admitted Rob Greenhalgh on MAPFRE, looking up at the clouds."
"There's going to be a header out here and it's just a case of seeing who's fast. Everyone is just ushering each other east."
With the boats being pushed to the limit, the damage toll started to rise.
Team SCA, sitting second in the fleet and sailing well, were caught by surprise by an cracked 990 winch drum.
And pack leaders, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, the most western boat in the fleet, broke an outrigger.
But the focus for the day was on strategy, and timing. It was time for a big decision: when to tack north.
The big tack
As dawn arrived on Day 5, the teams were preparing to make their big move. By 0800 UTC, four out of the six had tacked to starboard, with just Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and MAPFRE continuing to head east.
Then, the Azzam sailors decided to make their move, but it left them vulnerable to the more eastern boats, who were experiencing better conditions. Skipper Ian Walker felt the heat as his rivals closed in.
"We're essentially picking our lanes for the next 1,000nm north," wrote Amory Ross, OBR on Team Alvimedica.
The homecoming boat stayed in the west, and was left in total isolation, cut off from the rest of the fleet.
"For sure, I like not being one of the sheep, or lemmings," said Alvimedica navigator Will Oxley.
"The race is so close, and everyone is so terrified to make a move, that there are moments when you have to try and be bold."
But he was realistic about the gravity of the decision to go it alone.
"The chances for splits are so small now," he said. "We're either first or last – it's that simple."
By Day 7, Dongfeng Race Team had wrestled the lead, and sat some 6nm ahead of second placed Team Brunel.
But the big story was Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, who had fallen all the way back into last place in the leg.
"Here's a list of things not talked about onboard right now," wrote OBR Matt Knighton.
"Our position in the overall race standings, being in last place in the leg, if Alvimedica's gamble to the west will pay out, how much we miss broccoli, and baseball scores."
Day 8, and the Equator was in sight. Finally, the teams were set to return to the northern hemisphere, for the first time in months.And finally, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing had gotten going again. In the space of 24 hours, they went from last place, to within 20nm of leaders Dongfeng.
The strategical dilemma now was whether to stay inshore, or head offshore.
"The argument for staying inshore is that there's a new river flowing at between 1.5 and 2.5 knots, which can give you a push," explained Race Meteorologist Gonzalo Infante.
"But if you stay offshore, there's more wind. You'll also have a better angle for the northeast traders. So you lose the current, but you're pointing straight at the destination."
Crossing the Equator
On Day 9, Team SCA was the first boat to pass the Equator – and the fleet was compacting again.
"The whole fleet is within 10 miles, and I'm pretty sure it'll stay like that now," said Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker.
"There'll be some big tactical calls at the end of the leg, which will decide it all."
His crew had further cut the deficit on Dongfeng, who now sat third in the fleet, behind leaders Team Brunel, and MAPFRE.
And the good news? The sailing remained fast and furious. The famous Doldrums were pretty non-existent.
"We're doing 25 knots of boat speed and the sea state is very good," said a happy Kevin Escoffier on Dongfeng.
All routing options aligned with each other, confirming an intermediate route that made the most of the conditions. The potential for a big split, or a big call, later on in the leg diminished.
It was bad news for Team Alvimedica, who were still cut adrift in the west. There was only one real answer to their woes: sail fast, sail north.
By Day 11, the sailors were well and truly feeling the impact of Leg 5 – and the accumulated tiredness of over 200 intense and insane days at sea since October.
"We're feeling the pain," said Charles Caudrelier on Dongfeng. "It's not just us, it's the other boats too."
He adds. "We can't lie to each other – this race breaks you down, little by little."
His boat was the first to enter the infamous Bermuda Triangle on Day 13, and luckily, none of the fleet vanished into myth.
Time to front up
With their destination growing closer by the mile, the fleet had one more big hurdle to overcome: the arrival of a massive front, blocking their path.
Indeed, that arrival came on Day 14. Clouds gathered, squalls appeared, and the wind shifted 180° from southwest to northeast.For some, it had a positive impact. "We caught the new breeze and took off as they got caught in the front, and now we're back in a 6.5nm lead. It's what the French call 'le accordion'," wrote Sam Greenfield, on Dongfeng.
For others, not so. MAPFRE were hit by a 50 knot gust as they attempted to cross the front, and the boat suffered a knockdown. It meant that the top three boats extended on Xabi Fernandez' men.
The Gulf Stream
By Day 15, it was time to negotiate the Gulf Stream – a powerful and warm current going from the tip of Florida and along the eastern coastlines of the USA and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
"Its impact is important but not decisive," predicted Race Meterologist Gonzalo Infante.
And so his prediction proved true. The fleet sailed the lateral current, remaining unchanged, and closing in on their destination at speed.
By Day 17, they were within sight of the eastern shore of America. Dongfeng and Abu Dhabi, scrapping for the lead, were the first in Narragansett Bay – the Chinese boat narrowly maintaining their lead to win Leg 6 by just three minutes.
Behind, Team Brunel grabbed the final podium place – followed by MAPFRE and Team Alvimedica, the latter of which struggled in light winds on the home strait, taking nearly three hours to cover the final mile.
Team SCA, who battled with the leading pack for such a large portion of the leg, came in sixth, arriving the following morning."We've still got to try and find a couple of secrets from them, because there are certain points of sail where we still couldn't keep up," said Team SCA skipper Sam Davies, of the winning boat.
"They seem to have that edge again."
For Dongfeng, it was the perfect result to send them into Leg 7 – the transatlantic sprint from Newport to Lisbon.Just five points separates the top two in the overall rankings ahead of that trip.
With just three legs to go, it's still anyone's game.