2014-15: Highlights Leg 7 - From Newport to Lisbon
May 17. It's Leg 7 start day, the day the teams leave the American comforts of Newport for a transatlantic crossing to Lisbon, in Portugal.
Huge local crowds wave the sailors goodbye as they settle in for 10 days at sea.
"It's always hard to get back into the rhythm," sighs Team Brunel's Louis Balcaen. "Every time."
And first, a complex 24 hours await him. After leaving in a solid 15-knot breeze, the fleet hits lighter air and a restart next to the Rhode Island Traffic Separation Scheme.
Quickly enough though, they settle into a more stable mode, Dongfeng Race Team in the lead. May the drag race begin.
Pushing to the southeast
All boats are now aligned behind each other. But that doesn't mean things are easy – the route ahead isn't clear and the forecast changes with every new weather file.
"The question of the day at the nav station concerns a route choice: go south on a longer but supposedly faster route, or stay on the great circle route," explains Dongfeng's Onboard Reporter Yann Riou.
"It's a difficult choice. We observe and we do what it takes to delay the deadline, the moment when the choice will be definitive and of no return."
With the wind varying with every forecast, they have to base their plans on something, though – and that is the current of the Gulf Stream that they enter on May 19.
Making the most of the Gulf Stream.
A powerful and warm Atlantic current, it flows eastward so all the teams have to do is position themselves in the strongest parts. It's a conveyor belt, if you like.
But with the first four boats in sight of each other, the situation remains nerve-wracking.
"Great action out here with MAPFRE, Brunel, Dongfeng and ourselves all within a mile of each other, tight reaching," says Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's skipper Ian Walker in an email.
Sailing along the ice limit
On May 20, three days after leaving Newport, the fleet faces a tricky transition. A southwest breeze fills in as they leave the Gulf Stream and round a small low-pressure system.
In these unstable winds, Team Brunel takes the first spot, and keeps it. The teams escape this system to head towards the southern most line of the ice limit.
Just like Leg 5, this exclusion zone is set up to protect the fleet from the ice drifting south.
What follows is three days of very tight racing as they parallel two nautical miles south of this virtual line.
"A pure straight-line drag race" – that's how MAPFRE's OBR Francisco Vignale describes it.
Stefan Coppers, his colleague onboard Team Brunel, has a different way to explain it.
"Tonight my father can look at the tracker with an easy mind because we're still in the lead. But for how long? You never know in this Volvo Ocean Race," he writes, claiming that following the race is "bad for the heart."
On May 23, the six boats near the eastern corner of the ice limit and break east, led by Dongfeng.
Rounding the Azores High
A permanent high-pressure system located above the Azores Islands, it has been in the navigators' minds since the start of the leg.
Who will trade off the extra distance sailed for more wind north against the flip side of that to the south?
At the back of the fleet, Team SCA makes a bold call and heads north of the pack. The girls approach the centre of the high-pressure 50nm further north than Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, who is the second northern most boat.
"Libby [Greenhalgh, navigator] is constantly surveying this huge high-pressure to make the right call at the right time," writes OBR Anna-Lena Elled.
"It's not an easy task and it requires knowledge and skills. A little bit of luck doesn't hurt either."
The option of the magenta team ends up paying off: they're rewarded with stronger winds and faster speeds. In one day, Team SCA goes from being 100 to 17nm behind the leader, and overtakes the Abu Dhabi boat.
But of all teams, it's Dongfeng who nails the exit of this system. They gybe first to catch the Portuguese trade winds. Will their success last?
Speeding up in the trade winds
"We escaped the anticyclone with a nice seven-mile lead on MAPFRE and Brunel and we expected to get away," writes Dongfeng's skipper Charles Caudrelier two days after leaving the Azores High in pole position.
"We should have touched the wind first, and grown quickly our lead. But we found ourselves in a windless hole and watched our lead melt away. Our competitors passed just a few metres away from us."
Unfortunately for Dongfeng, the new northerly wind brings the fleet in this new order all the way to Portugal.
And as the sun rises on May 27, Team Brunel takes a sumptuous leg win, their second in the race so far, followed by MAPFRE in second place, 21 minutes later.
The third position is more problematic. Charles' boat gets caught in yet another wind hole at the entrance of the Tagus River while Team Alvimedica overtakes Abu Dhabi and catches up with Dongfeng.
With the finish line in sight, the American and the Chinese teams engage in one last match race. Tack after tack, Charlie Enright's crew gains, and crosses the line in third, 55 seconds ahead of Dongfeng.
32 minutes later, overall leader Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing takes fifth – a lot of the crew onboard suffered from sickness during the leg.
Two hours behind them, Team SCA takes sixth – their bold call around the Azores High wasn't enough to overtake the competition.
"The legs are getting shorter, and shorter, and shorter," says Carolijn Brouwer.
"We have two more legs to go and we're going to give it everything. It's going to come out once - it has to!"
Text by Agathe Armand
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