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ALICANTE, Spain – It’s been 19 days and well over 3,500 nautical miles (nm) since the Volvo Ocean Race fleet set sail for Cape Town from Alicante, but the three leading boats are still within sight of each other with the fourth chasing them down just 18nm adrift.
It could hardly be closer. The changing wind patterns are testing the navigators to the limit every day and there are issues from lurking icebergs ahead to electrical problems to keep each of the seven crews on their toes 24/7.
No wonder the race is regarded as offshore sailing’s toughest professional test.
Such a close packing of the crews so long into the opening leg is unheard of in the 41-year history of the event with the sprint to be the first to sight Cape Town’s Table Mountain, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, still anyone’s to win.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing narrowly have their noses in front (Ian Walker/GBR), 2nm clear of Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED) with Team Vestas Wind (Chris Nicholson/AUS) just 4.2nm further adrift.
China’s Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA) are by no means out of it either in fourth place on the tracker, nor even Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/USA) in fifth.
At the back of the fleet, it is not such a happy picture. Team SCA (Sam Davies/GBR) are more than 300nm behind after suffering miserably through lack of wind, while MAPFRE (Iker Martínez/ESP) had huge problems with a broken water pipe on board and electrical problems.
The Spanish crew had to bail out in a hurry to avoid serious misfortune and Martínez was close to appealing for help from land to help them sort issues with the charging of their engine, which performs a number of key functions including water desalination.
To add to the other factors to contend with, there’s a possibility of food shortages in the fleet with the estimated time of arrival to Cape Town now pushed a couple of days back to November 6 and an ice gate to skirt in the Southern Ocean to keep the fleet clear of growlers (bergy bits).
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s onboard reporter Matt Knighton (USA) explained, however, that the leading crews have learned to accept the close-quarter racing at the head of the fleet, a result of the new one-design Volvo Ocean 65.
This is inshore-style racing played out hundreds of miles from the coast.
“One might think that after 19 days of racing and being a long way from land we’re surprised to see another boat so close. To be honest, we’re not,” he said.
“The shock of how close this one-design racing is has worn off. After the earlier battle down the African coast, it’s not surprising to see one or even two sails keeping pace with you for a very, very long time.”
Ahead still lie the Roaring 40s, four or five-metre waves, steady 25-knot winds and the likely drag race towards South Africa next week.
Cape Town’s magnificent port and setting will never be a more welcome sight for these 66 sailors.
While the crews battle it out at sea, bidding is now open for the chance to start each leg of the Volvo Ocean Race with Team Alvimedica before jumping overboard to benefit heart charities at each stopover port of the race around the world.
Starting today (Thursday), sailing fans have the chance to bid for a unique ‘jump seat’ experience at each of the leg starts. The jump seat is on auction to the highest bidder beginning with the Leg 2 start from Cape Town on November 19.
The bidder’s funds will benefit the Paediatric Cardiac Society of South Africa. The organisation is committed to improving quality of care for children with congenital and acquired heart diseases. Bids can be placed on the team’s website here.