Focus remains solidly on improvement

Published on October 23rd, 2014

Mark Towill, general manager and crew member onboard the American/Turkish flagged Team Alvimedica, checked in today (Oct. 23) with Scuttlebutt to file this Volvo Ocean Race update during Leg 1 from Spain to South Africa…

We aren’t even half way to Cape Town but one thing is for sure: this is going to be a very competitive race. The one-design concept has kept the fleet relatively close and there is a high premium on boat speed and sound decision making. As in any sailboat race, there are a few key decisions that have resulted in big gains and losses. Here’s a snapshot of some of the decisions we’ve made onboard Team Alvimedica.

Exiting the Med felt like a sprint. Countless sail changes, everything from VMG downwind in four knots to upwind in twenty plus meant constantly shifting gears and minimal sleep for the guys. We did good work staying with the group and anticipating a right shift made a nice play setting up inside of the fleet on the long starboard tack out to Gibraltar. The fleet opted to approach from the south except SCA who made a big gain from the north. Our inside line on starboard turned into a strong bow out position on the final approach on port and we left the Med in good position and in touch with the fleet.

As we began making miles toward the Canary Islands, the typically strong high-pressure system was weakening and shifting south with us, forcing the fleet into a narrow band of pressure close to the African shore. We felt that there was better pressure quite close to the coast and planned to position ourselves as such against the fleet. This section of the leg saw numerous gybes and big gains and losses were made on relatively small wind shifts.

One moment in particular stands out for me. We were up in the front group with Abu Dhabi and Dongfeng, on port board headed for the shore. We were slightly lifted and when the others gybed, we were forced to make the classic decision all sailors must make. Do you go for the shift or the pressure? We decided to continue to sail lifted toward the better pressure we believed to be on the shore, eventually gybing onto starboard but now a ladder rung behind. Turns out they found even better pressure and angle offshore and gained five miles on us in just a few hours. Sailboat racing at its best.

Another key decision was our positioning entering the ITCZ. After passing Cape Verde to the north, we did two gybes to maximize the wind acceleration along the island’s impressive 3,000-meter cliffs. This put us in the middle of the group as Abu Dhabi and Brunel who also passed the islands to the north didn’t gybe and continued west, and the rest of the fleet set up to our east. The doldrums are impossible to accurately forecast and one cloud can make or break your day, and seems like a lottery more than anything. In the end Abu Dhabi and Brunel did well in the west, and Vestas was able to escape in the east.

Having now escaped the seemingly never ending doldrums, we are now reaching toward Isla de Fernando and locked into a drag race with Mapfre who are just a few miles to windward. We’ve sailed thousands of miles and this still continues to feel more like an inshore race than an offshore leg.

For us on Team Alvimedica, the focus remains solidly on improvement. We are continuing to learn about how to maximize the potential of the boat and ourselves, and refine our decision-making processes on board. If we can have a steeper learning curve than the rest of the teams, who knows what can happen by the time we get to Gothenburg.

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