Analysis – Key Moments of Leg 1, Volvo Ocean Race

Published on November 9th, 2014

Leg 1 done. The seven boats are now in the South African marina, the 66 sailors on dry land. But what happened exactly between Alicante and Cape Town? How did Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing hang on to win, why did MAPFRE come last?

“It was all tactical, when normally you do one long gybe out to the trade winds, and one to the Doldrums.” Team Vestas Wind’s navigator Wouter Verbraak sets the scene. “It was very intense right from the start. It was all tactical along the African coast, with very little sleep. And the Southern Ocean was pretty intense too, with some weather systems that weren’t really in place.”

So here is a look at the four key moments of this tactical, tense and tight month of ocean racing.

Strait of Gibraltar
The gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. It took the fleet two long days of Mediterranean coastal sailing to get there, but they eventually reached the Strait. And that’s where the first big call of this leg was made. Team SCA chose to tack north and head closer to the coast to avoid the strong currents in the middle of the Strait. The only boat to head in that direction, they took the lead an hour after. All six other boats kept sailing southwest towards the middle and crossed closer to Morocco.

“The big split happened,” said Libby Greenhalgh at the time, the navigator of the magenta boat. “We couldn’t understand why they would all choose that route, so we stuck to our guns, and got to the Rock several miles ahead.” It was a bold move, and one that put the girls 21 nautical miles ahead as they became the first boat to escape into the Atlantic Ocean.

Cape Verde Islands
This leg usually offers two options: going west to enjoy the trade winds, or sailing along the African coast, all the way down to the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands. There was no such choice this time around. Because of weak trades, the whole fleet stayed close to the Moroccan shore, and close to each other.

One week after leaving Alicante, they gybed southwest towards the Cape Verde Islands. It was time to make a second decision: go below or through the middle of the islands. A split in the fleet saw Abu Dhabi, Team Brunel, Team SCA and Team Alvimedica head north, Vestas and MAPFRE go through the centre, and Dongfeng go south, between the east and central islands.

Going north, Abu Dhabi and Brunel already knew they wanted to cross the Doldrums to the west. Vestas went for the middle option with a little something in mind already.

“Our decision to cross east was taken before the Cape Verde Islands,” explained Wouter in a phone call to the boat. “We saw a tropical storm developing with good wind ahead of us, and light spots too. We went further east to avoid these calms, and managed to get the new wind from the east first.” For others, the archipelago was where it all went wrong.

“I think it all goes back to the Cape Verde Islands,” said Anthony Marchand on the dock in Cape Town yesterday. His team, MAPFRE, had just crossed the finish line in last place. “We should have gone north. We were close to Vestas at the time, but they crossed the Doldrums well, I don’t know how they pulled that off.”

These islands definitely played a long-term role in the leg. They shaped the next crucial move to cross the Doldrums.

Wonderful and terrible, fascinating and dreaded. The Intertropical Convergence Zone is a place like no other, a low-pressure area around the Equator where the winds tend to be calm, the clouds gigantic, the sunrises, epic.

It’s a lottery, and one where Abu Dhabi and Brunel made a clean sweep. They went all the way to the west of the fleet, and hardly slowed down coming out of the light wind band some 90 nautical miles ahead of their closest competitors.

“It was a no brainer for us to take the longer route,” explained Bouwe in an email from the boat. “We have seen that happening very often in Leg 1; people like to say west is best and maybe there is something to it. It’s a fact that the Doldrums are narrower in the west than in the east, so it’s less risky to be in the west.”

But one boat went east, and Vestas did very well, finding a hole in the middle of the light airs to come out in a handy third position.

Having chosen the middle course, Dongfeng, Alvimedica, MAPFRE and SCA didn’t have it so easy. The Spanish boat reported a 200km cloud, and the girls got stuck for an agonising eight hours in virtually NO wind.

It was time to cross the Equator, make way towards the Brazilian waypoint of Fernando de Noronha and finally enter the Southern Atlantic.

St Helena High
This big, fat high-pressure system drives weather experts, navigators and routing systems mad. Looming over the middle of the Southern Atlantic, creating light wind patches all over the place, the St Helena High only gives the sailors two options: rounding it, or sailing through it.

There was no way to cut the corner this time, and it was all about dealing with the elephant in the middle of the room, the High, before turning east to Cape Town.
First, a run south-southwest, sailing along the Brazilian coast in southeast trade winds.

MAPFRE tried to hook into a small low-pressure system off Rio, but that didn’t work out, they only sailed more miles.

Brunel flirted around the high-pressure system, but stumbled in light winds.
Vestas went far west and made a temporary gain, but didn’t manage to cash their investment later on.

At the back of the fleet, MAPFRE and SCA were stuck in a different system by then, but their final battle made up for this temporary lack of confrontation.

After breaking a rudder and a padeye, Dongfeng did the best of what they had: Charles Caudrelier’s team went south, gybed early and caught up with the leaders.

And there, once in the Southern Ocean, heading away from the ice exclusion zone that sits at 42º South, the leading boats found themselves once again in sight of each other. After 19 days of sailing.

Once back with the front pack, Charles kept the pressure on Ian and his guys. Abu Dhabi arrived in Cape Town only 12 minutes before them, taking first place, and one point. “SiFi got all the major navigation decisions right,” said an ecstatic Ian on the South African dock, speaking of his navigator Simon Fisher. “Like the African coast, like going west of the Cape Verde islands, managing the St Helena High, and particularly gybing early in the Southern Ocean, and our final approach. We sailed a smart leg.”

Leg 1 Finishes
1. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Ian Walker (GBR), 025d 03h 10m 44s
2. Dongfeng Race Team, Charles Caudrelier (FRA), 025d 03h 22m 48s
3. Team Brunel, Bouwe Bekking (NED), 025d 07h 33m 25s
4. Team Vestas Wind, Chris Nicholson (AUS), 026d 00h 48m 47s
5. Team Alvimedica, Charlie Enright (USA), 026d 13h 07m 38s
6. Team SCA, Sam Davies (GBR), 026d 23h 37m 49s
7. Mapfre, Iker Martinez (ESP), 027d 00h 47m 32s

Race websiteTrackingWatch logVideos

Background: The 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race began Leg 1 on October 11, which took the 7 teams 6478nm from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa. Racing the new one design Volvo Ocean 65, teams will be scoring points in 9 offshore legs to determine the overall Volvo Ocean Race winner. Additionally, the teams will compete in 10 In-Port races at each stopover for a separate competition – the Volvo Ocean Race In-Port Series. The next In-Port race will be Nov. 15 with Leg 2 from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi starting on Nov. 19. The final finish is on June 27, 2015 in Gothenburg, Sweden.

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