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A Vintage Volvo Ocean Race

Published on June 19th, 2018

The first Whitbread Race, as it was known, was full of first timers in 1973. As all long form sporting events are under pressure commercially, this edition is about as pure as you can get while still holding on to the sporting integrity set up by the founders, says TV Producer Digby Fox.

You couldn’t write a better script for the finale of the 13th edition of the premier fully crewed round the world race. Three teams tied on points. One leg to go.

The fleet will have a complex short offshore from Gothenburg to The Hague with a few twists and turns thrown in. It’ll be an intense decider after 45,000 miles.

As a back-of-the-envelope catch up, the mighty Mapfre set out with dominating form. This is a team under Xabi Fernandez, the Olympic Gold and Silver 49’er medallist and tough guy from the Basque country. Xabi has surrounded himself by a loyal team of characters mostly from northern Spain, hard as nails, and gunning for a first Spanish win.

The Chinese team Dongfeng overhauled the Spaniards three-quarters of the way around the track. The two Chinese crew Horace and Wolf are doing wonders in China encouraging youngsters to get involved, but they’re leaning on the expertise of French offshore specialists under skipper Charles Caudrelier and navigator Pascal Bidegorry.

Charles is a classic, shrugging, laconic Frenchman. Dongfeng is fast and furious, but they’ve recently been hammered by Bouwe Bekking’s Team Brunel.

Bouwe and crew were late to the table, but they’ve found form in the second half of the race. Their overtake of Mapfre under Norway, covered live, was a sensational display of raw speed and full bore “balls to the wall, we’ve got nothing to lose” racing.

Bouwe is the epitome of persistence, one of the finest qualities in sport. It’s his eighth crack at this game and he’s holding nothing back. Two of his crew stand out.

• Abby Ehler, boat captain, who’s made a successful career at the top of offshore sailing both crewing and fixing everything that goes wrong on boats.

• Peter Burling, fresh off America’s Cup winning Emirates Team New Zealand, and fresh from winning 49’er Gold in Rio. If Brunel wins, he’s got the triple. Olympics – Cup – Volvo. Peter has relaxed into this team, and he’s become part of the brains trust aboard with Bouwe and navigator Andrew Cape. Clearly he’s a bit special in our sport.

But if Mapfre win, Burling’s long term crewmate Blair Tuke wears the crown. They’re good friends and legends in the making.

Leg 11 starts on June 21.

Those are your three teams tied at the top: Mapfre, Dongfeng, Brunel. Leg 11, 700 miles, winner takes all.

As if you need a better reason to skip work this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, much of this leg will be covered live – with heli, onboards, tracker and expert analysis along the way. The finish into The Hague is going to be emotional.

Perhaps what’s made this one of the most interesting editions so far has been its sporting integrity.

The one-design boats have given us as pure a game as possible. No keel or ketch or sail configuration has given these crews an edge – just good old fashioned preparation and ability. Plus of course the team dynamic of an offshore crew.

Every crew has had their moment at the front of the pack, and there have been more lead changes in this edition than any other. For those who have been following and enjoying the analysis of how the tactical and strategic decisions are made during an oceanic marathon, this has been fascinating. I’ve learned a great deal.

Besides learning from the best navigators out there – Simon Fisher, Joan Vila, Andrew Cape, Pascal Bidegorry – others have surfaced in this edition.

I think ‘Neti’, the boat captain on Mapfre who was working up the mast on track damage under Cape Horn in big seas and 30-40 knots of wind, has been another stand-out character. He has his own flag waving Spanish fan club.

Or take Martine Grael, 49’er Gold medallist, working hard, quietly, and following in the family footsteps of becoming a Brazilian great sailor. For my dear daughter Frances, currently competing in a Laser Radial at Kiel Week in Germany, the likes of Abby, Martine and skipper Dee Caffari are all female sailors she can look up to.

The boats look bloody wet, an observation I bore my colleagues with daily, but no other boat in the history of the race has been quicker over 24 hours; AkzoNobel back across the Atlantic, 601 nautical miles averaging 25+ knots. That’s 17 miles off the all-time monohull record set by the 100ft Comanche. Remarkable!

This has been one of the toughest editions in recent history. The two Southern Ocean legs have been brutal, with broiling lows sweeping across the fleet in savage sea states. The conditions have taken their toll, sadly.

To get through those raw challenges is a huge sporting achievement for all the sailors, and particularly the younger ones on their first round the world race like Martine. The original race had adventure at its core, and so does this one.

On integrity, this is also the first edition to have mixed crews on every boat. It’s a nudge from the race organizers, but that nudge simply wasn’t happening on its own. I call this a bold lead from the top of the sport, and one that other top level sailing events should take a look at.

When I started in sailing media over 30 years ago as a young journalist on the fortnightly Yachts & Yachting (UK) magazine, I would catch up on the Whitbread Race through the wonderful features by Bob Fisher. Maybe there’d be a newspaper story in The Times by Barry Pickthall, but you’d have to hunt for it.

Media coverage now is thoroughly up to speed. You have live positions, access to video stories, photos and blogs coming off the boats daily, and all for free through Facebook, YouTube, and the website.

Amongst the quantity of coverage there’s been a daily short news nugget, quick fix, and insight and analysis from Race Control via the Daily Shows. Race followers have been able to dip in as much or as little as they’ve wished in a modern way.

The Daily Shows have been my bag, with two fantastic presenters Niall Myant-Best and Conrad Colman, and what I’ve noticed in email feedback is that the followers of this edition have not been confined to die hard sailing fans. The scope is much, much broader.

In chats with fans in the USA alone, I’ve been surprised at the knowledge and passion shown from all corners of the States and everywhere in between. It’s been great to see so many families involved. Their fan photos are heart warming.

Skipper Charlie Enright, Mark Towill and Nick Dana – the Newport posse – have been fantastic ambassadors for oceanic racing in the USA aboard Vestas 11th Hour Racing.

This trio won podium positions in the first four legs to Melbourne to sit second overall. Their collision and dismasting were undeserved. As Charlie is another persistent character, watch this space. He’ll be back. It took Ian Walker three goes to win. Bouwe? Well, let’s see…

Personally, as a fan, I think this has been a vintage edition, worthy of the founders’ ideals, and worthy of being THE fully crewed round the world race. I sense it’ll be one that gets better the more we look back at it.

Digby Fox is a freelance TV producer, cameraman and writer who’s been commentating on the Star Sailors League for five years, and while he’s working as Live Producer for the Volvo Ocean Race now, this report is a personal view.

On June 21 starts the final and all decisive leg from Gothenburg to The Hague. The boats are expected to finish the 700 nm course, which detours around a mark off the Danish city of Aarhus, by Sunday, June 24.

Race detailsTrackerScoreboardRace routeFacebookYouTube

Overall Results (after 10 of 11 legs)
1. MAPFRE (ESP), Xabi Fernández (ESP), 65 points
2. Team Brunel (NED), Bouwe Bekking (NED), 65
3. Dongfeng Race Team (CHN), Charles Caudrelier (FRA), 64*
4. Team AkzoNobel (NED), Simeon Tienpont (NED), 53
5. Vestas 11th Hour Racing (DEN/USA), Charlie Enright (USA), 38
6. Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag (HKG), David Witt (AUS), 30
7. Turn the Tide on Plastic (POR), Dee Caffari (GBR), 29
* One additional point will be awarded to the team with the best elapsed time at the conclusion of the race in The Hague. Currently, Dongfeng would win this point.

NOTE: The In-Port Race Series is a separate event, but should there be a tie on the overall race leaderboard at the end of the offshore legs, the In-Port Race Series standings will be used to break the tie.

2017-18 Edition: Entered Teams – Skippers
Team AkzoNobel (NED), Simeon Tienpont (NED)
Dongfeng Race Team (CHN), Charles Caudrelier (FRA)
MAPFRE (ESP), Xabi Fernández (ESP)
Vestas 11th Hour Racing (DEN/USA), Charlie Enright (USA)
Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag (HKG), David Witt (AUS)
Turn the Tide on Plastic (POR), Dee Caffari (GBR)
Team Brunel (NED), Bouwe Bekking (NED)

Background: Racing the one design Volvo Ocean 65, the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race begins in Alicante, Spain on October 22 2017 with the final finish in The Hague, Netherlands on June 30 2018. In total, the 11-leg race will visit 12 cities in six continents: Alicante, Lisbon, Cape Town, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Auckland, Itajaí, Newport, Cardiff, Gothenburg, and The Hague. A maximum of eight teams will compete.

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