The third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race is underway, but the fleet was shrouded in a dense fog as it waved goodbye to Abu Dhabi and headed 4,670 nautical miles east to China.
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Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing may not have had the dream arrival into their home port, as they finished third behind Team Brunel and Dongfeng Race Team, but Ian Walker’s charges stormed out of the Corniche and into a very early lead at 14:00 UAE time.
The departure from the Gulf was hardly ideal though, with the desert sun failing to burn through the thick fog as the crews were waved off from the race village.
ADOR skipper Walker said that although conditions were not ideal, his crew were itching to get back out on the open water following another successful in-port race yesterday in which Azzam finished third, recording their third straight podium finish.
“We’re raring to go. We are pretty confident going into this. There’s a bit more energy in us compared to when we left Cape Town,” said Walker.
“We felt really good yesterday in the in-port race, we actually sailed very well yesterday.”
Despite being back where they belong, it can sometimes take a while to get back into life on the high seas, although Walker warned that no team will be able to afford a slow start here.
“It can take a few days to get back into it, it depends on the situation,” said the 44 year old.
“Sometimes if you know it’s going to be a long way and there’s going to be some park ups and it can take a while to get going, it was a bit like that in Cape Town.
“However, sometimes the early bit of the leg is the crucial bit. There’s a lot of intensity. Here I think the first week could decide the leg.
“We can’t afford to do anything other than get straight into it. Having said that, there will be very light winds the first week.”
Maintaining their steady consistency remains the aim for Walker.
“Right now we’re in a great place,” he said.
“We’re leading the in-port series, we’re tied for the lead in the race and other teams have got their difficulties.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and, as the race goes on, increasingly pay attention to the boats that are closest to us overall.”
Team Brunel are just ahead in the race to win Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race and join Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing at the top of the leaderboard – but the sprint into Abu Dhabi still looks too close to call for sure.
Bouwe Bekking’s (NED) Dutch boat was leading Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA) by a mere 14 nautical miles (nm) around midnight yesterday with Ian Walker’s Azzam 43nm further behind.
The trio have a huge lead of nearly 329nm over the fourth-placed boat, Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/ USA), with Mapfre (Iker Martínez/ ESP), and Team SCA (Sam Davies/ GBR), also seemingly out of the running for a podium spot.
The top three have around 639nm left to cover of Leg 2 and before arriving in Abu Dhabi, expected on Saturday, December 13.
The Dutch team’s current lead is a testament to the immense sailing knowledge on board led by 51-year-old Bekking, who is taking part in a record-equalling seventh race, and his navigator Andrew Cape (AUS).
Cape is a year older than his skipper and competing in his sixth race.
They both have one thing in common: An overall race victory in the world’s leading offshore event is missing from their resumés despite several close calls.
Right now, however, Bekking is focusing firmly on one step at a time and would cherish a win in another closely contested leg following their third place behind winners Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in the opening stage from Alicante to Cape Town.
Victory for Team Brunel in Abu Dhabi would bring them level with Walker’s crew on four points and one win apiece.
“How many legs have I won in the Volvo Ocean Race? I would say about eight? I’m not sure,” said Bekking yesterday.
“I’d have to count again – but not enough – and it’s high time we added another one to the list,” he added.
Walker certainly has not given up hope of snatching another top spot on the podium. “It may not seem right now, but 30 miles can disappear quite quickly. There’s still 450nm to go upwind in light air, so anything can happen,” the two-times Olympic medallist said.
Dongfeng Race Team will join Team Brunel and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing on four points if they retain their current second place.
However, the Dutch and Chinese boats would be ranked above them under the race’s tie-breaker rules because each of them would have had a leg victory.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crossed the midway point of the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race in the lead as the fleet race towards the finish line in South Africa.
Since setting sail from Alicante, Spain en route to Cape Town, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing has consistently led the pack of seven teams – often by several nautical miles.
With an average speed of 20 knots, ADOR is currently sailing along the south eastern coast of Brazil before heading south east towards the finish line.
“Our main strategy for this leg was to sail conservatively by sailing with the main fleet rather than breaking away on our own or making any tactical gambles,” said ADOR skipper Ian Walker.
“We have been able to stick to this strategy despite some difficult unpredictable weather conditions, which included escaping the clutches of the doldrums during last weekend before heading out into stronger and steadier breezes on the way south towards the equator.”
Despite exiting Gibraltar in fourth place, the team was the first to capitalise on a wind shift soon after, which set them up well to move into the lead as the fleet headed south over the next week.
Azzam’s fight for the lead has not been easy, as the lack of normal solid Trade Winds in the North Atlantic Ocean meant the fleet turned south much quicker than normal, which resulted in a lot more maneuvering and very little sleep for the sailors.
With more than 5,000 miles of sailing ahead of them, one of the key challenges facing the team will be sailing around the light wind zone known as the ‘St. Helena High’ before turning for Cape Town.
The split in the fleet at the Cape Verde Islands was also a key moment and despite some nervous hours where the boats in the south looked to be making big gains.
Ultimately ADOR’s northerly route turned out to be the right one and Azzam managed to gain significantly.