Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (Ian Walker/GBR) bade farewell to their home port for the hazardous Leg 3 on Saturday by leading the fleet out towards their eventual destination of China from under a blanket of fog.
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Light winds are forecast for the first few days of a stage which is expected to take about three weeks before the six boats arrive in Sanya, China.
Few had reckoned on a thick fog for the leg departure from Abu Dhabi (10:00 UTC) where the boats had spent Christmas and New Year.
It enveloped the course from early morning and stubbornly refused to shift, even under the normal hot midday sun.
Instead the teams had their work cut out even to see the turning marks through the murk before leaving the port where they had enjoyed such a wonderful break.
Azzam finished the in-port course after just under an hour (59min 34secs) as the sun finally began to poke through with Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA) and Team SCA (Sam Davies/GBR) on their heels.
For Team Vestas Wind skipper Chris Nicholson (AUS) and his crew there must have been very mixed feelings as they waved their rivals farewell for the 4,642 nautical mile (nm) trip to Sanya.
Nicholson’s boat is now heading for a major repair job culminating in their hoped-for return to the race for the final two legs from Lisbon from June 7 following their grounding during the second leg on a reef in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
“The toughest moment for us will be the first night of the leg,” Nicholson told a news conference on the eve of the departure.
“That’s when you really know you’re in an offshore race. But we have a new target now – to concentrate on repairing our boat to return to the race.”
The third leg promises to be intriguing all the way but particularly during the Malacca Strait which separates the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Malaysia.
At some stages, it narrows to 1.5nm and is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
“It’s the most challenging part of the whole race,” Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/USA) navigator Will Oxley (AUS) said on the eve of the leg.
“I'm pretty happy dealing with big waves and strong winds, but the complexity of dealing with a narrow channel, and a very large amount of shipping is what causes the problems.
“Some 300ft of steel coming at you at 20 knots is always concerning, particularly if you haven't got much control over your speed if there's not much wind.
“Then you have squalls, very violent squalls in the night, and there's lots of fishermen who are not showing navigation lights and have long nets. You can get tangled in the nets, or worse still, run someone over. So it's very stressful."
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.