In Review - Week One of the Volvo Ocean Race

Telefonica Black heads into the Gibraltar strait during leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race.

When Leg One of the Volvo Ocean Race started in Alicante on October 11, only the most optimistic race fans would have predicted such a tight battle one week into the event. But a look at the leaderboard today shows a compact fleet, where all eight teams can find reason for optimism.

No lead appears secure and the boats and crews seem to be closely matched. Even Ger O’Rourke’s Delta Lloyd squad – a last-minute entry, with a first generation boat – is in the thick of the action. How did we get here?

The start in Alicante followed an incredible two week build up where nearly one million visitors passed through the turnstiles of the Race Village. Over 600 journalists accredited to the media centre and the daily audience on the website is averaging over 120,000 visitors. Additionally, over 30,000 people have registered for and are playing the Virtual Volvo Ocean Race Game.

But the real action, of course, is on the water, where the crews were greeted with ‘grown-up’ conditions for the leg start. Winds hovering in the 25-knot range, three-metre waves, and a tight windward leeward leg before they were set free to make their way to Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic.

It was Torben Grael’s Ericsson 4 who led the fleet out of the Bay of Alicante, riding some immaculate crew work to build a slender lead as Alicante faded into the distance. Over the next 24 hours, Grael’s stablemates on Ericsson 3 would creep up beside them and the two Scandinavian boats would lead the fleet through Gibraltar.

Behind, the heavy conditions were exacting a toll on Bouwe Bekking’s Telefonica Blue. A broken tiller arm on the steering system resulted in several spectacular wipe-outs.

The team reduced sail and made a repair, but eventually decided it would be prudent to stop near Gibraltar, take the 12-hour penalty, and ensure a proper fix.

The team returned to racetrack despondent, but fortunate that calm winds in the Atlantic had slowed the leaders and limited the damage on the leaderboard, as navigator Simon Fisher explained when the boat resumed racing: 'All of last night [during their pit stop] I was constantly thinking about the weather, whether or not stopping was the smart thing to do or not and about how much we were going to lose, were my calculation going to be right or not? When I finally woke up, after six very good hours of sleep, I was pleased to see that on the position report things could have been a whole lot worse…'

In the early stages of the battle of the Atlantic, Ericsson 4 were able to hold their nerve and their lead. But it wasn’t easy, as the attacks came thick and fast. Off the coast of Africa, the breeze was stronger and that’s where you could find Delta Lloyd and Telefonica Blue, cutting the corner on those who went ahead.

Approaching the Canary Islands, Ian Walker’s Green Dragon, in fourth place, became the first team to use their StealthPlay card, a new innovation for this race where once a leg, each team has an option to ‘go stealth’ and be removed from the position reports for 12 hours.

At the time of making this call, the Dragon was positioned to the west of most of the fleet, and the question was whether they would weave between the Canaries, or sail to the west of them.

On Day 6, Ken Read’s PUMA finally pounced and left the Canaries behind with a handy lead over Ericsson 4. Green Dragon came out of StealthPlay in the same position they entered, fourth place, but having lost miles to the leader. Skipper Walker went on to say that at least part of the reason for invoking the play was to let the rest of the fleet know how poorly they were doing.

On Friday, Day 7 of the race, focus shifted to the approach to the Doldrums, an enemy of sailors since men first took to the sea. This shifting zone is usually found between about 4-degrees and 10-degrees of North latitude from the equator and is characterised by calm winds, hot, humid conditions, and frequent squalls and thunderstorms. The faster a team can pass through it and move into the tradewinds south of the equator, the better. Often, the first team out of the Doldrums is well positioned to win the leg.

But there was one more bit of drama to go on Friday, as Ericsson 4 was advised by the Race Medical Team to evacuate Tony Mutter and his infected knee off the boat. With Cape Verde Islands serving as a convenient drop-off point, this seemed a sensible precaution. After the Islands, the next opportunity was some 1600 nautical miles away at Fernando de Noronha.

As the clock rolled over on the first week, the leaders were seeing their hard-earned gains evaporate in the tropical sun of the Doldrums. The backmarkers were making gains of over 100 miles over a 24-hour period as PUMA retained their tenuous grasp on top of the leaderboard. A new threat was emerging from Green Dragon, who had built up some leverage to the west.

After a full week of racing, the action couldn’t be closer. The fleet is now one-third of the way to Cape Town and it’s all to play for on final approach to the Doldrums as Team Russia skipper Andreas Hanakamp explains. 'It seems the leaders are running into lighter air. It’s a complex system ahead so I don’t think we can really sail around them, but it could be a bit of a re-start.'

Make sure you follow week two with the scoring gate at Fernando de Noronha the next objective. Teams earn scoring points equivalent to half the leg points at the scoring gate, so it’s a big deal on the overall scoring. The leader is expected to get there on Wednesday or Thursday this week.