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It was make or break for us on the transatlantic, says Simon Fisher in Leg 5 of the The Ocean Race

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 29 May 2023 09:39 PDT
The Ocean Race Leg 5 arrivals in Aarhus, Denmark © Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race

If you were to choose one word to sum up the spectacular racing on the record-breaking Leg 5 transatlantic dash from Newport to Aarhus in The Ocean Race, it might be "intensity."

From one side of the Atlantic to the other, the top-three boats in this race were hard at it, snapping at each other's heels and pushing their IMOCAs to the limits as they looked for every ounce of speed in often ideal downwind foiling conditions.

The goal was to win this double-pointer, and along with that came huge jumps in the outright monohull world 24-hour distance record with Team Malizia - which finished third behind leg winner 11th Hour Racing Team and second-placed Holcim-PRB - topping out at an astonishing 641.13 nautical miles.

But out in front in the race to Aarhus, the crew on 11th Hour Racing Team's Mãlama - skipper Charlie Enright, navigator Simon Fisher and sailors Charlie Dalin and Justine Mettraux - were putting the pedal to the metal all the way. They never let up and allowed Kevin Escoffier and his crew on Holcim-PRB to get ahead of them only for a brief period on the fourth day at sea.

That apart, this was a dominant display from the pre-race favourites who are clearly benefitting from their new-found aggressive style. They have now achieved their second consecutive leg victory - after winning into their home base at Newport - and lead the race overall by one point from Holcim-PRB. With just two legs to go, this feels like a big momentum shift in 11th Hour Racing Team's favour, as the finale of this race boils down to a battle between Enright and Escoffier for glory.

To understand a bit more about the level of intensity on board Enright's US-flagged Verdier-designed foiler on this remarkable transatlantic, we caught up with Fisher just after he landed in Denmark. He spoke about a clear, shared objective among the crew at the start off Newport; they were going for the win from the moment they set sail.

"It was kind of make or break for us," said Fisher. "It was all about winning this leg to stay in the race for the overall victory, knowing it was double-points. Everyone turned themselves inside out to have the boat ready to go and then to step on it and sail a really strong leg has been fantastic."

Then Fisher talked about the relentless, hour-by-hour pressure to sail at maximum speed. "It was pretty full-on and it was also fast-paced sailing as well," he said. "We get position skeds every hour and it's pretty rare that you wouldn't look at how you were going on the hour, every hour. You look at the numbers and you have to say 'are we going fast enough?' 'Where is that extra speed?'

"Sometimes you can explain why a boat might be going faster because they have more wind," he continued, "other times they are faster and you just have to find more speed. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. We worked pretty hard and were quite aggressive with our tactics and pushed on from the start to build a bit of a lead."

Some of the most difficult and potentially dangerous conditions came as the 11th Hour Racing Team crew approached the north of Scotland, with big seas and winds in the 30/40-knot range. At that stage Enright continued to press on, but his team were well aware they could break their boat too.

"The top of Scotland was pretty challenging...and everyone knows these boats are a lot easier in flat water," said Fisher. "But everyone did a tremendous job just to keep pushing, even when conditions were pretty tough and to find that balance between speed and safety, which was impressive."

This is 45-year-old Fisher's sixth Ocean Race and he's won it already as part of Ian Walker's victorious crew on Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in 2014-15. So how did this leg compare? Was it right up there with his best memories from the past? "Oh, absolutely," he replied. "It's definitely one I am going to remember. It was also one I really, really, really wanted to win, you know. So I am really happy we got the job done and it was incredible sailing as well. I think we were all pretty impressed on board with how much performance we get out of these boats. I think everyone watching us was quite impressed as well - it just goes to show the potential these boats have..."

Finally, we asked about the gameplan from now to the finish as Fisher and co look to continue their hot form all the way to Genoa. "I think we have got to keep doing what we're doing at this stage," said Fisher. "We need to race every leg like it's the one we've got to win if we want to win this race, and certainly that's what this leg felt like."

Over at Team Malizia, navigator Yann Eliès spoke about the hardship of pushing an IMOCA to a world distance record. "During the 24 hours, it was a bit like a whole transatlantic race," he told the Class. "It was very intense and difficult to live with on board because you don't reach those speeds without a certain amount of discomfort on board. Sometimes you suffer; the shocks are so painful for the body and everything becomes difficult - eating and sleeping. Sometimes you spend four hours in your bunk, hanging on, hoping to nibble a few minutes of sleep, but that's part of the game...

"Then at the end, when you have crossed the Atlantic in seven-and-a-half days, you say to yourself that it was worth it," Eliès added with a smile.

Fisher and his crew missed their place in the record books, but the Barcelona-based Englishman is not too worried about that right now. "We were first to go over 600, so we proved to everyone it was possible and then the others blew the doors right open - it was incredible," he said. "But I'm happy that someone else got the 24-hour record, if it meant that we came away with the leg win."

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