The Volvo Ocean Race: Ian Walker on Leg 1 and 2
1. Leg one and two have served up some very competitive racing and exceptionally close finishes, especially coming into Cape Town. Have the results gone how you expected? Any surprises?
Pretty much, yes. I think my Musto prediction was for a Dongfeng win, Mapfre to come second and a tough fight for third between Vestas, Brunel and Akzo Nobel. Vestas nailed Leg 1 tactically to take a deserved win. Akzo Nobel has actually been reasonably competitive considering their shambolic preparations, but Brunel was the biggest disappointment until they found their mojo halfway through Leg 2.
2. The start of leg two provided the teams with some epic conditions and created some of the most iconic footage of the boats, racing half-submerged down the Atlantic. How do sailors cope with these conditions so early on a 20-day leg? Do they hold back knowing that they need to preserve the boat for such a long leg?
What stunning images – that was the first time I was missing being out there! In those conditions, the main concern for me would be sail damage at the start of a long leg. The boats are pretty robust and unlikely to have problems downwind. The mast is always a worry in the back of your mind, but there’s not much you can do about it. That would have been a baptism by fire for the rookies, but it’s good to get some of that before having to deal with it down South.
3. One of the critical strategic decisions was how far west to cross the doldrums. Did the teams tackle this how you’d expect and what would have been the secret to a fast Doldrums crossing?
We have such accurate models and satellite pictures now, it seems to be getting easier to predict where best to cross the Doldrums. Everyone pretty much went through in a line, and they hardly slowed down. You always need a bit of luck with the clouds. Starting from Lisbon also made it far easier to get west, and took out the tactical dilemmas of how to deal with the Canaries or Cape Verde Islands.
4. As the teams nearing the Southern Ocean, the leaderboard was chopping and changing as teams were gybing almost in the opposite direction to Cape Town before gybing back and gaining miles, despite sailing further. Can you explain the reason for this and did it pay off in the long run?
This won’t be the last time the teams have to sail around a high-pressure system in this race and it is one of the hardest things to judge correctly. We had a similar issue with the Bermuda High when sailing from Brazil to Newport in the last race. You get drawn in towards the centre of the high looking for a favourable wind shift to gybe on but all the time the wind speed drops. In my experience, the routing software underestimates the importance of wind speed relative to the shift downwind, and it is easy to get sucked into the high as Dongfeng did. Clearly, in this instance, the key was to sail a longer distance in more wind – even if that meant sailing 180 degrees away from Cape Town. A tough thing to make yourself do!
5. Now the sailors are all ashore in Cape Town, what will they be up to and when will they be back at work preparing for Leg 3? What will typical stopover commitments involve?
I think they will have some extra time on their hands as it was such a fast leg. Our team always carried out a short debrief the morning after arrival – primarily to agree on the job list for the shore team and any longer lead time items. We would then take some time off with families, coming back around a week before the start. That is then the time for a full strategic debrief and preparations for the next leg. The sailors all oversee certain areas of the boat prep. The skipper and navigator will be following the weather closely for the last five days along with any weather advisors, or your coach if you have one. The last few days before the start get very busy with prize giving dinners, sponsor commitments, press conferences, Pro-Am and in-port racing. The bigger teams will always be able to manage this in a better way and start the leg more rested.
6. Leg 3 is set to be an epic with the return of a Southern Ocean leg to Melbourne returning for this edition. What challenges are the teams going to face and what will be the key strategic decisions?
Cape Town is a tough place to leave in terms of not wanting to leave such a beautiful place and knowing what lies ahead. The rough plan is to get South into the Westerly winds as quickly as possible, even if it means sailing West for a period, before turning left across the Southern Indian Ocean. I think this is one of the toughest sections of the race and I have had some bad experiences – especially on ‘Green Dragon’ in 2008. There is a tricky section of wind against tide and terrible sea state to cross the Agulhas Current that flows down the East Coast of Africa. This can be a tough 50–100 miles. I suspect teams will stay as far South as they can (limited by any ice gate rules) to sail the shortest route to Melbourne. Much will depend on the weather that is dealt. Southerly winds can be biting cold and very squally. This is particularly hard to manage at night. I think that early strategic decisions could be crucial on this leg.
7. Now the race is entering the Southern Ocean, what kit are the sailors going to have in their kitbag? Likely to be much different to the last leg?
On Leg 2 they had to be prepared for extreme hot and cold weather. Leg 3 will be all about keeping warm. The key to this is lots of layering and an excellent waterproof and breathable outer layer. I am a big fan of merino base layers and GORE-TEX® waterproof clothing. Everyone will have their own tricks for hands and feet. Personally, I wear diving gloves when it gets really cold, and mittens are the warmest of all– but not the easiest on deck. If you have my hairdo, a hat is also pretty important!
8. Going on the form of the first two legs are you expecting a similar leader board for Leg 3? Who’s your money on for the top three and why?
I would like to see Vestas win, but it is really hard to look beyond Dongfeng and Mapfre at this stage as they have started the race so much better prepared. I think third place will be between an improving Brunel and Vestas. Turn the Tide on Plastic should be pleased with their race so far, despite finishing last in both legs. They have been very much in the race, and I hope they can pick off some boats this time. It is still early in the race, so the top teams need to be mindful of protecting their equipment and minimising long-term risk.