|WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND-(17-2-2006) After a full on leg from Melbourne, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet staged the closest ever finish as the boats came into Wellington.
This week has certainly been a busy one for the Volvo Ocean Race teams, with leg three, the first of the sprint legs, from Melbourne, Australia to Wellington, New Zealand. The leg started slowly, the middle was frenetic and the finish was epic, while there was plenty of high speed action in between.
The Tasman sea, notorious for its short sharp waves and treacherous weather, did not give the teams much respite but did allow them to race quickly to the Wellington pit stop which gives them a brief chance to rest and recuperate.
After 1,450 nautical miles, the race to win top podium position into Wellington was finally decided in nail biting fashion at 0009 GMT - and 26 seconds - on Thursday February 16, when Spanish boat movistar, skippered by Bouwe Bekking from Holland, led Mike Sanderson in ABN AMRO ONE over the finish line by nine seconds. This is the closest finish in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race and in its predecessor, the Whitbread Round the World Race.
movistar, designed by Farr Yacht Design, has had her fair share of bad luck. She missed the first leg of the race due to structural damage on her first night at sea; the team then had the frustration of keel ram failure in the second leg forcing them to slow down twice, so by Leg 3 they were due some good luck and were in a combative mood.
movistar stayed in the middle of the fleet’s north-south divide, level-pegging with ABN AMRO ONE all the way across the Tasman Sea, but as the conditions grew windier the Kouyoumdjian-designed Dutch boat sailed away from them. Knowing their strength lay in light airs, Bouwe and his boys waited and when the predicted fickle breeze in the Cook Strait materialised, they reeled in their prey and started a passionate fight to the very end.
An ecstatic Bouwe Bekking described his feelings when he reached shore, ‘This is a really sweet victory. We just managed to hang in there so we are really happy. We have a really fantastic team and a strong after guard in Stuart Bannatyne, Chris Nicholson and myself and it means that we could swap over so we all managed to get some sleep. This leg has been unbelievably tense.’
Mike Sanderson and his predominantly Kiwi crew would have revelled in coming first into their home country, but it wasn’t to be. The ever-gracious Sanderson commented, ‘It was a bit sad for us, but great for movistar. We lost a 40 mile lead and that is pretty tough, but we have had some awesome racing over the last 24 hours so we are pleased that we managed to hang on. We can't be upset, we have extended our lead by adding six points to our score and that is why we are here.’
Three hours later that same afternoon local time, The Black Pearl slipped into Wellington harbour with Paul Cayard and his Pirates taking third position, followed shortly by mixed emotions aboard Brasil 1 (Torben Grael). Brasil 1 had made a terrific fight back after structural failure in the deck laminate which sent them back to South Africa and then the loss of their mast over 1,300 miles from Australia on Leg 2. They might have felt a little trepidation about the boat in big winds and seas, but this leg should dispel their fears. This immensely popular crew is still in with a chance.
ABN AMRO TWO (Sebastien Josse) finished fifth, perhaps a disappointing result, but they did have their problems, not the least with a damaged crew member. Gerd Jan Poortman, the Dutch bowman on ABN AMRO TWO, was washed from the pointy end by a huge wave, breaking his fall on one of the two daggerboards. As well as cutting his face quite badly and needing three stitches, more seriously, he also damaged his back. He was confined to his bunk for the rest of the leg and on arrival in Wellington, he was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with a dislocated tail bone. His face is healing well, but the spinal injury will take between three and six weeks to heal. He will now miss Leg 4 which starts on Sunday, being replaced by Brazilian Lucas Brun.
Lucas, who has so far only sailed inshore races on ABN AMRO TWO, is sad for his colleague, but happy as well. He will now sail the leg into Rio de Janeiro, the city where he was born, grew up and has lived all his life.
Brun commented, ‘Of course this is not the way I wanted to be on the boat, but I am happy. I have to say as soon as I started the campaign I knew that the chance of not being on the boat for any leg was very real, but this leg was the one that I really wanted to sail. Arriving into Rio makes this even more exciting for me is going to be an amazing feeling. Before that though, we have a lot of miles to race and I have to work hard with the guys who have all been sailing together since the start. I am looking forward to Sunday. Rio here we come.’
Finally as Ericsson Racing Team, skippered by British Neal McDonald, came into sight of the finish, they dropped their sails, suspended racing and finally motored into Wellington, in a dramatic turn of events.
As this is a pit stop, no outside assistance is allowed in the port of Wellington unless a two hour time penalty is taken at the start of Leg 4. movistar has decided to take this penalty in order to haul the boat out of the water to fix the keel fairings which are the seals around the canting keel and which have been seriously damaged during this leg.
Ericsson Racing Team, however, made the decision to suspend racing before the end of the leg so that they could have their shore crew overhaul the boat without incurring the two hour penalty.
Neal McDonald explained all to a very confused audience when he reached the dock. ‘The rules are very clear and you are allowed to suspend racing. It is only something you would do if you were coming last. It is an opportunity to use some extra help and to get everything checked and get out there on Sunday in the best form we can. If we had caught ABN AMRO TWO we probably would not have made this decision, but we have chosen to do this rather than take a penalty at the start of the next leg.’
Ericsson Racing Team will, after their work on the boat is done, have to go back out into the bay, officially resume racing and cross the finish line in order to receive an official finish and elapsed time before starting Leg 4.
Leg 3 has possibly been the most action-packed leg so far, but as the teams prepare for the Southern Ocean again, we wonder what Leg 4 has in store. Will the strong Southern Ocean winds, followed by light and fluky conditions on the run to the finish in Rio favour the Farr or Kouyoumdjian yachts? As Mike Sanderson regularly says, ‘Time will tell’.
Leg 4 from Wellington to Rio de Janeiro starts on Sunday 19 February.