Volvo Ocean Race in port race in Cape Town provides telling clues about crew performance

Put bluntly, there was nothing to win and everything to lose for the teams competing in the Volvo Ocean Race in port race at Cape Town today. At least that’s how things looked on the face of it as the Cape Town in port race got underway today (Sat).

Yet the reality was that while the points from these races only count in the event of a tie break at the end of the 39,000 mile event, the racing provided yet another opportunity for teams to line up against each other, something that was banned in the build up to the event for all but a handful of races. Two boat testing or racing was not allowed.

Having talked to each of the teams as they stepped onto the dock on their arrival into Cape Town just over a week ago, it is quite clear that whether they were at the front of the back, there is still a great deal to be learned about the boats, their modes and the way that they can be handled. Small differences count for a great deal, more now perhaps than ever before. With little to separate the straight line speed of the VO65s, slick boat handling could be all that is required to get a nose in front allowing a team to slip into the breeze ahead first or make best use of a shift.

You can also be sure that while teams will have had their heads down in a frantic effort to get their boats around the windward leeward course, they will take time to both de-brief what they saw on the race course and go through the video footage and Virtual Eye data with a fine toothcomb as they look for any clues as to how their competitors are handling these still relatively unknown machines.

But such potential benefits do come with a risk. With tight sail limitations for the 39,000 mile race where boats have just two sets for the entire course and can only break into a new sail from Abu Dhabi, the potential for damage during the in port race was real, particularly on the short windward leeward courses aboard boats that are seriously under staffed. Blowing a sail here could seriously hamper their chances in the points scoring offshore legs even it if was repaired.

During today’s race there were plenty of occasions and manoeuvres that demonstrated this with dodgy furls and tricky drops, the best illustration being Alvimedica’s ripped J1 after the leech got caught on a spreader. Fortunately the sail didn’t blow out entirely but this is just the kind of damage that teams desperately want to avoid.

The tricky behaviour of the boats was also on display as Bowe Bekking’s Team Brunel broached in a gust in flat water as she tried to bear away for the windward mark. Not only did she spin out easily but it was clear to see how tricky it was to get her back on course. Now imagine the same situation in the dark, with just three or four crew on deck and in big seas. Last week this is what many of the crews were owning up to on Leg 1, now we could all see it for ourselves.

The conditions for today’s racing also put further pressure on the crews as the breeze went from single figures to double figures with shifts of 30-40 degrees at times. At times sail selection would have been as affective with a set of dice at they would with a polar chart but again, the overall race gave some interesting indications of the relative speeds and headings of different combinations, the clearest example coming on the last leg of the three lap race.

Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi had sailed confidently and smartly from the outset and had pulled out a healthy lead over Sam Davies Team SCA and Bekking’s Team Brunel. But on the last leg, a beat to the finish, the breeze had dropped sufficiently for Walker to leave his code zero up for the upwind leg and was pushing out to the left hand side of the course to find more breeze. Meanwhile, Bekking, had decided to go to with his J1 in an attempt to sail the beat the normal way and thread his way up the middle of the course, albeit in potentially lighter conditions. The girls had put their money in the right had side of the course.

All three had taken a gamble on their reading of what would happen next, precisely a scenario that happened time and again on the leg to Cape Town. But in this case, with all three in view on the field of play, it was revealing to see just how quickly a decent lead can be eroded in these boats as Bekking clawed his way up the middle.

In the end Walker picked up the breeze he was trying to get to, tacked and recovered his impressive margin to the finish while Bekking’s gamble up the middle of the course saw them slide past the girls on SCA.

There may have been no points in it today, but the three crews that had hit the podium were clearly happy and would have plenty to discuss and de-brief before the start of leg 2 on Wednesday.

As Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad said, “I have watched and competed in this race many times and on two occasions the next leg has been decided in Table Bay.”

Even more reason to take the in port race seriously, even if it wasn’t for points.


1 – Abu Dhabi Racing

2 – Team Brunel

3 – Team SCA

4 – Dongfeng Racing

5 – Vestas Wind

6 – Alvimedica

7 – Mapfre