Only three boats remain but the race is still on, simply to get to Cape Town

The news that Puma has lost her mast is not just a disaster for a team that has its heart set on winning the Volvo, but another hard blow for a race that seems beset with problems.

Less than 24 hours after the start Abu Dhabi had lost her rig and Team Sanya forced to head for shore after sustaining serious damage to their hull. Within days both were out of the race and preparing to be shipped to Cape Town. A third of the fleet disabled before they had exited the Med.

Now, just 50 percent of the fleet remains racing as Puma reports that it has retired from the leg but the race is still on. Sailing under jury rig with over 2,000 miles to go the issue that now faces Read and his crew is can then get to Cape Town before the start of the in port race on 10 Dec?

For Ian Walker and his crew in Abu Dhabi, the decision to ship the boat rather than play catch up with their new rig steeped was made quickly as it became clear that there was a serious risk that starting three days behind wouldn’t get them to the finish in time.

Unlike previous races where there was plenty of time to dust
themselves down, repair the boat and prepare to re start, the
turnaround time at stopovers in this race has been shortened
considerably to help teams reduce costs. This places additional
pressure on those who have to find other means to get there before the
scoring in port race starts. Ironically it could mean extra cost for
those who need to get there quickly. It could even mean that teams miss more than just one leg when things go wrong.

For the organisers, the
latest news is another blow on a leg that should have been
straightforward. Leg 2 is the one that is going to present bigger
challenges as the fleet is craned on and off a ship to take them safely
through the pirate strewn Indian Ocean on their way to Abu Dhabi.
Meeting the deadline to be loaded onto the ship at secret location ‘A’
is considered to be tricky enough in itself, if boats break down
enroute there is a serious risk that they will be left behind as the
show rolls on to secret location ‘B’. Failing to make the first shipping point would be a major disaster for a team that would miss out on the leg points to Abu Dhabi, the in port race and the points for the leg back out to shipping point ‘B’. Little surprise that teams that have been forced to retire from leg 1 are keen to get to Cape Town quickly to ensure they spend as much time as possible making their boats bullet proof for leg 2.

The news of another dismasting would send shockwaves through any fleet, but among the current crop of VO70s, such failures have been rare and will raise the anxiety level of all competitors. In the previous race there were no mast failiures. In the 2005/06 race Brasil 1 was the only boat to lose her rig after a rigging component failure on leg 2. Indeed, set against the structural failures elsewhere on the boats, the rigs have until now, been seen to be one of the more robust areas of design and construction thanks largely to the rules that define their minimum weight and centre of gravity.

We are unlikely to know the cause for some time, if at all at this early stage in the race. But given the robust nature of the rigs and that the rules haven’t changed significantly for this edition, the likely areas of concern seem to be either the rigging, that the boats are being pushed that much harder than before, or that the new restricted sail wardrobes are in some way placing new demands on the rigs. Maybe crews are being forced to hang on to sail plans beyond what they would normally expect given that there are no suitable sails to change down to.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the failures on the first leg. In the 38 year history of the 11 race event, only two have passed without major incident on the first leg. Until 1997 there was at least one dismasting on every race for the first leg, in one case there were two dismastings on the same boat.

In the meantime, while the Volvo Ocean Race lives up to its reputation as being a challenging race, so far it has been for the wrong reasons as shipping schedules become a key part of the opening two legs.