The first three VO65s have arrived in Cape Town at the end of Leg 1, Matthew Sheahan talks to their skippers

It wasn’t so much catching sight of Abu Dhabi Racing on the horizon as Ian Walker’s team made their final blast to the finish line that made the penny drop, but more that just behind them we could make out the silhouette of Dongfeng Racing.

Twenty five days of racing and more than 6,500 miles later, here were two boats separated by just 15 minutes on the water – Many of us have done inshore windward leeward races with a greater delta at the finish line. And while its been quite clear that there has been a needle match between these two boats for the last week, (to say nothing of the close racing among the fleet throughout the entire leg), to see what it looks like for real drove the point home. The opening leg of the bold, new look, one design Volvo Ocean Race had provided the kind of racing that the organisers dared to hope for.

As the final hour of the opening leg played out for the two front runners the tension continued as the notorious wind holes around Table Bay acted as random speed bumps on the approach to the finish. One minute we were struggling to keep up with Azzam in the churned up sea state at 20 knots, the next we had throttled back to tick over while we watched them flop helplessly in a hole as the Chinese team charged in towards them, gobbling up precious distance by the second.

I had gone out with the Abu Dhabi team in their RIB to escort their boat in, a perfect vantage point to witness a well deserved victory. Not only had Walker’s team been consistently in the game since the start, but this was the result that proved to be so far out of their reach on two previous Volvos.

“It took me around 100,000 miles to get my first leg win in a Volvo race,” he told me shortly after the finish. “And that was on the leg into Portugal. But this race was different. We knew from the start that we were well prepared. We knew that we had a boat that was no different from anyone else’s and therefore didn’t have to worry about having a slow boat as we did in the past. We knew that this would be a very different race than before where the competition would be closer and we would have to play percentages, stay in contention with the fleet and grind people down. In short, play it just how you might for an Olympic campaign.”

But perhaps what he hadn’t expected was a race that would be quite so intense for so long. Working closely with his navigator Simon Fisher ‘Sci-Fi’, the pair had engineered their victory step by step over more than three weeks. But doing this on a Volvo 65 is not easy. With just eight crew in total, it takes four people to handle the boat, particularly in the breeze. Gone are the days of the navigator and skipper being out of the watch system, today they need to be on deck with their watch but there is also a need to be on top of the weather, tactics and monitoring their competition. For Walker and his match racing opponents Dongfeng Racing, this meant taking time out of his off watch to overlap with Sci Fi to discuss the situation on a regular basis while leaving the boat to be sailed by just three – one helmsman, on trimmer, one grinder.

“No decision was made in isolation,” he continued, “while Sci Fi is extremely good at gathering the data and considering the options, we then talk about what action we will take.”

His opposite skipper, Charles Caudrelier aboard Dongfeng Racing confirmed that they were chasing Walker and his crew down to the finish and hadn’t given up on the chance to overtake, but he was also full of praise for them when Abu Dhabi finally took the win.

“They deserved that leg,” he said, “they sailed well and had led for some time.”

Dongfeng’s performance was particularly impressive given the make up of the crew that includes two Chinese members, Jiru Yang ‘Wolf’ and Cheng Ying who had never sailed offshore until signing up for this race. But Caudrelier’s approach to this race has been significantly different to Walker’s in that aside from the Chinese, he actively sought sailors with shorthanded experience. Having won the Figaro himself, this area was an obvious choice for sourcing crew.

“We are fast because we have a team that works well together but also that has a great deal of experience in shorthanded racing and can therefore turn their hands to many tasks,” he said. “When I put the team together I was aware that I am a young skipper myself and while I could have picked some of the most experienced sailors out there, I needed to select people who would gel together. We are strong because we are a team.”

Unlike Walker’s team not everyone drives aboard Dongfeng, six out of the eight crew helm. Yet what seems to be impressing others in the fleet the most is the speed that this team has through the water.

“We feel confident when we’re reaching and downwind,” said Caudrelier, “but less confident when we’re in the transition zone between breezes. Maybe its because we are mainly solo sailors and deal with these situations differently.”

Third boat in was Bouwe Bekking’s Team Brunel, finishing just over four hours behind the leaders.

Looking fresh and almost relaxed, Bekking was all smiles when he came ashore, happy to be on the podium for the opening leg.

“That was one of the easiest first Volvo legs from a weather point of view,” he said. “The most breeze we saw was 37 knots when we were coming out of the Gibraltar Straits, but since then we have seen no more than 27 knots for the rest of the trip. Compared to what this leg can deliver we have had an easy ride.”

Yet he was also quick to point out just how close the racing was and how easily it is to lose large chunks of distance.

“When we were heading south to get closer to the front and more breeze we gybed one hour later than Abu Dhabi and it cost us 35 miles,” he said.

Yet despite his relaxed approach to the story so far he also cautions jumping to too many conclusions about the boats too quickly and how they will perform when bigger conditions strike the fleet.

“They are a strange boat in a way in that their maximum speed is in around 20 knots of wind. Any more and you don’t seem to go any quicker. The Volvo 70s were different to these and much more powerful and in many ways easier to drive.

“I think there’s more to discover about the Volvo 65s in stronger winds when we get to 30-40 knots and some of our experiences in testing suggest that they could pitch pole.”

A worrying thought.

But for the time being in Cape Town the talk on the dockside is of how little damage there is to the boats, how the top three arrived in the day time and how fresh the crews look. Certainly the crews look happier than I’ve seen for a while at the end of Leg 1, but I suspect this won’t last.

Getting onto the podium each time is likely to prove to be the winning recipe in the long run. Today these three have achieved that, but for those that arrive later there will be disappointment, plus the problems associated with even less time in an already short stopover to rest, regenerate and prepare for the next round of duties in a week’s time.

Team Vestas’ arrival on Thursday will be the first of those that are potentially in less of a good mood.