Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi team has not only won the leg but are now seven points ahead of Dongfeng after the Franco/Chinese team dropped their mast

“I am absolutely stoked,” said Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker shortly after taking the trophy for the leg win from Auckland to Itajai, Brazil.

“That leg was absolutely epic, absolutely amazing. It was such a relentless pace, pretty windy for much of it, an amazing Cape Horn rounding and then such a tight race from then on. After that we were faced with a big storm where we had to keep the boat in one piece and then we had the mad dash for the line. We’ve just had two boats finish within 200m of each other. It’s also amazing to think that we got from New Zealand to here in 18 days.”

Given his last experience of this leg when the former Abu Dhabi had to be shipped to Itajai after major delamination in the Southern Ocean, it is clear that winning what is considered to be the toughest leg of the race means a great deal to Walker and his crew.

But their reasons to celebrate didn’t end there. Setting a new race record for the VO65s of 550nm in 24 hours was also something to celebrate. While the overall race record remains at 596.6nm it was set by Ericsson 4 in 2008 in the bigger, more powerful Volvo 70. For Walker and his crew to get within 50nm of this is a seriously impressive achievement in boats that were acknowledged by the teams as being less potent than their forerunners.

“When we heard about Dongfeng’s dismasting we were three quarters of the way through out 24 hour run,” said Walker. “We had a big discussion as to whether we should back off a bit. At that point we were also staring at a very good overall position in the race. But I also desperately wanted to complete our run so we pushed until the end of the 24 hour period.”

As so many have said before, breaking records is often about knowing when to slow down rather than knowing how to keep your foot flat to the floor. Having set the new pace Walker’s team were well aware of the potential to break the boat if they pushed too hard and formed an unusual way of gauging where the line should be drawn.

“The odd thing about these boats is that they often feel far worse below than they do on deck,” he continued. “For those below it can feel like your world is ripping apart while on deck it feels OK so it became important for us on deck to discuss with the guys below as to whether we should back off. It’s such a difficult decision to make because as soon as you slow down even slightly you lose distance quickly.”

Yet slow down they did, especially when they hit the storm after having rounded Cape Horn.

“The seas were really confused after a 90 degree wind shift and in wind speeds of 50 knots,” he said. “It was crucial that we finished the leg and we knew we had to sail conservatively so at one point we dropped the keel down on its cant to slow the boat down. We lost 10 miles at one point which was agony, but we had to keep the boat in one piece. The trouble is, most of the time you don’t know where the red line is until you’ve passed it.”

Rotating helmsmen appeared to be a contributory factor. Here, seven out of the eight crew drive aboard Walker’s boat, how important is this?

“These boats are relatively easy to push hard in that they don’t have any nasty characteristics, but in a big breeze it is still hard to do more than an hour on the helm,” he said. “We made a conscious decision from the start that we would have plenty of drivers and at this stage, without having seen the data it would appear that we do indeed do better when the breeze is up and we can push hard.”

The leg win along with Dongfeng’s misfortune gives Walker’s team a seven point lead over second place, a big buffer considering that the team left Auckland leading overall simply on a tie break.

And while there are still four legs to go and a great deal of water to go under the keel yet, Leg 5 has delivered the first indications of overall form.

Behind Abu Dhabi, Mapfre finished second and Alvimedica scored their first podium position for an offshore leg after an impressive performance in which they took the lead on several occasions.

Leg 5 Results

1 – Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 018d 23h 30m 10s2 – O/A points 9

2 – MAPFRE – 019d 00h 02m 56s – O/A points 18

3 – Team Alvimedica – 019d 00h 24m 32s – O/A points 19

4 – Team Brunel – 019d 00h 25m 48s – O/A points 18

5 – Team SCA – ETA 7 Apr, 18h UTC – O/A points 24

6 – Dongfeng Race Team – Retired – O/A points 16

7 – Team Vestas Wind – Did Not Start – O/A points 36