The VOR fleet are halfway home, but there's all to play for in the final 1500 miles 17/5/06

The Volvo Ocean Race fleet reaches the half way mark of leg seven from New York to Portsmouth, the ocean chess match continues. ABN AMRO ONE (Mike Sanderson) is still the clear leader, with 1,544 miles to sail to the finish, but it’s a tactical game for the remaining podium places.

Ericsson (Neal McDonald), in second place, is watching Brasil 1 (Torben Grael) carefully, trying to guess what the Brazilians are planning. Ericsson’s investment in the south 18 hours ago looks to be paying off as they lead Brasil 1 by 62 miles, but are now 74 miles behind the Dutch boat.

In the space of a six hours this morning, Brasil 1 and Pirates of the Caribbean (Paul Cayard) have both lost 27 miles to the leader, the biggest losses in the fleet in this period. Brunel (Matt Humphries) and ABN AMRO TWO (Sebastien Josse) are steering a more northerly course, while movistar (Bouwe Bekking) has found some breeze and is averaging 15.5 knots.

After pounding upwind for three days, the breeze picked up and swung around for a speedy downwind run for the fleet but this didn’t go down too well with a converging northerly swell. As navigator Mark Rudiger explains: “It was a strange sensation below to be going uphill, then suddenly like a roller coaster, with your stomach in your throat, you drop off the back, surge forward, plough into the next wave, and start the next climb. It sounds like you’re going mach 3 below, everything creaking and popping, and water swishing down the hull. At 22 knots plus, she starts to vibrate a little, and sometimes does a belly flop off the wave, which loads everything beyond imagination.

“This is when my knuckles start getting a little white, and sleeping again is tough.”

Movistar’s Bouwe Bekking reports on what lays ahead: “The forecast is for a strong breeze from the westerly quadrants all the way up to England – up to 40 knots plus. Not really ideal for 24-hour record breaking as the wind direction looks set to change a lot, so that straight line sailing won’t be possible. But then, we have seen enough unexpected change in the wind on this leg that the unthinkable might be possible. At least we have the longest runway of all to give it a crack.”

Ericsson are feeling the heat to hold their position behind the leader, as navigator Mark Rudiger reveals it’s all about tactics. “The chess match race continues with the fleet. We are looking back a lot trying to guess what Brasil in particular are planning. We are trying to take the left side of the course away from them and make them play the softer breeze side.

“Our investment in the south two skeds ago seems to be paying off now and hopefully for a couple more skeds. We occasionally look forward at ABN AMRO ONE, but their speed makes it tough to get by, we have to wait for them to make another mistake somewhere.”