The three remaining Volvo Ocean Race finishers provided very different moods as Leg 1 came to a close in Cape Town. Matthew Sheahan reports
Slipping in under cover of darkness on Thursday night/Friday morning appeared to suit the crew of Alvimedica. They didn’t seem to mind or be fazed that at 3am there were very few passers by to greet them. Instead, a select group of Volvo Ocean Race pros from organisers to shore team members and a handful of press welcomed skipper Charlie Enright and his team to Cape Town.
As it happened it was probably just as well there weren’t hordes of family friends and general well wishers waiting to share a beer and a tale as the crew were not allowed any food or drink before the medical tests that are part of the team’s programme and that would last 90 minutes had taken place.
So, in contrast to the other teams that I had interviewed over a steak and a beer in the Volvo pavilion that has acted as a giant ‘green room’ for the week, the chats with the Alvimedica team took place in what looked like a crowded field hospital surgery. Here the patients stripped off and were marked up with a variety of crosses in felt tip marker pen in anticipation of the round of tests that were to follow.
It was all rather surreal.
By lunchtime, when the sun had risen to its highest point producing the hottest day of the week, there was a needle match going on outside the harbour in zephyr conditions where just 9 hours earlier there had been 40 knots as the final pair of VO65s fought their way to the finish.
As if to provide some symmetry to this leg after the first and second placed boats finished within minutes of each other, the last two boats in the fleet Team SCA, the women’s team and Mapfre, skippered by Iker Martinez, were in a match race to the finish. While the girls had chosen to stay offshore for the approach to the finish line, the crew of Mapfre, who had lead Team SCA for over two weeks, had chosen to head closer to shore.
“We decided to go that way to avoid the TSS [traffic separation scheme], after that we were committed,” Mapfre crew member Michel Desjoyeaux told me after the finish.
But the move was a disastrous one for the Spanish team as they parked up in a windless hole to watch the girls sail around the outside of them, often at more than double their speed, in the final few miles to the finish.
Finishing sixth rather than seventh would not normally be a reason for wild celebrations, but as the bright pink Team SCA reversed into the dock the crowds went nuts, and so did the crew. As the boat’s lines were thrown to shore, small children were passed back in return. Whether you were sailor or spectator, the atmosphere was charged.
But this was more than a celebration of one point on the score sheet, it was the recognition that now more than ever their late coach Magnus Olsen’s words that had driven them on for more than half of the leg, had proved their worth.
“When we lost out along the Brazilian coastline we wrote, ‘Never give up’ on the bulkhead, it’s what Magnus always told us,” said skipper Sam Davies. “Many of us have often thought about the many amazing circumstances that he overcame in his racing career through his positive attitude and this really helped lift us.”
But chasing from behind for so long must have been hard nonetheless?
“It was, but for me as a solo sailor I guess it was a bit easier,” she continued. “I know from sailing in the Figaro that you will certainly sail better and faster when you’re in the pack, but when you’re on your own you have to find ways of keeping your mind positive, it’s just one of those traits that you have to have.”
Ironically, one of the biggest influences in Davies’ career was from the man she had just beaten, Michel Desjoyeaux, a man who has won the Vendee Globe twice and the Figaro three times along with the Route du Rhum. Many, including me, had placed his team as one of the favourites before Leg 1 had started. His reputation as one of the world’s greatest offshore sailors was just one of many factors behind such confidence. Skipper Iker Martinez’ experience in both the Volvo and the double handed Barcelona World Race as well as the fact that he had won this leg last time, was another important factor. So what had gone wrong?
Perhaps unsurprisingly both Martinez and Desjouyeaux were quick to dispel the idea that this leg had been a disaster, pointing to both the unusual weather on this leg and the fact that they had been one of the later teams to get under way and that there was still time to improve.
“We were always pretty clear in our team that the first two legs would be about learning,” said Martinez. “We were pretty late with our campaign, not the last, but this stopover in Cape Town will be the first time that we can sit down and go through our performance and assess what we want to do differently.”
As the leading group sailed in close proximity with each other until the end of the leg they were able to accelerate the learning process, watching each other and looking for gears that they themselves didn’t have. Staying with the pack appeared to have more advantages than simply increasing the odds of a podium position. But as Desjouyeaux pointed out, achieving this was sometimes easier said than done.
“To stay with the pack, first you have to sail as well as them,” he said. “The first few days were incredible, the fleet was so close and there were so many sail changes and manoeuvres. It was like the Figaro where you spend one or two days just trying to make a couple of boat lengths.”
But problems with the transition of the Doldrums and then down the coast of Brazil saw Mapfre struggle to keep pace. As the gap between them and the front widened so the rumours of changes for the leg started to gather pace.
While Desjoyeaux remained tight lipped about any news on this front, he did appear to hint at some changes.
“There is a difference between a crew and a team,” he said. “A crew is a collection of sailors, but a team has a range of skills. It is not because you take better people that you make a better team.”
“I hope that we will reach this situation.”
Leg 2 starts in just over a week with the usual in port and Pro/Am racing during the weekend before the re-start. There is little time to rest and recuperate let alone time for major changes. But changes seem likely for Mapfre. Changes that if they work will alter their fate come the finish in Abu Dhabi.