Just two minutes split 1st and 2nd in Leg 6 in the Volvo Ocean Race after 6,344 miles and 20 days of racing, while Dee Caffari saw a podium finish snatched away at the last minute

twJust two minutes and 14 seconds separated the winner and the runner-up of Leg 6 in the Volvo Ocean Race after 6,344 miles and 20 days of racing. Less than half an hour separated the top five boats.

Wind back 24 hours before the boats arrive in Auckland and it was clear that there was a battle royale for the win shaping up between Team AkzoNobel and Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. The duo, who had tied at the front for two weeks solid, were split by less than 0.1 miles as they rounded the North Cape of New Zealand.

With a day to go, apparently safe in 3rd was Turn the Tide on Plastic, Dee Caffari’s team enjoying a solid 90-mile advantage over Dongfeng Race Team and MAPFRE. It looked as if the Auckland podium might not feature any of the pre-race favourites.

Dee’s team had gone from 6th to front-runners over the course of Leg 6. Racing south through the Pacific on the approach to Vanuatu Turn the Tide took the lead  from Brunel, while MAPFRE and Dongfeng languished at the back of the fleet. The blue boat was enjoying their moment in the sun.

Big seas for the fleet in the first week of the leg, racing in the South China Sea from Hong Kong to Auckland

A tough Doldrums crossing for Team Brunel

While Brunel made an error at New Calendonia that converted them to the back of the fleet, Turn the Tide held their place with the front runners. The trio of Turn the Tide, AkzoNobel and Scallywag lined up for an easterly course for New Zealand, with MAPFRE and Dongfeng 100 miles behind – the frustrations on the red boats coming through loud and clear on the onboard footage.

But a ridge of high pressure off the north east coast of New Zealand slowed the leaders, and a game of cat-and-mouse was on. Dongfeng and MAPFRE relentlessly chased down the leading pack, but until the very final hours it seemed as if they had left themselves too much to do.

At the front, Scallywag and AkzoNobel duelled their way around the North Island, the lead swopping constantly. It wasn’t until the final gybe off Rangitoto that AkzoNobel were able to nudge ahead, holding a marginal advantage into Viaduct Harbour to win by 2m 14s – their first big result of the race.

“It’s been a 6,500 mile match race, it’s unreal,” said AkzoNobel skipper Tienpont. “I’ve never sailed a race like this in my life. We’ve always been in each other’s sights. They were always there. It’s been neck and neck. Huge respect to Scallywag, they never stopped fighting and we never stopped defending. I’m so proud of our crew. They never flinched.”

For Scallywag a second top-two placing in a row has moved them up to 3rd overall – a fact skipper David Witt enjoyed needling the Volvo commentary team about as they spoke after the finish, he teased: “You’ve done a 180! You rate us now?!” [Look out next issue for our profile of David Witt, out on 8 March ]

“Our team never gives up,” said Witt on the dock. “We just didn’t pull it off this time. We had our chances, but AkzoNobel were just a little bit too good this time. But we’ve come a long way since leg one.”

Just boat lengths in it between Scallywag and AkzoNobel on the final morning’s approach into Auckland, 27 February, 2018.

Behind them, Turn the Tide on Plastic was being hunted. Cat and mouse sounds fun, but it’s actually a game of cruelty. Well, it is if you’re the mouse. MAPFRE and then Dongfeng rolled past the blue boat with just 20 miles still to go. Caffari’s team fought back, holding off Dongfeng for a final push, but in the end slipped to 5th.

It was a tough outcome for a team that had really found their form in Leg 6 and outsmarted the race leaders at some key stages.

Skipper Caffari said she was ‘gutted, even I don’t know what to say.”

“We had a good race, and we thought we were going to have a better result. But those pesky red boats always seem to get it their way.”

Dongfeng skipper Caudrelier magnanimously sympathised with her team, commenting on the dock: “We’re sorry for Turn the Tide on Plastic.

“They did a fantastic race and I think they deserved a third place finish, but that’s sailing, they’ve been unlucky today and we managed to come back… It was a good surprise.”

There was spectacular drone footage of Dongfeng slaloming through the reefs and islands on this Pacific leg

Interestingly, Scallywag and Turn the Tide were running a very different set-up to other teams for this leg, with both doubling up on navigators. On Scallywag Antonio Fontes returned after recovering from an arm injury sustained on the Cape Town to Melbourne stage, while Libby Greenhalgh, their navigator for the Melbourne to Hong Kong leg which saw Scally’s fortunes reversed with a leg win, remained on board.

Meanwhile on Turn the Tide on Plastic Brian Thompson worked alongside Nico Lunven, the pair explaining during one of the onboard broadcasts that Lunven worked on long-term strategy, while Thompson focussed on the more immediate navigation decisions. Caffari commented at the time how beneficial it was having somebody literally in the navigation station 24 hours a day, which is a big switch from how many of the Volvo 65s were raced last time around with smaller crews.

The leaderboard has seen some changes also – MAPFRE now have a strong lead on 39 points, with Dongfeng on 34, but Scallywag has pulled up to 3rd overall with 26. AkzoNobel and Vestas 11th Hour Racing are also tied on 23 points apiece. The next leg, from Auckland to Itajaí is the longest of the race, at 7,600 Southern Ocean miles. It also has double points for the winner and a bonus point for rounding Cape Horn first up for grabs: this race is far from over.