Volvo Ocean Race crews have been on the hunt for the final pieces of information from the Alicante In Port and practice races, while rumours swirl following the last minute dismissal of Team AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpont
There is a lot of background noise to tune out in Alicante – both figurative and literal. The Volvo Ocean Race village is hot, thronged with crowds, and permanently reverberating with thumping music and PA systems.
The pop-up team bases are rammed full of sailors, guests, and support staff attempting to work through a jam-packed schedule of media visits, final briefings and jobs lists. It’s an intense atmosphere for the sailors attempting to prepare for a round the world race, and for team bosses hoping to negotiate deals to secure their future against a background of huge uncertainty.
Daryl Wislang of Dongfeng Race Team explains what the Volvo Ocean Race teams are looking for in the final days of practice racing:
The Volvo Ocean Race rumour mill, which was already running at full volume following the announcement last week that race CEO Mark Turner was stepping down, stepped up another gear when the news broke that Team AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpoint was being dismissed on the eve of the in-port race due to a breach of contract.
The Volvo Ocean Race – and the Whitbread – has never been a stranger to controversy and brutal dismissals, although Cape Town is more often the scene (as it was for Chris Dickson’s firing from Toshiba in 1997 and navigator Adrienne Cahalan’s removal from Brasil 1 in 2006) than the start port.
With the first points available for the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, Team AkzoNobel headed out to the in-port race with watch leader Jules Salter named as ‘reserve Person In Charge’. Rumours ranging from the credible to the ludicrous escalated over the next 24 hours, including much speculation that a new skipper was flying in to take the reins today.
AkzoNobel to put out a statement earlier today that says: ‘Tienpont’s management company STEAM breached its contract to manage the team AkzoNobel entry in the Volvo Ocean race 2017-18.’
It adds that: ‘The breach was serious enough for AkzoNobel to terminate the contract with immediate effect and AkzoNobel then took over the full management of the team’ and ‘Simeon was offered the option to continue as skipper but opted not to continue and has left the team.’ Dutch media report that Tienpont refutes the claim he has breached his contract.
Either way it leaves the team that was first to announce, back in July 2016, scrambling to restructure just six days before the start of the offshore on 22 October. It also leaves the Dutch flagged team without a single current Dutch member of crew, as Olympic silver medallist Annemieke Bes had previously moved to Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag.
Unsurprisingly, Team AkzoNobel failed to reach the podium during the first in-port race, finishing sixth.
Line honours went to Mapfre, with Dongfeng Race Team in second and Vestas 11th Hour Racing in third. Team Brunel were fourth, Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag fifth, and Turn the Tide on Plastic seventh.
Mapfre took a port-tack start, hit the right-hand side of the course for better breeze, and won by over a minnute. They have been on the pace in every preliminary race so far, winning Leg Zero overall.
DongFeng Race Team had a poor Prologue race result to shake off, and was pleased with how they chipped their way back though the fleet for their second.
The in-port race was the only result of this preliminary week to count towards the overall scoreboard, but the past three days have also given several opportunities for the teams to take a good look at each other and face off on a few startlines. Whilst today’s pro-am races were purely corporate affairs, the preliminary races on Friday were taken more seriously.
Two ‘dummy’ starts before a full course practice race gave the teams a chance to practice some line-ups, and there was no holding back. “I can hit you if you like,” came the call from Vestas 11th Hour Racing as Scallywag luffed them up on the line.
I joined the Australian Scallywag crew who finished second for the practice race. Approaching the finish skipper David Witt called for me to helm the boat over the line, “To prove we’re nice to girls,” he said jokingly.
The female crew controversy still rankles with Witt, who is adamant he was misquoted in his comments about the rule change being a ‘social experiment’, and points out that has sailed with women sailors in his teams on equal terms for the past 15 years, including many of the current crop of Volvo Ocean Race sailors. But in Alicante the mixed crew debate seems like ancient history compared to the events of the past two weeks.
In amongst all the speculation, every team was using the past few days of practice sailing to try to gather solid information. Daryl Wislang comments: “Yesterday’s in-port race was good – it gives you a good idea of what other boats are doing and how they’re sailing and how they’re setting up in terms of the Code Zero. There are quite a few ways to do it out there.”
He says every team has been looking at their opposition’s sail settings, and taking photographs for analysis:
“It’s something that everyone does, we do the same. We’re lucky that our coach does it for us, and then we analyse it afterwards.
“You generally pick the fast boats and go and have a look and how they’re doing it. You can trim the boats completely differently and have the same result in speed.”
The returning teams of Dongfeng, Brunel and Mapfre clearly have an advantage when it comes to data. Scallywag skipper David Witt commented: “Mapfre are the fastest boat by a mile at the moment, and that’s because they’ve got Neal McDonald, who’s a genius! They just know that if the wind strength changes, they go to their marks and they’ve got it 100 per cent all the time.”
He adds: “But I used to be a professional football coach, and if I was coaching a team I wouldn’t want them winning everything before it all starts. You end up with quite high expectations.”
Racing starts on 22 October, with a 700-mile hop from Alicante to Lisbon.