Just three points split the top three boats in the Volvo Ocean Race - the in-port races might yet decide the winner. We report from Cardiff on how the race is winding up to its conclusion in the Hague in two weeks' time

Dongfeng Race Team won today’s Sky Ocean Rescue in-port race in Cardiff today. At the beginning of this edition of the round the world race it looked like the in-port series might be an interesting sideshow to the main event. Now it might just become a deciding factor in determining who wins the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race.

With two offshore stages to go (in fact, for the VO65s they are closer to a long coastal race and an overnighter, first 1,300 miles to Gothenburg and then a 700-mile hop to the Hague), the top three boats are separated by just three points. With two bonus points also up for grabs for the Leg 10 and 11 wins, there are a lot of mathematical combinations which could see a tie at the top when the seven teams finally arrive in the Hague later this month. If that’s the case, then the in-port race results suddenly become critical as the tie-breaker. Potentially letting things really go to the wire, there is a final in-port race in The Hague after the last offshore has finished.

Leg 9, from Newport to Cardiff, day 06 on board MAPFRE, speed record day. Xabi Fernandez holding on the aft pedestal. 25 May, 2018.

Each of the three teams on the leaderboard podium – Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE and Team Brunel – has their own demons to shake off. Charles Caudrelier and Dongfeng made no secret of their ambition to win the race. Their whole team structure was changed from the previous race to give them the best chance of achieving that whilst still having a Chinese crewman on board for every leg.

Dongfeng is the current overall leader, but has not yet won a leg. It’s entirely possible to win the Volvo Ocean Race by hammering out 11 consistent results, but missing out on the bonus point for every leg win will be making the job harder for the Chinese-flagged team.

MAPFRE took the overall early lead, only losing it after a poor 5th in the Auckland to Itajaii double point leg. Then it happened again, on the double points transatlantic leg. They have wrestled solid results from poor placings – their 5th to 1st comeback into Newport being the most impressive – but Xabi Fernandez’s team will want to avoid putting themselves in those situations. With the next leg running to just 1,300 miles there is also no room left to make such a dramatic recovery.

Watch Rob Greenhalgh, watch leader on MAPFRE, discuss the last two legs here:

Team Brunel’s form turnaround has been the most dramatic in the race. Expectations were high that the seven-times Volvo Ocean Race veteran skipper Bouwe Bekking would be an early contender, in fact the first half of their race was decidedly lacklustre, with a 6th, 4th, 4thand 5th. But Brunel suddenly had a change of form on the massive Auckland to Itajai leg, winning for double points. Then again, as MAPFRE faltered, Brunel soared, taking the double points transatlantic win. You cannot count any one of these three out right now.

Other factors may come into play though. Watching the practice race in Cardiff Bay earlier this week it was surprising that, even after close to 40,000 miles of sailing these boats and all the weather forecasting and navigation power the teams can muster, several teams hugely over-stood the top mark layline. Simple mistakes can still win and lose points here.

Fatigue is setting in amongst some teams – and some are wearier than others. Some teams have rotated crew more than others throughout the race, making a trade off between consistency and fresh energy. MAPFRE has retained the same crew the whole way round, Brunel solidified their team in the latter stages of the race, while Dongfeng is continuing a planned programme of crew rotation into the final stages. For the next stage three of the 12 crew will switch, including the addition of Fabien Delahaye, who is very experienced in performance analysis and navigation. Having a second navigator may prove to be a strength on these short, stressful, sleep-deprived final stages.

As the unstoppable Volvo Ocean Race juggernaut rolls towards its conclusion, the move back to Europe has also amped up the sponsor activity for many teams. I was a guest of Helly Hansen and MAPFRE in Cardiff, and one of the reasons so many of the Helly Hansen office was in town was to get feedback from the crews. It’s too late to amend anything for this race (the team have already had five iterations of kit from Helly Hansen, subtly improved for their very specific demands over the course of the race) but it’s the last chance to get the sailors’ comments for ongoing product development before they all disappear off to the America’s Cup, maxi Med circuit, kiteboarding road trips, or simply turning all their emails off for a well deserved break.

Leg 9, from Newport to Cardiff, day 09 on board Dongfeng. 28 May, 2018.

There is a slight end of term feeling to the race. Friendships have been solidified, many of the younger sailors are grabbing the opportunity to enjoy everything this bizarre round the world circus has to offer before it’s time to say goodbyes – for example going on a mass outing to the Beyonce and Jay-Z concert in Cardiff.

Spending time in the MAPFRE base it was interesting to see how an easy familiarity has developed – Blair Tuke casually leaning on skipper Xabi Fernandez as he delivered a safety briefing to guests on deck. “Very Latin” was how one team member described the MAPFRE atmosphere – warm, with plenty of affectionate teasing evident, and no doubt the odd explosive moment behind the scenes.

What happens after term ends is also on everyone’s mind – the teams have their key stakeholders in their team bases or top of their contacts list right now. In just two weeks’ time the CEOs and CMOs who make the decision whether to sign, or not to sign, for the next edition of the Volvo Ocean Race will be gone, back to accounts sheets and boardroom negotiations. Now is the time to capture enthusiasm for the race, to share what it can offer. Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of speculation about what format that race might take – we’ll look at this in more detail in the next issue of Yachting World, out 12th July.