Dongfeng’s woes hand Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing a massive advantage

But it’s a fate we would never wish on them or others

Daryl Wislang, Justin Slattery and Ian Walker onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in the Southern Ocean. Photo: Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Getty Images

Looks like our skipper Ian Walker's words at the start of this leg were on the money: to win this leg you first have to complete it. Right now we have less than 1,000 miles remaining before the finishing line at Itajai in Brazil and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing is looking good.

We managed to cross the Southern Ocean unscathed and passed Cape Horn earlier this week in daylight and in second place to Charlie Enright’s Alvimedica. In fact, the leading four boats were within 90 minutes of each other.

If completing leg one of the race put an old ghost from the last race three years ago to rest, sailing past this infamous landmark was another milestone.

After we were knocked out of the first leg last time, barely four hours after leaving Auckland for the Southern Ocean we were forced to turn back for repairs after a bulkhead came loose. But worse was to follow later in the race when we had near-catastrophic delamination problems and we retired completely from this leg into Chile.


No such misfortune for us this time but Ian, Sci-fi and myself were reliving the last race as we celebrated passing the Cape offshore at over 20 knots. There were plenty of other casualties last time including the eventual race winner Groupama 4 skippered by Franck Cammas.

They had rounded the Horn and were sailing north of the Falkland Islands close to where we are now when they were dismasted.

My old mate Damian Foxall was on board back then but this time he's making a one-leg appearance on Dongfeng, the Chinese entry. This time he didn't make it to the Cape when they were dismasted with just a few hundred miles to go.

Extreme end

As we’re competitors, we haven’t been told much about what happened but we do know that they lost the top few metres of their rig and have pulled into Ushuaia in Argentina to assess their options. How they were dismasted remains a mystery.

We think they may have been pushing their boat harder earlier in the race and while we all aim for 100 per cent, there’s very little difference between too much and too little with these boats at the extreme end.

But crossing the Southern Ocean we could see that they had backed off a little when others were gaining – and passing them – as we hurtled towards Cape Horn in near gale force winds last week.

Even though these boats are one-design and essentially matching, the way each team sets up their sailplan and manage the boat is different. The best we can learn about each other is when we’re close by and can see the differences.

It’s all very subtle but even these small differences translate into huge gains over thousands of miles of ocean race courses. As for picking up tips from the other crews on the dockside once we get ashore, secrecy between the teams is an even bigger factor than ever so we may never hear how they dropped their rig.

That said, it’s a fate we would never wish on them or others. This isn’t how we want to win the race and such a problem or worse could yet befall us.

Still, their options are pretty stark as they must be figuring out right now: how to get to Itajai almost 2,000 miles away in time to refit their boat to be ready and competitive for the next leg that is only a couple of weeks away.

These options basically boil down to two: make a repair and motor-sail to Brazil to collect a new rig to be ready for the next leg to Newport, Rhode Island or wait for a new mast to be shipped to the boat in Patagonia, rig and tune it there, sail back to where they suspended racing, sail past the Cape and on to finish the leg.

If the latter option, they would score six points for the leg as they would certainly arrive last. If the former, they would have to retire fully from the leg and would incur maximum eight points penalty.

As both ourselves and Dongfeng started this leg tied on points for the overall lead, either option hands us a massive advantage in the overall standings. About the time of the dismasting, we had moved into second place just a few miles behind Alvimedica until after we passed into the South Atlantic when we moved into the lead off the Falkland Islands.

If we can hold this result into Itajai, we’ll have a points cushion equal to one whole leg.

But there are still two long and tough legs remaining before we reach Europe and the final stages of this 39,000 nautical mile course.

We still have a long way to go.

[Note: Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier has announced that his team will abandon this leg and take the eight-point penalty. The boat is currently in Ushuaia and a two-day strike in Argentina has been an added setback to their plans].