Race surprises ‘Dongfeng’ takes overall lead

Abu Dhabi Racing Team’s second place leaves them second overall

Roberto Bermudez ‘Chuny’ and Justin Slattery try to figure out how to make a sailboat go fast in no wind, during the third leg of the The Volvo Ocean Race. Photograph: Matt Knighton/Getty Images

So that’s that; second place for the Abu Dhabi Racing Team into Sanya on the Chinese Island of Hainan, which we’re very happy to get, after three weeks at sea and 4,600 nautical miles.

Warm congratulations are due to Charles Caudrelier and the crew of Dongfeng who led virtually the whole way from the Middle East to their home-port and an historic race win.

They have confounded any pre-race expectations we may have had about how competitive they would actually be and have delivered two second places and now a win.

Their result has broken the three-way tie between us and now have the overall lead of this 10 stage, 39,000 nautical- mile race around the world.

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Our team lies second by just one point while Charlie Enright's Alvimedica scored a third place, barely one hour behind us, into Sanya and marking their steady improvement as each leg progresses.

Like Dongfeng, they too have considerable potential despite the apparent inexperience of several team-members.

It’s still too early to begin speaking of a breakaway group at the front of the fleet and most probably this won’t happen at all as these new one-design 65-footers are just too well-matched.

Recovered

We’re very happy with our performance in this leg after we recovered from some blunders early on that allowed

Dongfeng

to open up distance on us in the first few days that left us playing catch-up.

We learnt that the mode we had set the boat up for wasn’t optimal so now that we’ve figured that out it won’t happen again. In a twist of luck, we’ve spent the last three weeks in visual sight of four of the other boats so in effect, we’ve had the best boat-on-boat testing that I’ve ever seen in my career.

That's an advantage we now have over Dongfeng who were out of sight and also out of AIS (Automatic Identification System) range so they missed out on the performance information that this system broadcasts to warn other vessels in crowded shipping waters.

Haul upwind

But not even AIS could help us in the final few nights at sea after we cleared the Singapore Strait and began the haul upwind towards the finish.

To avoid a current running against us offshore in the South China Sea, the whole fleet was obliged to short-tack up the coast of Vietnam. Which is a busy fishing ground.

Just three nights ago, we could see thousands of boats stretching from horizon to horizon like a cityscape except with nets on the surface, or below the surface or being trawled in several directions.

Most boats were lit though some were not and care was needed interpreting signal lights indicating where the nets might be.

In one night, we tacked 25 times with full stacks of sails and gear moved each time as we dodged the fishing-boats.

In some cases where the nets were close to the surface, we canted our keel clear of the water and rolled the boat over the nets as we prayed our rudders would stay clear.

One-design

Although all six boats are one- design and should be equal, each crew has found variations to set-up the gear for slightly better speed in different conditions. We find that we have a very slight advantage, barely a 10th of a knot when sailing upwind but over several days that adds up as we found in the final 1,000 miles to the finish.

Dongfeng we found also have their systems which nearly cost them dearly as a pad-eye deck-fitting blew apart on them for the second time in the race. We reckon they're putting too much load on it with the sail controls so we've managed to avoid that problem.

However, we nearly had a disaster when a strop on our foresail failed in near gale conditions and I spent half an hour at the top of the rig trying to replace it.

But that’s all in the past now as we’re ashore at last and the whole crew rushed for the airport for a five-day rest at home. We’ll all be back in China next week to prepare for the In-Port races and the fourth leg to Auckland next month.

We had a great welcome here in Sanya as this is the race’s second visit to this island. After the last visit here three years ago, several hundred trainees signed-up; this year, the number is expected to reach close to 5,000.

Visiting new countries in the Middle East and Asia may add weeks to the overall length of the race but it appears to be spreading the possibilities of newcomers to the sport.

And, with three Chinese sailing crew-members out of eight on Dongfeng, this event could see their nation established as a competitive force in the ocean racing world.