Abu Dhabi claims first Volvo Ocean Race in-port race
The Ian Walker-led team on Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing claimed the first point in the Volvo Ocean Race today winning the Iberdrola In-Port Race in Alicante, Spain, by a massive 14 minute margin over their five rivals.
Today’s conditions could have started better with torrential rain drowning the Volvo Ocean Race village this morning. By the time the boats got out on to the race course at around lunchtime, the rain had stopped, leaving an extremely patchy offshore breeze of around 5-8 knots in the start area.
The in-port races for this Volvo Ocean Race are following the latest ‘stadium sailing’ trends by being held on a fixed course to gain maximum spectator appeal. As a result today’s course had the start area right off the breakwater to the port, with the first leg being a port tack close reach. While it may have been tempting for one of the boats to start on starboard, in fact all the fleet hit the line on port, with Groupama up by the committee boat, Puma closest to the pin with Puma and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing holding the front row.
“We had a great start,” said a beaming Walker afterwards. “It was punchy - too punchy really. We must have been very very close to the line, so it is like always, if you can get in front then you can stay there, but today wasn’t easy because the wind just didn’t settle down.”
Abu Dhabi led around the top mark and was chased down the run with Camper hot on their heels. However the decisive moment of the race came at the next mark rounding where Walker’s team performed an immaculate Kiwi drop of their A2, they slickly peeled to their Code 0 as they rounded the mark.
“The guys did a great gybe peel at the bottom mark and that gave us a little edge which we could defend,” commented Walker later. “We were humming and haring, because one minute it was a spinnaker for the next leg and then it went light and we weren’t sure. We called that manoeuvre 40 seconds from the mark, so we had no set-up time at all. It was a case of zero up, gybe and drop the thing down the front hatch - we haven’t done that before - and off we went, but it worked out alright. With Jules [Salter] and Rob [Greenhalgh] we have played through all the scenarios. We have been very diligent about our briefing and sail changes and scenarios and that gives you the confidence that you know what you are going to fall back on in the race.”
For Camper the rounding didn’t go so well, gybing their A2 and then coming to a grinding halt as they found a hole.
“As we came around the mark, the breeze was very shifty,” recounted Camper’s Australian navigator Will Oxley. “It was a Code 0 leg at the end and we had an A2 up. The intention was to gybe on to the zero and we didn’t have enough time, so we held that, gybed with the A2, but when we came around we sailed right into a hole and the boats behind came up through with pressure and we just sat in the hole and Abu Dhabi got ahead. As soon as you have got a little disturbed air and one boat rolls you, these are huge sails the boats carry and there is massive disturbed air, so you just have to wait until you can get some breathing again.”
In the process Camper could do little other than watch as they were rolled first by Puma and then Groupama with even Team Sanya, which, with Telefonica, had been a long way behind on the second leg, passing them under their giant Lake Geneva-style Code 0.
A substantial right hand shift combined with a drop in pressure turned the end of the third leg into a very arduous dead run. Walker later said this provided a holy heart failure moment. “Before the last mark, we were thinking ‘here we go – they are all just going to sail right around us’. But we managed to cling on it.”
Abu Dhabi clawed her way around the third mark, but it was a long long time before Puma made it around in second and in a race which lasted a little over an hour, the black Farr design claimed honours by an impressive 14 minutes.
If Abu Dhabi maintain that delta throughout the race then “yes, we should be finished by February...” quipped Ian Walker. It is interesting to note however that the Abu Dhabi boat is a Farr design and is prepares showing similar traits to the Farr-designed Telefonica Blue in the last race which was also a weapon in light winds in in-port races.
Nonetheless, six points are six points for Abu Dhabi and the ten in-do ports represent 20% of the total points available during this Volvo Ocean Race.
As to the round the world race proper, little by way of conclusions can be drawn. “It is just a nice moment for the team – all the guys who have been working so hard and everyone at Abu Dhabi can feel part of a winning team,” said Walker. “It is really important for the sponsors. Puma and Telefonica have done this before, but this is a debut for Abu Dhabi - everybody in Abu Dhabi has been watching this live – I just spoke to the Sheik, who phoned me up all excited. They have never even watched a sailing race before - it is a huge thing for the country. And we have to compete with Man City!”
After their second-placed finish today, Puma skipper Ken Read confirmed that no long term conclusions could be drawn from today’s racing. “We learned less than zero about boat speed today, but no in-port race teaches you about Volvo boat speed. Volvo boat speed and around the buoys is a totally different game. Volvo boat speed is out in the ocean and going 22 knots on a reach and having a three quarters of a knot edge on your friend. So these races are more about positioning and getting a good start and we are really happy what we did today.”
Read said he was disappointed by their performance in yesterday’s practice race, so today they had a lengthy briefing as a group trying to anticipate what the weather would do. “These are hard races, because it is not a normal race which are windward-leewards and you always know what the next leg will be. But the guys did a really good job thinking ahead and we did a good sail change and that got us ahead of the pack a little bit.”
Camper navigator Will Oxley observed: “The boats are pretty evenly matched. The in-port racing is a significant part of the points, but it is unrealistic to set the goal of trying to win every one. You just have to be consistent. We are quite happy to have a three point buffer on Telefonica.”
On the final leg they redeemed themselves, pulling back up to third. “The competition is very good. We still have very good confidence in our boat – our boat speed and our boat handling. Our boat handling in the end is what got us back to third place. There was a 30% chance of it turning into a crapshoot. Abu Dhabi got a very good start, got out in front and did a very good job and deserved to win it. And for the rest we are pretty happy to end up with a third.”
Mike Sanderson, skipper of Team Sanya, the only older generation VO70 in this year’s round the world race, was happy with their fourth place. “We are about trying to mix it up and we did that today. We got a couple of big scalps behind us. The aim is to get on the podium a few times during the race and we were only one place away from achieving that on the first outing.
“I was a bit disappointed with myself, because we mucked up the start with a little bit of miscommunication – we ended up tacking behind Puma and we were already late by then, which was a shame because the start was pretty vital. If we had been in the front row off the line today we would have been right in the hunt because we felt quite fast quite a few times and the guys did a nice call with the sail down the first leg and the Code 0 was definitely better than the A2 and that got us back in the mix.”
Groupama came home in fifth, and for skipper Franck Cammas it was his Volvo Ocean Race baptism. “It was the same high level as we expected,” he said. “It was very enjoyable for me. It was my first race with a big monohull. I am proud to be in this fleet, but I know we don’t have the boat for very light winds or the crew for inshore as well, so we have to work on that. But we are in a good way because we have improved a lot during the training and today it was good on board.”
While Cammas was steering ex-Telefonica crewman Laurent Pages was calling tactics and managed the crew today.
So what are Cammas’ view on the fleet having been in Alicante for the last weeks? “I think that Abu Dhabi and Puma are in a good position and Camper as well, but they have a very different boat. We will see in the offshore what happens. Maybe she is far ahead or far behind, but it is strange because it is different. Telefonica is also a very good boat. Inshore Camper is very impressive, although today it wasn’t the case. Offshore we don’t know.”
Immediately on finishing, Groupama informed the race committee they were making a protest against Camper. According to Cammas this is once again over what many believe to be the Kiwi team’s adjustable forestay and while this has been previously ruled on, Cammas says they have a marginally different argument which hasn’t been ruled on by the jury. However we have just heard that this has once again been thrown out by the international jury.
Tomorrow is the ProAm race. Ian Walker is playing golf with Ken Read on Monday and there is the possibility of some sailing for the VO70s mid-week alongside, of course, the Volvo Ocean Race Legend's Regatta and Reunion. Otherwise teams will be contemplating the weather, loading food on, and retrimming their boats ready for next Saturday’s start of leg one from Alicante down the Atlantic to Cape Town.
Iberdrola In-Port Race provisional results:
Position / Team / Time / Points
1. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing / 53 minutes 44 seconds/ 6
2. Puma Ocean Racing powered by BERG / 1 hour 07:58 / 5
3. CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand / 1:10:11 / 4
4. Team Sanya / 1:10:43 / 3
5. Groupama sailing team / 1:11:11 / 2
6. Team Telefónica / 1:12:08 / 1