Mark Chisnell – Leg 9 Final Report – It’s Finished!Events
The final leg of the 2015-16 Volvo Ocean Race wrapped up the overall win for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. An understandably cautious performance and a fifth place gave Ian Walker and his team the much coveted title – but it was a far from easy finish.
It might have been short – just 960 miles from Lorient to Gothenburg via a pitstop in The Hague – but in many ways this was one of the toughest legs, with some of the most challenging conditions and toughest decisions all packed into an eventful six days. And for the four boats chasing the final two places on the podium – Team Brunel, Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE and Team Alvimedica – it kept the race wide open until the very end.
It began in Lorient on the 16th June as we had expected in last week’s preview with the fleet working their way along the coast of Brittany to Ushant in a light northerly breeze. The opening section involved some relatively straightforward reaching, with the fleet led north by Team Brunel, everyone in a tight bunch behind them.
We were expecting the wind to lighten, and then freshen again as a new westerly wind arrived from the north-west, part of a big low pressure travelling east over the far North Atlantic – have a look at the forecast for 3pm on the 17th June in Pic 1.
The transition to the new breeze started that morning. In Pic 2 from 06:40 on 17th June, we can see that the fleet had sailed into a progressive wind shift, the northerly going to a west-northwesterly. So everybody tacked. The group offshore included Team Brunel, MAPFRE and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, with Team Vestas Wind, Dongfeng Race Team and Team Alvimedica in the middle, and Team SCA plying a lonely route inshore.
I think the girls were hoping to stay out of the worst of the tide – which is very strong in that part of the world – but ended up losing time battling a tidal race at the Pointe du Raz. The others went west looking for the new, stronger breeze that was forecast to arrive from that direction. But despite a fair bit of leverage being created, not much came of these opening moves, as the wind went round to the west and turned it back into a straightline drag race.
The pack regrouped just short of the corner later that morning – check out Pic 3 from 10:00 on the 17th June. Team Brunel still led, and Team SCA rejoined the fleet in fifth place.
The group stayed tight as they rounded Ushant and started to work their way east along the north Brittany coastline. If we look at Pic 4 from 12:44 on the 17th June we can see that the westerly had filled in, and was significantly stronger to the north – the breeze was on its way, and it increased steadily throughout the day, hustling the fleet eastwards.
The fleet stayed in a bunch through to the early evening of the 17th June. If we look at Pic 5 from 21:00 we can see that Team Alvimedica had picked up the lead – gained in a gybing match down the coast that morning – and now led from MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team – but there was still very little in it, with just five miles from front to back of the fleet.
Exclusion Zone Decision
It was early in the morning of the 18th June that things started to really hot up. The westerly had filled in properly and was up over 20 knots – no shortage of boat speed, and a big decision was now rushing up on them. The Dover traffic separation scheme – which controls commercial traffic through the narrow Straits of Dover – had been set up as another exclusion zone (marked on the images in red – just like the one that cost teams penalty points on leg 7).
They were racing almost dead downwind, and the teams now had to choose whether to take the northern path around the exclusion zone, and go along the English coast, or take the southern option along the French coast. The former was the longer route, as the teams had to sail extra miles after the Dover exclusion zone, to get around a second zone to its east – but it might work in the right wind direction…
If we check out Pic 6 from 01:20 on 18th June we can see the moment just before the choices hardened. Clearly favouring France were Team Alvimedica, Team SCA and Team Vestas Wind, while Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE, Team Brunel and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing all look headed for England.
This was more or less how it played out, only Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing changed their minds, taking the French coast. It meant that they left most of their major opposition going the other way, a choice I can’t imagine them making earlier in the race. Let’s have a look at Pic 7 from 07:00 on the 18th June, with the two groups neck and neck on opposite sides of the English Channel.
The Ball Bounces
The wind had lightened and shifted to a north-westerly, and this was in line with the original forecast for the afternoon of the 18th June (Pic #8), with the breeze flowing between a low over Scandinavia, and the Azores High centred over the Western Approaches. The west / north-westerly was predicted to stay strong and dominate this section of the race – probably all the way to The Hague. And in these conditions, the French coast should have been the obvious, no-brainer choice. But…
Check out Pic 9, which is the forecast for Thursday morning issued just a few hours earlier, and you will see that a small trough has formed in the eastern boundary of the high pressure, right over South East England and the English Channel. It’s shifting the breeze round to the north, and dragging the wind speed down in the Straits of Dover, before the north-westerly resumes out the other side of the trough, once they get to the North Sea.
The northerly wind hit the French-coast group about 08:00 on the morning of the 18th – check out Pic 10 from that time, with Team Alvimedica starting to beat upwind along the French coast. Meanwhile on the other shore, the English-coast trio still had a north-westerly and were making hay while the sun shone.
The result was some spectacular gains for the English group. In Pic 11 from 12:44 on the 18th, we can see that they had a lead of almost 20 miles over Team Alvimedica, the front-runner on the French coast, as those four boats struggled to tack up the coastline around Calais.
And Bounces Again…
Team Alvimedica had made some big gains on the rest of their group though, and these would prove crucial – leg-winning type crucial. I think they resulted from them escaping around the corner onto a reach, before the tide turned against the three boats behind. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Vestas and Team SCA were forced to sail more of the upwind section in foul tide, and it made a big difference.
So it looked good for the English group through the Straits of Dover, but they still had the extra zig-zag to sail, and as the wind shifted round to the north-east for everyone, it was Team French-coast that now had the better wind direction. The roulette wheel was still spinning, and the ball was some way from settling.
By Pic 12, at 16:00 on the 18th June things are looking a lot more promising for Team France – with most of the group now as far east as the English-coast trio, with The Hague right in front of them. While Team English-coast are now being forced to beat around the top corner of the Exclusion Zone…
By early evening it was a done deal – if we look at Pic 13 from 21:50 on the 18th June, we can see that as they all clawed their way back into the westerly wind, Team Alvimedica scooted across in front of the three boats on the English coast. They led into The Hague.
They were followed by the three English boats (Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE and Team Brunel) and then the rest of the French section. So the first four boats across the line at the end of Part 1 were the four that were involved in the dust-up for those last two podium places.
It was a great start by the young lads on Team Alvimedica, but the job was only half done. The restart was Saturday, 20th June at midday, and they would be first out of the blocks with an almost two hour advantage over Dongfeng Race Team in second.
By Saturday, a decent southerly wind was blowing, making for a reasonable restart, thanks to a low pressure moving eastwards over the northern British Isles (apologies, I missed the chance to get a current weather map to show you). It set up a south and south-east wind over the race course, the breeze coming from the south-east quadrant of the low. In theory, the further west a boat was, the closer it was to the low and more wind it had.
More Zone Defence
Getting west wasn’t easy though, as the early miles were dominated by more exclusion zones, creating three passages out into the North Sea. If we look at Pic 14 from 08:20 on the 21st June (Sunday morning) we can see that the leaders each used their head start to get a little further offshore than the guys behind.
The fleet split with Team Alvimedica going all the way outside the exclusion zones, then Dongfeng Race Team, Team Brunel, MAPFRE and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing taking the middle route, while Team SCA and Team Vestas Wind took the most easterly or inshore option.
Open Water… Briefly
It was all fast reaching angles from there, until the fleet converged at the corner created by the northern tip of Denmark. If we look at Pic 15 from 15:45 on the 21st, we can see that Team Alvimedica’s almost two hour headstart out of The Hague has been reduced to a little under eight miles.
There’s a lot of luck involved in these pit stops, as the wind can make a complete mockery of a perfectly good lead if the breeze doesn’t turn up for the restart. But it does look like the detour all the way round the exclusion zone cost Team Alvimedica some of their lead. The question was… would it matter?
In Pic 16 we have the forecast for midnight Monday night, and we can see that the dominant low pressure was now centred over the North Sea. It was still moving east quite quickly, and it was going to make for a very unpredictable and potentially very difficult final night. Depending on the exact passage and speed of the low’s transition over the fleet, it could rotate the wind from south to west or east, or drop it very light if the centre of the low moved over the fleet.
One Big Shift
The big shift came soon after Pic 15, take a look at Pic 17 from 18:30 on 21st June. Team Alvimedica hit the change first, but all of the top five boats were now in an easterly. It looked like the low pressure centre had moved underneath them and they were now in the anticlockwise flow on the northern edge. On the weather chart, this was a decent velocity, and although it turned the final miles into a beat, it would at least provide plenty of motive force.
In Pic 18 from 07:45 on Monday morning, 22nd June, we can see that the easterly held almost all the way to the finish. In fact it reached almost 20 knots overnight, and turned the final miles into a completely different kind of challenge to the one that had been expected. The guys on Team Alvimedica must have been just hoping it would hold all the way to the line.
In Pic 19, as they moved into the outlying archipelago at 8:40 this morning, Team Alvimedica found themselves approaching the finish line with three boats on their heels and a dying breeze. In fact, the wind completed a full 360 around the leaders as they struggled to get across the line and seal their leg win. They finally managed to cross the line a little under 24 minutes ahead of Team Brunel to give them a fantastic victory – the sixth team of seven to win a leg, meaning that all the boats that completed the course also won a leg.
So Close for the Podium
After a brutal six day battle, constantly in close proximity to the major opposition, Team Brunel led home the chasing pack, with MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team just five and seven minutes further back respectively. Just another indication of how tight the racing has been, when you consider how close these first four boats were in the tussle for those final two podium places.
The second place was enough to confirm second overall for the Dutch team, with Dongfeng Race Team holding off MAPFRE’s charge to retain third place on the overall podium. It put MAPFRE and Team Alvimedica tied on 34 points for fourth place, and this will be resolved by the final inshore race at the weekend.
Victory to Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing brought it home in a safe fifth place to confirm overall victory, Ian Walker the first British skipper to ever win the title. Team Vestas Wind were sixth into Gothenburg – I suspect they are just happy that the ordeal that started with the reef in the Indian Ocean is finally over. And while Team SCA had to settle for seventh in Leg 9 they will always have that famous victory into Lorient.
So, a little something for nearly everyone, not least of which is the race organisers. Compared to the days of open design rules, the one design has been a triumph. Apart from the exceptional reliability all the way around the world, six boats out of seven winning a leg is about as good as racing gets.
And that’s it, the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 is over, all bar the partying. I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog, it’s been a great race to follow, and after such a brilliant start for the new boats we have lots more great racing to look forward to next time around.