The boat with the strongest Irish connection, Team Sanya celebrated Chinese New Year’s Eve this week by leading a full strength Volvo Ocean Race fleet off the start line on the 3,051-nautical mile Leg 3 second stage from the Maldives to their home port in China.
In hot and humid tropical conditions the fleet got away cleanly on schedule at 0800 UTC on Sunday (1300 local time in the Maldives ) with Team Sanya, the first sole Chinese entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, making the early running immediately after the start of their homecoming leg.
Sanya continued to scrap for the lead in the first few hours of sailing with less than half a nautical mile separating the six-boat fleet.
Speaking from the boat in a live video call after the start Chinese crew member Teng Jiang He, otherwise known as Tiger, confirmed that Team Sanya had got away to the best possible start.
“We had a perfect start this morning,” he said. “We were the first boat to cross the start line and we are still in the lead now an hour and a half into the race.”
Tiger is hoping the Year of the Dragon will herald a change in fortune for Sanya, who were forced out of Leg 1 inside the first 24 hours and also suffered rig damage in the first stage of Leg 2. He was hopeful of an arrival in Sanya in time the Lantern Festival in just over two weeks’ time.
“I wish all people in China a great Chinese New Year,” he said. “I also sincerely wish our boat a great prospect in the Year of the Dragon. The Lantern Festival is on February 6 so I hope we can arrive in Sanya before then and have a good celebration before the New Year festival period concludes.”
By 1100 UTC the closely packed fleet continued to track south easterly sailing line abreast on port tack separated by less than three nautical miles from north to south with all six boats working flat out for the lead.
At that time Ken Read’s PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG had taken up the most northerly position shadowed by overall race leader Team Telefónica skippered by Iker Martínez.
In the middle of the fleet Chris Nicholson’s CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand, Team Sanya and Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing had formed a close knit bunch, while Franck Cammas’ Groupama sailing team were pursuing the most southerly route.
The Leg 3 second stage course will see the fleet cross the Bay of Bengal to the north west tip of Sumatra where they will enter the congested waters of the Malacca Strait before eventually turning north east to negotiate strong winds and steep waves in the South China sea on their way to the finish on the island of Sanya.
CAMPER skipper Chris Nicholson said he expected the fleet to face some extreme conditions after passing Singapore.
“It looks like we are in for a lot of breeze on the way up to China,” he said. “The first 1000 miles isn’t too bad, there's just the lighter trade winds, they get up to 15 knots at one stage, then we do the Malacca Strait. At the moment I think it looks quite light and quite tricky down there.
Boat breaking conditions
“Round the corner to Singapore it looks like we’re in a for quite a rough time all the way to China. It’s the sort of thing that if you can lead out of the Malacca Strait and you keep the pressure on I’d say it would be good. But will be quite boat breaking conditions.”
By midday,CAMPER had eked out a narrow 0.3 nm lead over PUMA, with Telefónica holding on to third despite being significantly slowed by a breakage their headsail.
"It was a real shame because we were going very well,” commented Media Crew Member Diego Fructuoso. “We're now working on repairing everything that broke -- Jordi (Calafat ) and Zane (Gills ) on the sail and Ñeti (Antonio Cuervas-Mons ) and Pepe (Ribes ) on the ropes.
“Now we have to get everything right and start our comeback,” he added.
The boats will take around two weeks to complete Leg 2 with an estimated arrival in Sanya on or around February 6.
Eighty percent of the points for Leg 3 remain up for grabs, after the Stage 1 sprint from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah delivered the other 20 percent to all the teams except for Sanya, who will score full points for this stage*.
As Sanya were unable to race the first stage of Leg 3, they will score full points for this leg – 30 points for 1st place, 25 for 2nd, 20 for 3rd, 15 for 4th, 10 for 5th, 5 for 6th. The other teams will score points on the following scale – 24 points for 1st, 20 for 2nd, 16 for 3rd, 12 for 4th, 8 for 5th, 4 for 6th.PUMA and CAMPER were sweating over minimal gains and losses at the head of the fleet on Leg 3 on Tuesday, with no let-up in the furious workrate among the fleet despite sweltering conditions and the prospect of far bigger changes in fortune to come.
A perfectly executed tack north overnight from CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand put around 12 nautical miles of lateral separation between them and leg leaders PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG.
At the 1300 UTC position report on day 3 of the second stage of Leg 3, PUMA held a 2.3 nautical mile advantage but CAMPER were confident they could still cash in on their more northerly position, with the only question being when to make their move.
“We’re only talking small changes, but there’s quite a battle being waged here to hold onto the lead at the moment,” said CAMPER skipper Chris Nicholson.
“It’s just a neck and neck race to the east at the moment. We have some leverage -- it’s just a tricky situation for us when to use it.”
The determination of the teams to squeeze out tiny advantages this early in the 3,051 nautical mile leg is notable given that far greater gains and losses are likely when the fleet gets into the Malacca Strait and beyond.
“They are small gains, because when we think what’s ahead in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, there’s going to be enormous gains and losses, but this is where the game’s at at the moment and it’s neck and neck,” Nicholson said.
Apart from PUMA, the main concern for Nicholson will be the sight of Team Telefónica making the biggest gains as they recover from the sail damage they suffered on Sunday.
Telefónica, who lead the overall standings by seven points from CAMPER, were the fastest boat at the 1300 report, still 16.3nm behind the leaders but pushing hard for the most northerly position.
Telefónica skipper Iker Martínez said his team were looking for long-term gains rather than a short-term advantage.
“We know that the lost miles to the finish will be important but we’re hoping that it will be better for us when we arrive at the Malacca Strait within the next two days,” he said.
Heading for Sumatra
“It was a decision based on looking ahead two days rather than for here today. Now we have a little bit more wind and now we are pointing where we want to go. We’re working hard to catch up the boats in front and reduce the gap so that when we reach the unstable conditions in the Malacca Strait we can get closer.”
To the south, Groupama sailing team were just behind PUMA, followed by Abu Dhabi and Team Sanya.
While the consistent 10-15 knots breeze and warm waters have been ideal to power the six Volvo Open 70s towards the Malacca Strait, life below decks grows more uncomfortable with every day as temperatures rocket.
“On deck it’s shorts, t-shirts and sunshine and we’re sailing along in beautiful conditions but it’s very hot, sweltering heat at the moment,” said Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing bowman Justin Slattery.
“It’s hot and sticky down below. It’s difficult to get rest off watch because of the heat. If you’re off watch you’re in your bunk. If you can’t sleep you’re on the rail or you stay in your bunk – there’s not much of a choice.”
“On deck it’s wet when you do a sail change,” added PUMA bowman Casey Smith. “Of course, as soon as you put your wet weather gear on you sweat horribly, so you’re going to get wet either way, from sweat or from salt water.”
With just 20.5 nautical miles separating PUMA from six-placed Sanya, each of the teams have been pouring their energy into squeezing every last bit of boat speed from their yachts, desperately trying to get the upper hand on their opponents.
“It’s a meticulous job, with slightly open angles and a little bit of speed in the shifts,” Groupama sailing team watch leader Damian Foxall said. “Every 10th of a knot, every shift is important.”
The teams are expected to reach the Malacca Strait, the narrow body of water between Sumatra and Singapore, within the next two days.
“Getting around the corner of Sumatra is one thing but the Malacca Strait is a whole different animal,” PUMA bowman Smith added. “Right now it’s just about staying in the pack and making sure when opportunities come you take them.”