It’ll be no news to anyone on this website that Dongfeng Race Team have won the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18. And it’s probably not news to anyone that after ten months of roller coaster racing it all came down to one final call – inshore or offshore? However, it might be news that it shouldn’t have mattered, either way would have done for MAPFRE, they just had to make a decision and stick to it.
It was great to see such an evenly matched race turn on a strategic decision. It wasn’t a breakdown, an injury, a random cloud or a speed edge that settled it at the death – although those things and many others had all played their part in getting it to that point. It was the answer to the simple, game-defining question of all ocean racing; “which way are we going here?”
I’m sure everyone was asking that question of their leaders as they exited the Baltic and headed south-west into the North Sea. I suspect most of them knew that the answer could be decisive. So the moment deserves our full attention. It was the most important strategic play of the race, and this is the Strategic Review... but I want to spend a little time looking at how the race unfolded before that point, because it might give us some insight into how the endgame played out.
Leg 11 opened the way it ended, with Dongfeng Race Team picking the windward end and getting launched into the lead, while their opponents for the overall title – MAPFRE and Team Brunel – chose the other option with less success. MAPFRE got locked out and had to do an extra turn before they could cross the start line, while Team Brunel struggled nearly as badly, ending up fifth off the line.
The order settled as they raced west to clear the Swedish coast and its many islands and islets, before tacking north to head for a mark on the south coast of Norway. It was a long port tack in an 18-20 knot north-westerly wind, flowing down the North Sea and into what’s called the Skagerrak (the strait triangulated by Denmark, the north-west coast of Sweden and the south-east coast of Norway). This was part of a broader clockwise circulation around a high pressure system over Britain. It would dominate the weather for Leg 11.
Trailing the fleet, Team Brunel and MAPFRE had sailed further west before they tacked to port, to ensure clear air. This gave them the space to make their own choices when the fleet got its first big wind shift about 16:00UTC on the afternoon of the 21st June, a shift towards the north that forced them all to tack.
A handful of tacks later, MAPFRE had jumped everyone by holding to the west of the fleet. It put them on the inside of the second big wind shift, which was back around to the west. MAPFRE were the most windward boat, and benefited most from the shift. We can see in Image 1 from 21:00UTC on the 21st June that MAPFRE (white) were now level in the lead with Dongfeng Race Team (red), while Team Brunel (yellow) were still deep in the pack and over three miles behind.
©Geovoile - Image 1 (Click for larger image)
Into the breeze
The three-mile advantage quickly grew. Once they were around the mark off Norway, the leaders were going downwind towards more breeze. We can see this situation clearly in Image 2 from midnight, 24:00UTC on the 21st June. Compare the blue of the light wind with the stronger, orange/red regions that they were sailing towards (we’ll come onto the causes for this in a moment).
©Geovoile - Image 2 (Click for larger image)
The leaders built their advantage steadily overnight and into the next day as they raced south to the next turning mark off Aarhus on Denmark’s east coast, and then back north towards another mark off the Norwegian coast.
We can see in Image 3 from 19:00UTC on the 22nd June that Dongfeng Race Team and MAPFRE had established a substantial advantage by this point. Only Vestas 11th Hour Racing (orange) were close, just six miles behind the leaders, with the main pack 20nm behind. We can also see that everything was about to change again, as they were now leading back into the light winds at the top of the Skagerrak.
©Geovoile - Image 3 (Click for larger image)
Back to the hole
The area of light winds had grown since the first time they hit it, and now it started to reduce again. We can see in Image 4 from 02:00UTC on the 23rd June that the fleet benefitted from a light north-easterly wind that was blowing off the coast of Sweden. It kept them moving, although the leaders advantage had almost halved because they were now leading back into lighter winds; it was just over three miles back to Vestas 11th Hour Racing, and ten miles back to the pack.
©Geovoile - Image 4 (Click for larger image)
The rest of the night must have been tough on the nerves for everyone, but there was a consensus that there was more breeze to the west, and the leaders were able to shepherd the fleet that way. If we zoom out we can see why everyone thought there was more breeze to the west.
In Image 5 from 04:00UTC on the 23rd June we can see the big high pressure over the British Isles funnelling a strong north-westerly wind down and across the North Sea. When it hit Scandinavia, it was hitting a high landmass, and this was creating the wind shadow, the light air region on the Skagerrak. So we had 25 knots in the North Sea blowing onto Scandinavia, and then the land mass reducing that breeze down to 3-4 knots by the time it got back onto the water of the Skagerrak.
©Geovoile - Image 5 (Click for larger image)
The saying is ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. Any situation like this with light and strong breeze in close proximity is very unstable, as the strong breeze tries to fill the ‘hole’ – ok, not the most scientific explanation, but it’ll have to do.
The one ground rule that everyone was relying on was that going west or south-west towards the North Sea should take you into more breeze. If we look at Image 6 we can see that the whole fleet had played the left-hand or western side of the course as they approached the mark.
©Geovoile - Image 6 (Click for larger image)
Dongfeng rounded the mark in the Skagerrak at 07:00UTC on the 23rd June, with a half mile lead over MAPFRE and headed south-west. The rest of the fleet had closed a little more, but there was still a solid eight miles back to overall title contenders Team Brunel.
Once they were around, Dongfeng Race Team led everyone to the south-west in a 3-4 knot north-westerly wind, trying to close the distance to the big breeze as quickly as possible… until the moment we see in Image 7.
©Geovoile - Image 7 (Click for larger image)
Around 10:00UTC on the 23rd June, everyone got a wind shift to the south-west. This was the pre-cursor to another step-change in the way the north-westerly breeze ‘filled the vacuum’ – or flowed around the big lump of Scandinavia that was getting in its way.
We can see in Image 8 from 12:30UTC on the 23rd that the north-westerly was now filling the ‘vacuum’ in the Skagerrak by flowing around Scandinavia (instead of over it) and into the Skagerrak from the south-west.
©Geovoile - Image 8 (Click for larger image)
Team AkzoNobel (purple) were first to react, getting onto port and heading west, with Team Brunel going with them soon after. This late reaction cost Team Brunel a place, as they had to alter course to avoid the red-dashed Exclusion Zone (EZ) and this let Team AkzoNobel through.
The leaders carried on south until MAPFRE bit the bullet and tacked to go with the Dutch boats. No surprise when Dongfeng Race Team and Vestas 11th Hour Racing followed. But MAPFRE had got a little jump on the other two, and it was over the next few hours that they sailed past Dongfeng Race Team to take the lead.
The wind bend in Image 8 can be seen clearly centred just east of the southern tip of Norway. We’ve already seen the rule for wind bends used in this race – head for the inside of the curve, in this case, the Norwegian shoreline.
If we look at Image 9 from 15:00UTC on the 23rd June we can see the fleet all heading into the inside of the curve on port in a southerly, and coming out on starboard in a westerly. MAPFRE gained on Dongfeng Race Team by going further into the inside of the curve, but both those boats and Vestas 11th Hour Racing lost to Team AkzoNobel and Team Brunel who were deeper again into the inside of the wind bend. The gap from MAPFRE to Team Brunel was now just 4.3nm.
©Geovoile - Image 9 (Click for larger image)
The leaders could count on another gain though, as they led out into the North Sea and the strong north-westerly wind that awaited them there. In Image 10 we can see that by 18:00UTC on the 23rd June this had played out and MAPFRE had almost doubled her lead over both Dongfeng Race Team and Team Brunel. It was looking good for Spain, although they were probably already anxious that the two Dutch boats had not dropped onto their line as they might have expected, were they planning to follow the inshore route to The Hague.
©Geovoile - Image 10 (Click for larger image)
If we zoom out again to show the rest of the race course in Image 11 from 20:00UTC on the 23rd we can see the two routes to the finish. The inshore route follows the Danish, German and Dutch coastlines, first south, then west and then south again. The offshore route goes around the EZ’s and is a straight-line to the south-west for most of the way; until a final hook back to the east to get to the finish line.
©Geovoile - Image 11 (Click for larger image)
The key to it was going to be the breeze, and in this regard the inshore route looked more reliable. The north-westerly breeze would fade as they moved south-west and got closer to the high pressure that was over the British Isles; so the offshore route had more potential for lighter winds because it went further to the south-west. And the dog-leg back to the east at the end could easily end up a downwind leg that required gybing, adding distance and losses in the manoeuvres.
Set against that was the fact that the forecast had the high over Britain moving away to the west, which would have helped the offshore route. The question was; how much would the high move and how fast? Or should I say one of many questions. The whole problem was riddled with uncertainty about the precise wind strength and direction along the different sections of each route, and how that matched each boat’s best sails and set-ups.
It’s just this kind of calculation that weather routing programmes are designed for – but they will not provide absolute answers, because the basic information is a forecast, not a truth. This one always looked like it would be close – just a few minutes in it – and that meant it could be pushed one way or the other by the actual weather that turned up on the day.
We do know that Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel (the locals) were committed to the offshore route early. They came off the Norwegian coast in a position more to the west than the leaders, and they held that leverage all the way south. Dongfeng was equally committed to the inshore route. They were set up to skirt the Danish coast from the outset.
It was MAPFRE that had a late change of heart, and in doing so, I think they probably lost the Volvo Ocean Race. If we check out Image 12 from 21:00UTC on the 23rd we can see that after leading Dongfeng Race Team inshore, at the last moment MAPFRE (and Vestas 11th Hour Racing) changed their minds, turned right and headed offshore to link up with the two Dutch boats.
©Geovoile - Image 12 (Click for larger image)
We can see the cost very clearly six hours later in Image 13 from 03:00UTC on the 24th. Team AkzoNobel are now a mile in front of MAPFRE, with Team Brunel just 1.2nm behind them. Dongfeng Race Team have slid down the leaderboard to fifth, behind the offshore group, because of the geometry of their dogleg.
©Geovoile - Image 13 (Click for larger image)
If we go back to Image 10 we can see that at the point before anyone was committed to either route, MAPFRE had about a five mile lead over Team AkzoNobel. It’s an assumption because Team AkzoNobel were always a little bit further offshore than MAPFRE, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that if the Spanish had decided to go offshore as early as the Dutch pair, they would have retained most if not all of that five mile lead.
Instead of which the late change of heart cost the Spanish team about six miles, relative to both the offshore group, and to Dongfeng, who also sailed their inshore route choice as fast as they could.
Grim for France
It was Dongfeng Race Team however that really got punished on the leaderboard for the next few hours, even while the weather routing predictions were saying that it was still a close race. And then they turned the corner…
It was when Dongfeng Race Team turned the final corner in their course and started a straight line run in to the finish, just as the offshore teams turned their final corner and started going east that it was clear to everyone that it was a race.
In Image 14 from midday on the 24th June we can see the home straight. Dongfeng Race Team had a 320 wind direction at 13 knots, while the offshore boats had 340-350 at 14 knots. MAPFRE had closed down and passed Team AkzoNobel and now led the group by 0.7 nm.
©Geovoile - Image 14 (Click for larger image)
It looked all right for the offshore boats; the 350 wind direction was far enough round towards the north that they could sail most of the final leg on starboard. Unfortunately for MAPFRE and Team Brunel, it didn’t stay there for long, shifting to 320 not long after they went around the penultimate mark. Suddenly they were faced with an almost downwind leg and it was a very different picture.
End of the tale
Image 15 from 15:00UTC on the 24th June tells the rest of the story. The offshore boats were forced to gybe downwind, as the breeze kept rotating back towards the west (it went from 350 to 310 by the time they finished the leg). The wind shift was constantly making it a more even downwind leg, taking longer to sail.
©Geovoile - Image 15 (Click for larger image)
Twist in the tale
Dongfeng Race Team crossed in front of the offshore group just before the final rounding mark and held a four mile lead over MAPFRE just before she finished. Dongfeng Race Team was about 2.7nm behind MAPFRE when the latter changed course. Given that the calculations earlier suggested that MAPFRE’s late change of heart cost them about six miles, it appears that this is equivalent to almost the entire gain by Dongfeng. Distance isn’t a perfect measure of the gap between the boats as their speed changed (nor is time), but it does appear that if they had gone offshore early rather than late, MAPFRE would quite probably have beaten Dongfeng Race Team.
There’s more evidence for this in the relative positions of Dongfeng Race Team and Team AkzoNobel in Image 10. The Chinese boat was 2.2nm ahead of Team AkzoNobel before they split routes. When they came back together in Image 15, Dongfeng Race Team were 3.7nm ahead of Team AkzoNobel, that’s a gain of just 1.5nm.
MAPFRE (assuming they were a similar speed to Dongfeng Race Team) took 1.2nm out of Team AkzoNobel from the time they joined their line on the offshore route at the corner of the EZ, to the time that they both gybed around the final mark. If we use Team AkzoNobel as the marker, we again see that MAPFRE could still have won if they had committed to one route or the other from the outset.
It’s not the decision…
Sometimes, it’s not the decision that counts, it’s making the decision in a timely manner. MAPFRE had the Volvo Ocean Race trophy in the palm of their hands. All they had to do to close their fingers around it was make their minds up early, offshore or inshore? If they had committed to either route early, it’s very likely that they would have won. It was the late change of heart that cost them the title.
It’s always easy afterwards, and it’s important to put MAPFRE’s late decision to turn right and go offshore into context. It’s everyone’s worse nightmare, leading a major race with two competitors for the overall title safely behind you… and then they split and go opposite ways on the last leg.
It was probably as much about the psychology as it was about the weather routing calculations. MAPFRE had been chasing Dongfeng for the whole leg until passing them a few hours previously. They could be forgiven for thinking that they had put them away.
In contrast, they had been chased and closed down by Team Brunel for most of the leg, and not just this leg, but for most of the last four legs. Team Brunel had sailed past MAPFRE in the last few miles of Leg 10, and done it just a few miles from where they were now having to decide who to cover...
History will record
The memory of Team Brunel overtaking them in Leg 10 will have weighed very heavily on MAPFRE’s decision making process. And of course, no one at that point could possibly have predicted whether inshore would actually turn out to be faster than offshore, or vice versa. History will record that MAPFRE chose wrongly, that they should have stayed with Dongfeng Race Team and cruised home to a comfortable and what would have been an equally well-deserved victory.
I hope it will also record that this fleet, and these three teams in particular – Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE and Team Brunel – have given us one of the best Volvo Ocean Races that I can remember. And for that we should all be grateful; for the talent, the blood, sweat and tears that they have spilt across five oceans to entertain us, thank you.