A look back at an epic start to the 2017-18 edition – the 1,450nm sprint from Alicante to Lisbon.
It’s been a cracking opening to the Volvo Ocean Race, right from the first moments off Alicante – with the umpires in action early – all the way to the final struggle to get across the finish line in the light air off Lisbon.
Text by Mark Chisnell
It was a highly deserved win by skipper Charlie Enright, navigator Simon Fisher and their team on Vestas 11th Hour Racing, and it came through three smart moves that we’re going to pick apart in more detail right here. The first happened early, as it so often does in ocean racing – on the first night out of Alicante.
Image 1, a screen shot from the race tracker taken at 01:43UTC on the morning of the 23rd October, shows the fleet right when Vestas 11th Hour Racing (Orange) split to go inshore at Cabo de Gata, with Team AkzoNobel (Purple) alongside them. The pair were just a couple of hundred metres from Team Brunel (Yellow), with the rest of the fleet compressed into a four mile bracket behind them.
It’s just about possible to see in the wind lines on the image that the north-easterly breeze – blowing at around 12-14 knots – has started to fade for the leaders as they headed west, sailing out of the area of accelerated wind flowing off the tip of Cabo de Gata. All three boats had a choice: to continue to head west on starboard, or gybe and go south on port.
It must have seemed that the gybe south was the right move, keeping the boat in the accelerated breeze from Cabo de Gata for longer… and that’s quite probably why five of seven boats took that route, leaving just Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Team AkzoNobel to pick their way inshore.
It was another of those cases where being in the majority didn’t make you right; check out image 2 from 03:31UTC the same morning, not quite two hours later. The fleet have largely converged and the inshore pairing have now got a two mile advantage over Team Brunel. Nice gain for a couple of hours work.
Head for the headland
There’s an old rule in sailing strategy; always head for the headland and it worked here for Vestas 11th Hour Racing and AkzoNobel. The wind always bends and compresses around headlands, and there are reliable gains to be made by sailing into that shifted and stronger breeze. The next headland represented the new breeze – the next move, the next gain – and it was the right choice to sail towards it, rather than to try to hold onto the wind from the previous headland, Cabo de Gata. Round one to Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Akzo Nobel.
The next move from the eventual winners was to play a convergence line of wind in the middle of the Mediterranean. The convergence line was nicely explained in this video by Race Meteorologist Gonzalo Infante:
But for those of you without the time to click through and watch… The convergence was a line of stronger wind created when the north-easterly flow coming off the Spanish coast hit the easterly flow blowing down the east to west axis of the Mediterranean. Along the line where these breezes collided the wind was stronger, and marked by a line of cumulus (puffy white) cloud, created by the air rising (when two flows of wind are pushed together at the surface, the ‘extra’ air has to go somewhere, usually up).
The overall effect was a nice line of stronger breeze that Vestas 11th Hour Racing played to extend their lead. They weren’t the first ones onto this. Turn the Tide on Plastic (Light Blue) were in last place by a couple of miles when they gybed away from the fleet to stay north – as seen in the image 3 at 07:23UTC on the morning of the 23rd October.
Just under three hours later, at 10:05, as seen in Image 4, they were up into sixth and past Dongfeng Race Team (Red).
In the same time period, Vestas 11th Hour Racing made 1.5 miles on their closest opponent, Team Akzo Nobel, with bigger gains over most of the rest of the pack, after their hitch to the north. In fact, I’d say that Turn the Tide went north a little early, and it was Simon Fisher, the navigator aboard Vestas 11th Racing who called this one with all the aplomb and confidence of a previous race winner.
It was almost four hours later when the boats to the south converged on the leader’s approach line to Gibraltar, as we can see in Image 5, a snapshot from 13:39 on the afternoon of the 23rd.
By now, Vestas 11th Hour Racing had built what would prove to be a race winning lead of seven miles over AkzoNobel, with a 17 mile advantage over the front of the chasing pack. Round two to Vestas 11th Hour Racing.
It was MAPFRE that was coming to the front of the pack at this moment, a position they consolidated through the Straits of Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic. The fleet charged through this section of the leg with some fantastic sailing conditions in the strongly compressed breeze spewing out of the Mediterranean at Gibraltar.
It was also MAPFRE that would present the greatest challenge to Vestas 11th Hour Racing as the fleet negotiated the final major strategic hurdle left on Leg 1 – a big area with very little wind between the Straits of Gibraltar and the turning mark out in the Atlantic at Porto Santo. The problem this presented can be seen in Image 6 from 12:20UTC on the 24th October.
Vestas 11th Hour Racing is leading the fleet south away from the powerful band of wind exiting the Med at Gibraltar, very visible as a red and orange exhaust tail in the top right of the image. Porto Santo is in the bottom left of the image, and between the two is a massive area of high pressure and light winds sliding down into their path from the north-west.
Speed v distance
The high was forecast to continue sliding south, with the new breeze arriving in the form of a cold front. This would also approach the fleet from the north-west, and bring a southerly wind that would make the final miles an upwind slog. So the strategic question was a choice between a northern route that should keep the boat in the Gibraltar exhaust as long as possible, keep it further from the light winds of the high, and get it into the new wind first… or a southern route that was just a lot shorter in miles. Speed v distance, the classic ocean racing conundrum.
11th Hour Racing chose to keep it simple, and shorten the distance, and most of the rest of the fleet agreed. It was MAPFRE (White) who laid the big bet here, taking a position a long way to the north of the rest of the fleet as we can see in Image 7.
This one shows the fleet at 17:43UTC on the 24th October, with Vestas 11th Hour Racing leading everyone south towards the waypoint… except MAPFRE. They can be seen almost 50 miles north of Vestas 11th Hour Racing.
A navigator’s move
MAPFRE’s navigator, Joan Vila is also one of the best in the business, and having been out-smarted a couple of times in the Med, it looked like they were betting the house on red. This was very much a navigator’s move; it made complete sense in terms of the forecast, but called for some serious risk by separating so far from the rest of the fleet – something that skippers and tacticians traditionally don’t like much…
At this point it was working for MAPFRE, they were only six miles behind Vestas 11th Hour Racing, courtesy of the extra time they had spent in the stronger wind from Gibraltar. The question was – could they close that leverage and maintain the gain? Leverage is the distance you are from the opposition, measured perpendicular to the course to wherever you want to go next – and no gain is in the bank until the leverage is back to zero.
Everything depended on the exact movement and speed of the high pressure and the cold front arriving with the new breeze – and the answer depended on the forecast… This is why the skippers find these big moves so hard; however good you are, no forecast is completely reliable.
A clean pass?
In Image 8 we can see the moment when it looked like MAPFRE might just make a clean pass. At 21:18UTC on the 24th they had the southerly wind first, albeit very weakly, and were just 0.2nm behind Vestas 11th Hour Racing.
These were anxious times aboard the leading boat and it stayed that way overnight. However, by the following morning the southerly had filled in across the fleet, and with everyone moving, Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s position to the south now meant that they were upwind of everyone else, with a better, faster angle to Porto Santo.
In Image 9 we can see this situation playing out at 08:02UTC on the morning of the 25th October.
The two leaders both have a south-westerly, with a bit more breeze to the north for MAPFRE, but they are downwind of the leader and it’s now hard to see how they can make a pass from there.
In image 10 from 12:13UTC on the 25th we can see that the centre of the high pressure has now slid out to the east of the fleet, and they are reaching fast and hard in the southerly on its western side. Vestas 11th Hour Racing now has the whole fleet tucked away behind and/or to leeward and looks in complete control of the leg and the race.
There was plenty more action after that but not much in the way of passing lanes. The wind shifted to the south-east to make it a drag race to Porto Santo. Vestas 11th Hour rounded with a 13 mile lead over MAPFRE. It was followed by a fast run downwind to the Porto Santo North Waypoint, in which the leader extended to just over a 20 mile advantage.
The Danish boat extended again on the final leg to Lisbon with another fast reach, which slowly turned into a final upwind section to Lisbon as the wind backed from the south to the east. There was little in the way of strategic options though, as everyone sailed deep into the coming wind shift before tacking on a layline for Lisbon – solid, text book stuff that dinghy racers would be familiar with.
It was only the position of the finish tucked up the river and protected from the easterly that gave the final miles any tension, and even then, the gap from Vestas 11th Hour Racing back to MAPFRE never dipped under ten miles. Further back in the fleet the gaps were smaller, but still substantial enough for there to be no late passes, and the final overtaking move was Dongfeng Race Team grabbing the third spot on the podium from Team AkzoNobel with a couple of hundred miles to go.
It’s first blood to Vestas 11th Hour Racing, and long-term race watchers will know that there is a long-standing tradition of the winner of Leg 1 winning the race overall. But that was back in the days when Leg 1 went all the way to Cape Town, and tested a team’s ability in everything from the Doldrums to the Southern Ocean. This time, it will be Leg 2 that will provide a more extensive test of the title ambitions of the fleet.
Here the crew line-ups for the Leg 1 sprint from Alicante to Lisbon (1,450nm).
Here are some of the best images of the Leg 1.
Here's a look back at an epic start to the Volvo Ocean Race in which Vestas 11th Hour Racing took first blood: