This Volvo Ocean Race is turning out to be one of the best and most badass in history and much of the basassness was captured in Leg 9, the transatlantic blast from Newport, Rhode Island to Cardiff in Wales. The leg started off fairly benign but it soon turned into a battle of wits as the fleet diverged with Brunel, Vestas and AkzoNobel diving south in search of a chicane that they could ride. Turned out that they indeed found a slice of perfect sailing conditions and four days after the start it was those three boats that were in the lead. They converged with the rest of the fleet riding a strong southerly wind off their starboard beam. Perfect, albeit wet conditions for a Volvo 65.
The steady breeze and perfect wind angle had the pundits speculating whether or not the race 24-hour record could be broken. The distance to beat was 550.8 nautical miles set by Ian Walker and his crew aboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing on their approach to Cape Horn in 2014. Team Brunel was the first to attack the record sailing 540.1 nautical miles but they knew that better conditions were approaching. “There’s a big low forming to the west of us which is giving us some nice downwind conditions,” said Kiwi sailor Peter Burling. “There’s a good chance of the 24-hour speed run over the next couple of days.” He was more than a little right. Bouwe Bekking and his team turned on the afterburners and blew past the previous record with a run of 563.06 only to be bested by Simoen Tienpoint and his crew on AkzoNobel who logged up an amazing 566.02 miles. Not to be outdone Brunel replied with their own run of 576.34 and that reply was again answered by AkzoNobel who logged a new record of 579.12. Serious badass sailing by the two Dutch teams, but the game was far from over. AkzoNobel upped the ante once again covering 588.10 nautical miles, nearly 40 miles better than the old record. “The last 24 hours have been pretty wild,” understated AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpont. “We are still ripping along and because we don’t know what the others are doing we just keep going as fast as possible.”
Then history was made. Team AkzoNobel logged an amazing 598.0 nautical miles which surpassed the Volvo Ocean Race record of 596.6 miles set by the Volvo 70 Ericsson 4 in the 2008 race. Smaller boat, bigger miles but they were still not done with things. Team AkzoNobel surged into the lead with a new race record of 601.63 nautical miles, the first Volvo boat to break the 600 miles-in-24-hours barrier. And there was also something very special about their performance. The skipper of the Volvo 70 Ericsson 4 was the Brazilian sailing legend Torben Grael while on board AkzoNobel was none other than Grael’s daughter Martine, herself an Olympic gold medallist. Also, AkzoNobel’s navigator was Jules Salter who was the navigator aboard Ericsson 4 when they set the record. In case you are wondering in order to sail over 600 miles in 24 hours you need to average (AVERAGE) 25.08 knots. That’s incredible and when it was all said and done five out of the seven boats broke the previous VOR 65 record.
The sailors got a bit of a reprieve from the furious pace as a trough of light winds stretched in front of the fleet. There was no way to avoid it and the leaders could only watch in dismay as the back trackers closed the gap while they slowed in the dying breeze, but it was a case of first in, first out and AkzoNobel and Team Brunel were first into the new wind and stretched out their lead. They were being chased by Team Vestas and Dongfeng who were also locked in a fierce battle with much at stake. If Dongfeng was to remain atop the overall leaderboard they were going to have to finish on the podium.
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If the record-setting wasn’t enough excitement the approach to Cardiff provided some very tense moments. Less than a mile separated Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel and the navigated tricky light headwinds and a strong current in the Bristol Channel. By this time Brunel had recaptured the lead and skipper Bouwe Bekking was determined to not have a replay of the finish in Newport where they were overtaken in the last mile and bumped out of first place. In the end they prevailed and in the dark of night Bekking and company took their second leg win. That result has them on the overall podium two points behind Mapfre and three behind Dongfeng. There are two more legs of this edition of the Volvo Ocean Race and it’s all to play for.