Leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race was one of snakes and ladders and it all came down to a nail-biting finish in the dead of night in Auckland, New Zealand. Despite the ungodly hour the City of Sails, as Auckland bills itself, was out in force to greet the sailors and to cheer on leg winner AkzoNobel. It’s the first leg win for the Dutch team and well deserved. They fought off not only Team Sun Hung Kai Scallywag who finished a scant two minutes behind them, but the rest of the chasing pack that was closing fast.
A ridge of high pressure off the northeast coast of New Zealand stalled the progress of the leaders, but the lead that the two front boats had established was enough of a buffer to fend off third place MAPFRE who finished 22 minutes astern of AkzoNobel. The tension on Waitematā Harbour must have been palpable, but AkzoNobel were the deserved winners and may I say, since I have been criticized for not saying this before, that Team Sun Hung Kai Scallywag sailed a brilliant race to finish second. “It’s been a 6,500-mile match race,” said Simeon Tienpont, the skipper of AkzoNobel. “I’ve never sailed a race like this in my life. We’ve always been in each other’s sights. They were always there. It’s been neck and neck. Huge respect to Scallywag, they never stopped fighting and we never stopped defending. I’m so proud of our crew. They never flinched.”
It was a bold move early on in the leg that gave AkzoNobel and Scallywag a break. They spotted some weather that the others hadn’t seen, or perhaps deemed too risky to go after, and the gamble gave them the shot in the arm they needed to jump into the lead. At times the Hong Kong team on Scallywag were in front and at other times it was AkzoNobel in a cat and mouse game that must have caused more than few grey hairs on both boats. They were able to hold onto the lead through the doldrums and even into an unusual patch of calm weather in the South Pacific caused by Cyclone Gita which literally sucked the wind out of a thousand mile area.
After days of tedious sailing there was a sudden charge by Dee Caffari and her crew on Turn the Tide on Plastic and the other Dutch entry, Team Brunel who jetted to the front of the pack sailing just a couple of miles apart, but in the dark of night Caffari and company found their own private wind lane and took off to establish a 20 mile lead. It wouldn’t last, however, as the new breeze finally filled and gave AkzoNobel and Scally a boost that pushed them back into the lead.
The last 24 hours of the race must have been the most nail-biting. The east coast of New Zealand has stunning scenery but it’s also a minefield of potholes where any one of the boats could have parked up, but they didn’t. The most surprising performance was that turned in by the Spanish team MAPFRE. They had been languishing at the back of the pack for much of the leg. Two days ago they were well over a 100 miles behind, but skipper Xabi Fernández is nothing if not persistent and add to that he is a brilliant strategist and when the counting was done MAPFRE took the last spot on the podium.
Auckland is an absolutely awesome place for a stopover. The public is sailing crazy and revere the Volvo Ocean Race sailors as their sporting hero’s. On my first Whitbread back in ’82 I took some time off to get as far away from the water as possible. I rented a room in a farm house in the middle of the North Island thinking that the farmer and his wife would never have heard of the Whitbread. I could not have been more wrong. When I arrived I saw that the farmer had a huge chart on his wall and that he had been plotting the daily positions of all the boats, such was their fanatic love of sailing. The Volvo Ocean Race sailors are going to bask in sailing heaven for a couple of weeks to recharge their souls before the next ball breaking leg around Cape Horn to Itajaí in Brazil.