VOR Moshpit Madness
To anyone familiar with Newport, Rhode Island regatta get-togethers on Narragansett Bay it can seem like a bit of a crazed affair. Remember the scene in the movie Jaws when hundreds of boats are leaving the harbor at the same time and everyone is yelling and screaming at each other to get out of the way?
It was that way last month when the Volvo Ocean Race paid a visit with 7 of their Day-Glo, 65-foot thoroughbreds sailing into port at all hours of the day and night to hang out for a couple of weeks before departing for their next party in Cardiff, Wales.
In what is always a conjectured rivalry here, on where America’s sailing capital might be, Newport always leaves little doubt as to who is number one when the city is filled with thousands of international visitors wining and dining at the city’s fabulous restaurants and bars.
For those who visit, many park their luxurious super yachts on or off the cobblestoned piers of Bowens and Bannisters Wharfs home of the infamous Black Pearl and Clarke Cooke House.
Primarily Newport’s charm and allure lies in its past as a multitude of the most beautiful mansions ever fathomed from days long gone lining its rocky shoreline of the only true home the America’s Cup has ever known.
The Cup’s illustrious past is inextricably woven into the entire fabric of Newport in the way shops, streets, galleries and a rich, vibrant sailing tradition that continues to this day. And when a yachting event comes to town; watch out!
In 1983, many mourned the loss of the “Auld Mug” to the Aussies when the hearts and the actual Cup itself were torn in half in sorrow and grief when the “Men from the Land Down under” left town with it. Newport’s obituary was written and that was it!
Not true. Not only has Newport thrived but grown into more than America’s yachting capital. It knows how to put on a show. Witness when the VOR was set to leave town on what started as a foggy, drizzly dreary day. Not a boat on the bay in sight. But still, outside of the neon colors of the bowsprits of the racing boats it appeared that even “Little Rhody” had overslept and the ships would sail to sea with nary a Narragansett ripple.
But wait! When the clouds parted and the sun came out internationally renowned photographer Daniel Forster was finally breathing a sigh of relief (he had chartered a helicopter for the day) as hundreds, if not thousands of spectator craft appeared out of nowhere to create as only Rhode Island knows how; a mosh-pit of magnificent magnitudes!
As the VOR boats completed their inner-port tri-angular race course before heading out to sea and back into the fog which hadn’t entirely disappeared, the multitudes swarmed around the competitors leaving them little room to maneuver, let alone race. It did not seem to bother Team Brunel much as they left the rest of the fleet behind on their way out of town.
For me, returning to Newport is always done with a bit of a sigh and trepidation. I miss its turquoise beaches, Christies, the great seafood and last but not least the Cup. The weekend was not the best. A bit of rain and a bit of dreariness but in the end my stay was full of surprises! It is important to always do things a little differently. Even after touching base with your favorite haunts.
For the first time I visited Harold “Mike” Vanderbilt’s “Marble House” which is like a veritable America’s Cup museum. Every room was a lap of luxury. Vanderbilt was the owner/skipper of 3 of the J-Boat defenders of the Cup in the 1930’s and a legendary bridge playing master.
We also hit Evelyn’s Crab Shack in Tiverton. If you like seafood in a casual drive-in environment, the place rocks and for a little bit of mystery and mayhem I couldn’t avoid driving up to Fall River to visit Lizzie Borden’s creepy house. It’s a Bed & Breakfast now. If anyone dares to stay there, let me know!
But for all my temptations, the VOR stopover was a success and the racing was awesome. I spent Saturday on the water chasing the boats around the race course with a cranky old boat driver who thought he knew everything; but knew nothing. Thank goodness that Forster was onboard as our “photo” captain. I stayed on the bow, out of trouble and out of the line of fire!
On Sunday, I knew exactly where I wanted to be; the Inn on Castle Hill. Where else? The rolling estate greets competitors when they arrive, which in this case was a heart-pounding finish between MAPFRE and Team Brunel who lost Leg 8 in the final moments after dominating the last 8,000 miles! Castle Hill also bids them farewell as they sail out past its historic lighthouse on another misadventure at sea.
The Bloody Mary’s and jazz are legendary, as are the rooms which cost just $48 when I first stayed there and now they are about a grand. Castle Hill is always welcoming, and its manicured lawns roll like a carpet down to the footsteps of the water’s edge as the racing thoroughbreds whip on by.
The VOR is now long gone and have undoubtedly arrived in Europe but read on; their stay was full of vigor, rest and a little bit of mischief which led to an enrichment to several of the city’s most charitable causes in the way of wayward fines. No real harm, no foul...
Team Brunel Dominates, For Now
As racing commenced from Brazil, Team Brunel tried in vain to keep its upper hand and the lead as Leg 8 of the VOR wound down, but it’s not over yet as their lead helmsman Kyle Langford was predicting a photo finish. “There’s going to be plenty of action on deck and not a lot of sleep,” he said. “It’s going to be all on for the last 24 hours.”
Across the fleet the crews were preparing for one last big push. “We now have 30 hours of hard work, strong winds, light winds, big transitions and lots of sail changes,” said Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier.
The Spanish team MAPFRE then stunned the VOR fleet by stealing the win in the final seconds with a shocking come-from-behind victory into a foggy Newport, Rhode Island.
One day before the finish, with just 300 miles to go, MAPFRE was in fifth place. As morning dawned and with the fleet ghosting towards the finish line in extremely light and shifty winds, Xabi Fernandez’s team was among the leading quartet, battling in slow motion with Team Brunel, Dongfeng Race Team and Vestas 11th Hour Racing. Even when the leaders were just 500 meters from the finish line, MAPFRE was still trailing Team Brunel as the pair emerged from the fog within sight of the spectators at the Fort Adams Race Village.
But on approach to the final turning mark, MAPFRE picked up a zephyr of wind to sneak past Brunel and claim what, just moments earlier, would have been a very improbable leg win. The margin after nearly 16 days of racing was just 1 minute and 1 second.
“This is unbelievable,” skipper Xabi Fernandez admitted moments after crossing the finish line. “I can’t be happier. We were always hoping to come back a little bit but to be honest we were not expecting to win this leg, so we’re super happy. Our hopes were always that there would be a compression, so we could catch someone... Last night has been crazy how much everything has closed up and everyone on board did an amazing job.”
Bouwe Bekking’s Team Brunel, who had been leading for most of the past week after the equator crossing took a well-deserved second place finish. “A bit disappointed,” said Bekking. “But we sailed a very good leg and we can be happy with our performance and how we were going. It’s going to take time to get on top of everything, but I think the last couple of legs we’ve showed what we stand for.”
The final hours were painful for the exhausted sailors but extraordinary to watch. With the wind nearly shutting down overnight on the approach to Newport, the fleet found itself pushed around by the tide and currents near shore, at times even drifting backwards, away from the finish line.
The shocking win by MAPFRE has a huge impact on the overall race leader board where MAPFRE has regained the lead from Dongfeng and now sits three points clear at the head of the table. Brunel retains the third podium position.
MAPFRE’s dramatic win was the result of a quite extraordinary comeback from almost 50nm behind in the last 36 hours to go. They had been in fifth place for most of the leg and struggling with the power systems that control the keel position for several days.
That is how it all started as the fleet rolled into Rhode Island. First it was rest before departure of Gurney’s Resorts In-Port Race. In front of thousands at Fort Adams and thousands more on the water forming a cantankerous spectator fleet, Team Brunel sailed a perfect race winning the start, edging into a lead and extending away for a convincing victory.
“We knew the start was going to be critical,” said Brunel’s helmsman, Peter Burling, after the race. “We came off the line in good shape and were able to sail clean the rest of the race and that made our life pretty easy. It’s nice to take the win and great to have a bit of momentum. We’ve put together a few really good results in a row now and we’re hoping to come home really strong.”
A second-place finish by MAPFRE allowed the In-Port Race Series leader to extend its advantage further. It was another impressive come from behind performance by skipper Xabi Fernandez and his team, who were in fifth place early in the race, before making several passes on the second leg of the race.
Local skipper Charlie Enright led his Vestas 11th Hour Racing team to a strong third place podium finish, pleasing the home crowd who came out in force despite cool temperatures and overcast, wet conditions.
Team Brunel accomplished its first goal on Sunday afternoon, taking the early lead on in Leg 9 of the VOR from Newport to Cardiff, Wales.
Leg 9 is a 3,300 nautical mile transatlantic race and the third and final double-point scoring leg.
A Bit Of Perspective
“We know we have to beat the red boats,” said Bekking before the start, referring to overall race leader MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team, who hold second place. “We have to beat the 2 ‘red buses’ or there is no overall chance for us to win. It would be nice if we were to finish first and they would end up 6th or 7th, then it would be game on,” continued Bekking. “I think at the start of the race we weren’t that good. The first leg that we were happy as a team was the leg from Hong Kong to Auckland even though we had a horrible result at the end. But, that’s another thing, that’s how sailing goes.”
“When you sail fast, you sail smarter as well, so when you make a mistake you can cover it up with speed,” spoke Bekking. “You have to remember that 4 days before the race was the first time that we sailed together as a team. On the leg to Melbourne I was really concerned if we could handle it as a team. The reality was really hard because we knew that several of the boats were just better than us. When the first storm came through, we were just sailing like puppies. It was like, just keep it safe guys. If we had dropped a rig then, it would have been over for Team Brunel because we just don’t have the financial support that we would have wished. If we would have had an early breakage at that stage, we would have been out of the race. As the legs went on we started trusting each other more. Like if you are off watch, you still have to remember to trust the guys and girls that are on. And you have to try to close your eyes. I think communication is such a huge part of going faster. When you are going slower you have time to talk about it in a way that you can find a solution,” said Bekking. “People like Peter Burling who wasn’t used to (going slow) that started going ‘holy smoke’ and that was really a good thing. I think in that way we just started really building up the team and even though the result wasn’t there in Auckland, we knew we were going faster and we could see it in our numbers.
“If you look at it in the beginning we were lucky if we could hit 96% of the numbers we hit in the last race,” said Bekking. “Now we are hitting a 100% and growing with a couple of smart people. It’s a big change with the new generation, especially with the America’s Cup sailors. They have been approaching it differently than I have been approaching it in the past and I have learned a heck of a lot from these guys as well and I think they have learned a heck of lot as well. No, I haven’t stepped back, but we let Pete and Kyle run the ‘speed team’ as we call it because we are on opposite watches,” said Bekking. “They are numbers guys as well. If you see a comparison between a Cup team and ours, we are just miles behind in that sense. They are always looking for edges, how we can go faster. Even a tiny little thing like a sheet lying in the wrong place, because they are looking for details, because with the Cup it’s with the details that you make the gains.”
I sat down with Cup veterans and former rivals, now teammates Peter Burling from ETNZ and Kyle Langford from OTUSA to talk about their first experiences in open long-distance ocean racing and how they got involved.
“It seemed like a great opportunity at the time. It has been an amazing learning experience! The skills we have learned on other boats have transferred here really well, like other events it’s about boat speed. With 4 hours on and 4 hours off, you get pretty sleep deprived and it took me a while to get used to it.”
“It is something I have always wanted to do. You’re so involved in the America’s Cup campaign that you don’t get a chance to look to the future too much. It was like when I was in Bermuda, and then it was over; what am I going to do next? I was so immersed in what I was doing I always thought that maybe the VOR would be something that I would want to do at a later point. Then Bouwe Bekking called. The endurance part was a massive learning curve for me, especially in the first few months. Now we are at the point where we have seen a lot of tough conditions and a lot of different situations where everyone is pushed onboard and we have somehow managed to get here unscathed. Now it seems like we are at the easy part of the race because we know what to expect. We know the situations and how to sail the boat.”
For you Peter, wasn’t it almost like having to learn to ride a bicycle backwards again? What was the biggest challenge?
“In the early days we hadn’t really figured it out. We had to figure out how to make the boat go fast in a short amount of time.
“A lot of other teams like MAPFRE and Vestas 11th Hour had a lot of buildup time prior to the start of the race. So, they were familiar with a lot of different sailing configurations that we now know. We were kind of just copying what they were doing. The hardest thing for us has been trying to find good boat speed and figure out how to make the boat go as fast as it should be going, and we feel that are we’re finally getting it.”
What has been the biggest challenge in switching from AC foiling catamarans to canting keel monohulls?
“For me, it’s been years since I sailed on a monohull or a boat without a wingsail on it. With Cup boats you are looking at gains of knots at a time and these boats are a lot subtler. Everything happens a lot slower and the speed increments you’re looking for are really tiny. Whereas in the America’s Cup the development game was so steep that you can gain a half a knot or more by tweaking things here and there, where with the VOR boats you can gain maybe a tenth of a knot and everything happens a lot slower and that takes getting used to.”
When you have layovers, what’s the plan? Do you sleep for 2 weeks?
“A lot of it is about recovering and then starting to build some body mass again. Making sure you are fresh for the next leg. Everybody seems to pick up a new way of sailing each leg and we have try to figure out why. We watch a lot of video and talk amongst our team to figure out what we should try and how to go quicker. Stream line the processes onboard. The quicker you go the more rest you can get and the more time you can spend out of the rack (onboard metal bunks). The one thing you notice on these boats is that if you are not pushing as hard as you can with your maneuvers and clock work, that someone else is going to make gains. You have to have in your mindset that whenever you are awake and if anything is happening you have to be at 100%.”
“There is a lot of work to do to get through this next leg and to get to the finish. We have a bit of momentum on our side now and confidence on our side as well. For us to overtake the guys ahead of us is going to be difficult, but I think we have one of the best sailing teams in the race even though it took us a little while to pick it all up and get up to speed. Still, having said that, MAPFRE showed us on the last leg when they were 60 miles behind and they still came through to beat us. It showed us you can’t get complacent and you must keep pushing when you are in the lead, because there are a lot of other good teams right next to you trying to beat you. So, you have to keep the intensity all the way thru!”
On To Europe
On departure day the thick fog still cloaked the Fort Adams race village and start area, until almost game time. In the lead up to the start, the fog would recede and come back before finally burning off just in time. It made for a spectacular afternoon race start with huge crowds along the Fort Adams shoreline as well as on the water and hundreds of spectator boats chasing the fleet around Narragansett Bay.
“It’s been an unbelievable stopover here in Newport with all the support we’ve had,” said American Charlie Enright. “Newport has shown its true colors this week, it’s been astounding.”
The forecast for the leg is complex with several weather systems in play as well as the Gulf Stream to navigate. The ETA for the leg is in the eight- to nine-day range.
“It’s a very tricky leg,” said Dongfeng Race Team skipper Charles Caudrelier. “We have an early decision to make, which could see a split in the fleet. It could be the key decision of the leg and after that we have strong winds. We are going to push and the danger is to push too much.”
“The sad news was we had to be the first to gybe as the shift in wind direction came with the trough of low pressure,” said Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper Dee Caffari. “So now we are sailing on port in lighter winds making progress to the corner of the ice exclusion zone off Newfoundland. A short leg and we do not have much leeway to not be on the pace of the others.”
I spoke with Dee Caffari at the race village about the challenges as the only woman skipper of the group and where it leads from here.
What can be done to integrate the sport of sailing with more women, other than mandating it in the rules?
“It isn’t an easy answer. It actually has to come from the guys. It has to come from the guys who are experiencing it now with mixed crews, endorsing it and being very proactive. Actively inviting and offering the opportunities out to the women. Because at the moment we are risking the girls not getting any rides and therefore not increasing their level of experience and understanding so when we come back to the next edition of this race again they haven’t moved forward with their experience and skill level and they’re still not going to have the girls who can drive and have the confidence to jump on a boat. So I am quite nervous at the moment because yes, on the front of it, it looks very good that all the teams are mixed, but have we really made a difference? Are there going to be more opportunities open and are we going to get to a maintained skill level and are we going to be able to come back in this environment?”
Do you think you are getting there?
“I think this has been an amazing move forward and people will be able to see and address it at the elite level. I don’t think though, that we have really made a difference. I think if you just let it organically grow to the next edition of the race I think the only way you are going to get more women back in the race will be for them to form their own campaign. I don’t think you are going to get any invites from these guys, no matter what they say now while they’re in this race.”
As action commenced on the way to Wales, the two Dutch-skippered teams AkzoNobel and Team Brunel were leapfrogging over each other in a bid to set and hold a new 24-hour distance record. Team Brunel, at the head of the VOR fleet was the first to set a new record.
Skipper Bekking’s team blew past the previous record of 550.8 nautical miles set in the last race by Abu Dhabi Racing. But they didn’t hold the record for long. Simeon Tienpont’s team AkzoNobel soon bettered their rival and the teams traded blows in ideal speed-making conditions in the North Atlantic.
The best run for team AkzoNobel was 566.02 nautical miles, while Team Brunel had posted 563.06 nm.
The top three teams in the Volvo Ocean Race are within three points after Bekking’s Team Brunel won Leg 9 into Cardiff, Wales to vault into contention for the overall race win.
“We’re very happy with the result to beat the two red boats (Dongfeng and MAPFRE), that was the objective,” Bekking said after crossing the finish line. “Winning of course is nice, as well as to get the bonus point and then a nice fight to beat AkzoNobel in the end as well, so we’re a happy team. But the aim is to keep looking forward. We’ve closed the gap to MAPFRE and Dongfeng and victory remains our main objective.”
For Tienpont’s AkzoNobel, Leg 9 will be long remembered for the amazing record-breaking effort the team made in setting a new standard for 24-hour distance run in the VOR. In ideal conditions, the team AkzoNobel crew obliterated the previous race record set in a Volvo Ocean 70 by Ericsson 4 in 2008. The new mark is a 602.51 nautical mile, 24-hour run.
“This was an incredible race,” Tienpont said from on board at the finish line. “I’m unbelievably proud of the crew. We kept pushing all the way to the finish line and we’re happy with second place. If you feel safe, you want to go faster,” said Tienpont. “We have now done two editions with the VOR65 now and it’s more like a ‘rally wagon’ than an America’s Cup boat, where you do 40-minute races and everything is on its engineering limits.”
Just two legs remain in the 45,000 nautical mile race around the planet and as the sprint to the finish comes into focus, Dongfeng now holds a narrow one-point lead over MAPFRE, its Spanish rivals who have led the race for all but two of the nine legs to date.
The hard-charging Team Brunel is also now just three points behind and with a maximum of 16 points available for winning the final two legs, a wide range of scenarios could play out that would see any of the top three teams walk away with the overall title when the race finishes in The Hague at the end of the month.
Caudrelier however has a simple way of looking at his team’s potentially precarious position at the top of the table. “Stop thinking about math and the points,” he says. “Just win.”
And that’s a wrap for July. See you next month in Alameda and send in your questions to email@example.com H