Review 2014-15

Leg 2
Cape Town - Abu Dhabi

5,185 nautical miles


Leg start: November 19, 2014, 16:00 UTC / 18:00 local


Race meteorologist Gonzalo Infante:

Sailing from South Africa to the Emirates will take the fleet from the southern hemisphere to the northern one, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian one.

In December, strong southeasterly winds usually blow between the St Helena High and the South African low pressure system. This means that the fleet is likely to encounter tough headwinds in the first 24 hours after the start. Navigators will have to make an early decision whether to head south in the westerly winds or stay close to the African coast. This is not an easy choice as the weather in this area is very changeable and an apparently valid option can quickly turn sour in just a few hours. 

The most likely option for the fleet will be to initially head south to try picking up any opportunity to quickly head east. Typically this opportunity will come in the form of a cold front or low-pressure system close to the southern tip of Africa. The downside of choosing this option is the Agulhas Current, a large-scale ocean system of water moving at up to five knots. In strong westerly winds the opposing flow of this current can produce massive and potentially boat breaking seas.

An alternative scenario is that the high-pressure cells of the Indian and Atlantic oceans merge to create light wind conditions south of the Cape of Good Hope. In this situation, the wind will blow close to the African coast. However choosing this option means more upwind sailing. 

The fleet’s first major obstacle on the way north is the Indian Ocean huge windless weather system. The more common route is to cross the high on its western side and take advantage of fresh northeasterly winds just south of Madagascar. Once past this system the fleet should get some fast southeasterly trade wind sailing. The boats approaching from the east will enjoy optimum wind angles.

The risk factor in this area is the tropical cyclone season. These large storm systems take shape close to the doldrums and spin increasingly viciously as they head south causing chaos. A knock on effect is that when one of these systems is in place the trade wind circulation is killed, making it tricky to find wind without risking damage from the storm.

Here the final obstacle is the Doldrums of the Indian Ocean. These Doldrums differ from the Atlantic ones. They are created by the convergence between southeasterly trade winds and northwest monsoons coming together from opposite directions forming a wider band of large cumulus clouds, rain and fickle breezes, always south of the Equator. They tend to be narrower further west, though it’s not as obvious as in Leg 1.

After the Doldrums it’s a long beat up to the Gulf in northeasterly monsoon winds. Then the monsoon starts loosing strength and it’s a transition area in light and shifty winds. The predominant local wind blows form the northwest and is called Shamal. After Ormuz, it’s usually a long beat reaching to Abu Dhabi.


A step into the unknown...

That’s how this 5,220 nautical mile leg from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi was described before the boats set off from the South African city.

Well – it was. Never before has this complete route been sailed in the Volvo Ocean Race, and that meant it was anybody’s to play for.

And so it turned out. Every boat except Team Vestas Wind led the fleet at some point, but it was one team which set the standard both leaving Cape Town, and arriving into Abu Dhabi.

Leaving Cape Town

If the sailors were dreading a repeat of the lack of wind around Table Mountain from Leg 1, they needn’t have worried.

Angry gusts of up to 40 knots battered and bruised the fleet as they left the dock and rounded the In-Port circuit.

Spanish boat MAPFRE, which had two new crewmembers onboard in Rob Greenhalgh and navigator Jean-Luc Nélias, was first out of the blocks, before losing its lead to Team SCA.

But as the seven boats disappeared into the Southern Ocean horizon, it was Team Brunel who stole the show.

Agulhas current and Cape of Good Hope

As the teams navigated their way south, the Dutch boat’s superiority was short-lived, as Team Alvimedica snatched the lead.

The Turkish-American team remained at the front of the pack for couple of days as the fleet battled difficult conditions brought on by the Agulhas current. It became increasingly difficult to cook, with pots, pans and plates flying all over the galley – but the sailors were so seasick that they didn’t really want to eat anyway.

“The Indian Ocean spares no-one,” wrote Brunel Onboard Reporter Stefan Coppers. “Every 10 seconds, the boat drills into a tower high wave.”

“Not only is the deck wet – in the hull, it’s like an aquarium.”

But despite the falling quality of life, there was an important decision to be made: when to gybe north?

“It’s certainly nervous times for us right now. The last thing we were planning was leaving ourselves so exposed, all alone,” admitted Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Ian Walker.

His boat was the first to break from the pack – and when the other six teams continued heading east for a couple of hours before gybing themselves, that left the Emiratis isolated.

Meanwhile, a close battle continued in the drag race at the front of the fleet. “There’s a group of four that are really close together,” explained Iker Martínez, on MAPFRE. “Brunel, Dongfeng, ourselves and Alvimedica.”

“We’re less than a mile apart,” added Onboard Reporter Francisco Vignale. “We can even see the expressions on their faces.”

“It’s pretty intense, you can feel their breath and how desperately they’re trying to pass you.”

Then, the tack north towards the island of Madagascar. A huge moment. “Whoever arrives at the new breeze first will be able to tack sooner,” explained Race Meteorologist Gonzalo Infante.

It was a tense moment, as the teams desperately searched for the wind to propel them north. “We must be ready to manoeuvre at any time!” shouted Dongfeng Race Team skipper Charles Caudrelier down into the galley.

No sleep. No rest. Pure focus. “I was awoken five times last night,” yawned leading team Brunel’s Gerd-Jan Poortman. “On deck, changing sails, not good again, changing it back.”

Upwind, uncomfortable conditions – and as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing closed the gap to just 30nm, they tacked first, grabbing the lead.


Who sailed on Leg 2? Download crew lists


Tropical depression

As the fleet headed east of Madagascar to round the islands of La Réunion and Mauritius, they were presented with an unexpected hurdle to climb.

“You can see that the storm is going towards the track we’re on. It looks like it’s intensifying,” said Bouwe Bekking, on Brunel.

“But the biggest issue will be the sea state. In 30kts of breeze, you probably get six or seven metre waves…you can imagine what will happen if you sail straight into it – something will bust.”

“It will be a balance between sailing fast, and keeping the boat in one piece.”

There were different strategies to choose from. The brave decision: to try and use the system to your advantage, a slingshot north.

Or the conservative decision: try to sail around the storm by extending further east. The only problem? This could add days, or even weeks, to the leg.

To complicate matters further, Dongfeng Race Team had a broken mast track to deal with.

“Kevin Escoffier went up the mast and put in place two webbing strops, tensioned with ratchets to stop it peeling off further,” wrote Onboard Reporter Yann Riou. “That works – it can’t move.”

“The only problem is that with two strops across the track, it’s impossible to take the mainsail down, or importantly, take a reef.”

For Team SCA, the oncoming conditions were an opportunity to gain on the fleet. The magenta boat was at the back of the fleet going into the tropical depression.

“The winds go clockwise in the southern hemisphere,” explained Libby Greenhalgh. “So we want to try and hit the western edge of the low centre, then we’ll gybe out, hopefully getting the shortest distance to travel.”

On Alvimedica, navigator Will Oxley agreed with those sentiments.

“We’ll be careful, but we’ll also take an opportunity if it presents itself - it’s risk/reward,” he said.

“It’s potentially going to cause a big split in the fleet.”

Conditions were getting warmer by this point – up to 25°C – and, passing the Tropic of Capricorn on the approach to La Réunion, the teams were sporting t-shirts and shorts.

And as the predicted storm hit, the predicted split came too. At the beginning of 28 November, Team SCA were 49nm behind leaders MAPFRE – but by the end of it, that gap had stretched to 200nm.

In fact, the fleet was divided in two – and would stay that way for the rest of the leg. The front four, MAPFRE, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Brunel and Dongfeng, spread over 25nm, pulled away - and then the gap to the next boat, Team Vestas Wind, was over 80nm.

But that was to be the least of their worries. As the sun rose on the morning of November 29, they could never have imagined what might happen next…

Team Vestas Wind

As the call came through to Race Control, it was meant with shock, fear and disappointment. Team Vestas Wind had hit a reef.

“The first priority for us now is the safety of the crew – that is the absolute number one priority,” said Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad, speaking immediately after hearing the news.

Luckily – and miraculously - they were all safe. Their boat, grounded on the Cargados Carajos shoals some 200nm north east of Mauritius, was not.

Team Alvimedica diverted towards the scene of the incident and stood by, navigator Will Oxley staying in constant communication with the crew of the stricken boat (watch video).

“The race became completely irrelevant for that 12 hours,” admitted Will. “We went around into the lagoon area, dropped our sails and very nervously motored in using the sounder to get as close as we could.”

As daylight broke through the thick, dark clouds, the sailors made the transition from the blue boat, to life raft.

“When you talk about the tough decisions you have to make in life, I have to say that was number one for me,” explained Vestas skipper Chris Nicholson, on his team’s evacuation.

“We practiced it throughout the night, always with the intention of never needing to do it, and had to make the call one and a half or two hours before daylight when we got off.”

It was at that point that Alvimedica were thanked, and told to continue on their trip.

“They were sorted, they had a plan, there was nothing we could do to help them anymore,” added Will.

They sheltered on the remote Ile du Sud, before catching a lift back to Mauritius. As for the boat, the salvage mission continues.

As Team Alvimedica rejoined the fleet, they were nearly 200nm behind leaders Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. But, with a little help from the wind Gods, they soon made some serious gains.


Whilst the inevitable focus was on the safety and well-being of Team Vestas Wind, Spanish boat MAPFRE, still in the lead on the eve of 30 November, were planning an audacious move – sailing out east, alone, in order to catch trade winds.

Navigator Jean-Luc Nélias, who won this race onboard Groupama last time out, explained the thinking behind the decision.

“Why are we going east? Well, because at some point we have to,” he smiled. “It’s just a question of timing. We’re heading east to try and catch the new trade winds which are starting to rebuild.”

“I think the best place to cross the two Doldrums in the Indian Ocean is to try and be in the east close to Diego Garcia – that’s why we decided to make a separation from the fleet.”

But it was a ballsy manoeuvre, and one that wouldn’t pay off for a few days, if at all. It meant that Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing grabbed the lead, opening up a 6nm advantage on Dongfeng and Brunel in the runner-up spots.

Meanwhile, there was further compression in the fleet, with the chasing pack sailing faster than the front. Team SCA and Alvimedica went way out west, and MAPFRE continued to pull east, opening up a 400-odd nm spread.

But two sets of Doldrums, with their frustratingly light air and boiling hot conditions, meant that, by December 6, the compression of the fleet was all but over.

And there was a change of leader too, as Dongfeng and Brunel overtook the Emirati boat to snatch first and second position.

“The payout we’re counting on is that we’ll cross the light air quickly in the west and take advantage of the building breeze on the west hand side of the course all the way north,” wrote Abu Dhabi Onboard Reporter Matt Knighton, in extreme and tropical wet, then dry, then wet conditions.

“The risk we take is that Dongfeng and Brunel could have a better angle in the east – especially if they’re able to cross the Doldrums ahead of us. It’ll either be first or third place for us coming into the final stretch after this.”

Short-term, and ultimately long-term, the latter turned out to be true.

The resulting drag race north, toward Cape Ras al Hadd and the Gulf, saw the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

Life was tough for the three boats at the back – MAPFRE, Team Alvimedica and Team SCA – as the distance between them and the leaders grew with every report.

It was also frustrating for third placed Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, who stuggled to gain on the front two as the home straight approached.

Strait of Hormuz

As the fleet drew closer to Ras al Hadd, the battles continued, from front to back. In first and second place, Brunel and Dongfeng were maintaining the intensity, but despite pressure from the Chinese boat, the Dutch team was unmoved from pole position.

Further back, there was another scrap taking place between Team Alvimedica in fourth, and MAPFRE, just 11nm behind, in fifth.

“Frankly, it’s what’s keeping us going,” wrote Amory Ross, reporter on Alvimedica. “We feel like we’re back in the race – we have something to lose again.”

As the front boats drew nearer to Muscat, the capital of Oman, the thermal breeze caused by the Al Hajar Mountains played havoc with the weather patterns in the area, and caused compression once again.

“We’re going to have less wind, and we’re going to hit it first,” said Gerd-Jan Poortman, on the leading boat Brunel.

“Basically, when we arrive in the channel, the others will get closer because they’ll keep the wind longer and we’ll go slower.”

He wasn’t lying. By the next sched, third placed Abu Dhabi had closed the gap from 17nm, to 8nm. The final push was on – and Ian Walker had a secret weapon.

“It was as if Adil had called up the local wind machine,” wrote Matt Knighton, as their hometown hero sailor found them more breeze.

“He predicted that at 0900 we would get the sea breeze – sure enough, we could’ve set our watches by it.”

He continued. “It was 9kts. You always assume it’s just a quick gust that will soon die out. This one held for the next 11 hours.”

Meanwhile, in front, Brunel and Dongfeng were just 1.4nm apart – and fighting for every inch.

And as they rounded the Musandam peninsula, they continued to exchange blows. On the evening of December 12, the French boat even overtook their rivals – but their lead was lost the next morning.

And that’s how they finished. Team Brunel in first place, skipper Bouwe winning the Christmas leg once again having done so onboard Téléfonica Blue back in 2008-9.

Dongfeng Race Team in second, and home team Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in third.

Behind, MAPFRE came in fourth, followed by Team Alvimedica, and Team SCA bringing up the rear.

“I’ve always said, it’s better to be lucky than good,” smiled Bouwe. “But we’ve been good this leg as well, so it’s nice to win because it could have been easy to finish last.”




Best images of Leg 2 - Cape Town to Abu Dhabi

 The Inside Track Leg 2


Best videos of Leg 2

 Watch more videos from Leg 2 on our YT channel

Download our fantastic infographics




In order of finish: Finish date Finish time Elapsed time Points
 Team Brunel 13/12/14  08:25:20 UTC   23d 16h 25m 20s 1
 Dongfeng Race Team 13/12/14  08:41:40 UTC  23d 16h 41m 40s 2
 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 13/12/14   11:08:15 UTC 23d 19h 8m 15s 3
 MAPFRE 14/12/14 03:18:18 UTC  24d 11h 18m 18s 4
 Team Alvimedica 14/12/14 13:29:23 UTC  24d 21h 29m 23s 4¹
 Team SCA  14/12/14 22:23:34 UTC 25d 06h 23m 34s 6
 Team Vestas Wind Did not finish  - 8

 ¹Given redress - click here for more info.


In order of finish: Sailed
distance (nm)
Max 24hr
distance (nm)
Max 1hr avg 
speed (Knots)
 Team Brunel  6417,5  517,179  23,732
 Dongfeng Race Team  6391,7  516,12  24,016
 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 6417,6 509,9  23,9
 MAPFRE 6615,3  517,4  24,1
  Team Alvimedica  6567,6  516,6  23,9
  Team SCA    502,5  24,4
  Team Vestas Wind Did not finish 
No results found :(
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No results found :(