MAPFRE extended their lead over rivals Dongfeng Race Team on Thursday as Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race entered its closing stages.
While the finish line isn't quite in sight, the most physical element of the battle is in the rear-view mirror for the leaders.
Determined to notch up another victory after winning Leg 2 from Lisbon to Cape Town, MAPFRE skipper Xabi Fernández has been pushing his crew to the absolute limit as they close in on Melbourne.
In an effort to stay in front of Dongfeng after snatching the Leg 3 lead from them on Wednesday, MAPFRE gybed 16 times in less than 12 hours overnight as they skirted the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone (AIEZ).
It was twice as many as Dongfeng opted for, with each gybe requiring an incredible physical effort from each crewmember, not to mention the slowing of the boat through the gybing process.
Yet the hard work paid off – and at 1300 UTC MAPFRE had more than doubled their lead of yesterday to 30 nautical miles, with less than 1,300 miles of the leg remaining.
The AIEZ, implemented by race control to keep the fleet away from the danger of icebergs, has started to drop away to the south for the leading duo, allowing them to dive into better breeze.
Once they feel they have the right angle on the westerly winds, both will point their bows towards Melbourne and begin their final dash to the finish line.
“The last day has been quite crazy here on MAPFRE,” Fernández said. “We've done so many manoeuvres. We have to go south now to get to the low pressure, and that's why we've had to do so many gybes. It's pretty hard but it's paid off. Now we are free to sail south all day and night, and tomorrow morning we will gybe and start heading north towards Melbourne.”
Team Brunel remained within 35 miles of third-placed Vestas 11th Hour Racing at the most recent position report, keeping alive skipper Bouwe Bekking's hopes of a first podium finish in this edition.
On sixth-placed Turn the Tide on Plastic, 400 miles behind MAPFRE, skipper Dee Caffari said a dark mood had lifted thanks to an improvement in the weather forecasts that could see them avoid getting swallowed up by a large high pressure system and therefore get to Melbourne quicker than first thought.
“It is not looking as bleak as it was before and this is giving us hope,” Caffari said. “We had three position reports in a row that were really bad and morale took a beating. I am a glass half full person and even I struggled with this one. However, finally we have had some wind that the others around us have not had and are making progress in the right direction for a change and it feels great.”
Meanwhile pods of Antarctic minke whales provided both Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag in fifth and seventh-placed team AkzoNobel with some light relief as they charged past at speeds much faster than the Volvo Ocean 65s.
“It's not every day you get to sail through the Southern Ocean with eight of your mates and an OBR and see that sort of thing,” Scallywag's Tom Clout said. “It was a pretty cool little moment – one we're going to remember for the rest of our lives.”
The current ETAs see MAPFRE and Dongfeng arriving on December 24 (UTC); Vestas, Brunel, Scallywag and Turn the Tide on Christmas Day; and AkzoNobel on December 27.
Leg 3 – Position Report – Thursday 21 December (Day 12) – 13:00 UTC
1. MAPFRE -- distance to finish – 1,285.2 nautical miles
2. Donfeng Race Team +30.2 nautical miles
3. Vestas 11th Hour Racing +122.8
4. Team Brunel +158.7
5. Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag +335.8
6. Turn the Tide on Plastic +401.1
7. team AkzoNobel +575.8