Team Brunel closed out a fine victory to take the maximum 16 points for Leg 7 – a fantastic result for Bouwe Bekking’s team of tyros and rookies that lifts them to third overall. It was particularly remarkable for the way they handled the capricious weather that allowed Dongfeng Race Team to overturn their lead; an advantage that in the Southern Ocean had extended to more than 80nm.
Team Brunel managed to hold their nerve after days of tough losses. They positioned a critical gybe perfectly to rebuild a slender advantage over Dongfeng Race Team, and then controlled the race sufficiently from there, despite finishing under immense pressure from another collapsing lead.
While the tragic loss of John Fisher from Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag will always cast a shadow over this leg, it should also be remembered for this fine performance by Team Brunel. They dealt with everything; from the persistent storms of the deep Southern Ocean – reminiscent of an earlier era before ice gates and exclusion zones – through wild wind shifts, to the trickle of patience-trying light airs on the South American coast.
In the previous Strategic Review I described how Team Brunel’s lead was cut at Cape Horn by the arrival of a frontal system. The front provided the chasing pack with a more beneficial wind direction, allowing them to close the gap before the wind shift reached the Dutch team.
It was only the start. The passage of another front was then predicted to bring a sharp wind shift to the west. It would allow the boats behind Team Brunel to turn north inside them, short-cutting the corner. It looked likely to blow the race wide open and it did just that... let’s see how it played out for real.
If we check out Image 1 from the 30th March at 13:00UTC (the moment we left the fleet in the previous Strategic Review) we can see Team Brunel (yellow) leading away from Cape Horn, chased by Dongfeng Race Team (red), Vestas 11th Hour Racing (orange), Team AkzoNobel (purple), Turn the Tide on Plastic (light blue) and finally MAPFRE (white), who had stopped at Cape Horn for repairs to mainsail and mast track – putting them out of contention.
©Geovoile - Image 1 (Click for larger image)
The storm that had chased them all to the Horn was visible as the purple morass crashing into the great Cape. The fleet still had the northerly wind ahead of the front at this point, but the westerly change was clearly visible to the west of them.
If we go forward another couple of hours to Image 2 from 15:30UTC on the 30th we can see the set-up in more detail, right before the change hits Team AkzoNobel and Turn the Tide on Plastic. It was just half an hour later when disaster hit the crew on Vestas 11th Hour Racing as their rig dropped over the side. They were forced to cut the mast away and then had to motor to the Falklands to try and sort out the fastest way to get the boat to Itajai to re-join the race for Leg 8.
©Geovoile - Image 2 (Click for larger image)
Down to five boats, the remainder of the fleet were overtaken by the front and the westerly change. If we take a look at Image 3 from 01:00UTC on the 31st March, we can see the impact clearly. Immediately behind the front the wind was south-west, allowing the boats to turn north and sail almost directly for the finish. It was replaced by the westerly soon after, which still allowed for high-speed sailing but not at quite such a good course to the line.
©Geovoile - Image 3 (Click for larger image)
It was Dongfeng Race Team that really benefitted from this transition. They used the south-westerly very effectively to turn inside Team Brunel and as we can see in this image, managed to get further north than the long-term leader. They had jumped across the final 35nm gap to Team Brunel, and briefly held a five mile lead. The two boats behind closed on the leading pair but not enough to get them back into contention.
Six hours later, in Image 4 from 06:00UTC on the 31st March we can see that Team Brunel have grabbed back the advantage. They have sailed higher, closer to a northerly course in the 250 wind direction – perhaps thanks to a better sail choice. It has closed the east-west gap (the leverage, measured perpendicular to the course to the finish) and also got their noses a little further north to give them back the lead.
©Geovoile - Image 4 (Click for larger image)
There followed a few hours of relatively steady sailing, I say relatively, because the wind was still slowly shifting, going from the westerly to a south-westerly. If we now look at Image 5 from 01:00UTC on the 1st April we can see the reason why – the next hurdle was a high pressure system building on the coast of Argentina and heading east. It would drop a barrier of light winds across the course and the race was on to get past it before the gate slammed shut.
©Geovoile - Image 5 (Click for larger image)
All five boats were now sailing east of the centre, and so their wind was slowly shifting from the westerly blowing across the bottom of the high – we’re still in the Southern Hemisphere, so the wind blows anti-clockwise around a high pressure – to the southerly wind blowing up the eastern side of the high.
If they made it across in front of the high, then the wind would continue its anti-clockwise rotation to the south-east and then easterly. And so at some point they would need to gybe. The timing of this gybe was crucial. If they gybed too early they would end up too close to the centre of the high and risk getting stuck in light winds. If they gybed too late they would sail extra miles and lose to any boat that got it right.
A big gybe
If we now check out Image 6 from 14:00UTC on the 1st April we can see that the three leaders have all made the gybe to starboard. Dongfeng Race Team were the first to go; no surprise as they were the most westerly boat and closest to the light winds in the centre of the high. Team Brunel then managed to place their boat almost dead in front of Dongfeng Race Team as the latter came at them out of the west.
©Geovoile - Image 6 (Click for larger image)
The skipper of Team Brunel, Bouwe Bekking described the moment, “Capey (Andrew Cape, navigator) was like a hawk last night, drinking one coffee after another. You gybe too early, you lose to Dongfeng. You gybe too late, you lose as well... But I think we nailed it perfectly, and when we gybed we could see far on the horizon behind us a small masthead light. The ‘enemy’ was behind us, a big relief.”
It was a critical moment, placing Team Brunel squarely in front of their pursuit. And it happened just as the wind was finally about to shift to a direction – easterly – that would allow them to sail straight at the finish and turn it back into a drag race.
If we go forward to Image 7 from 21:30UTC on the same day, 1st April we can see that Team Brunel has consolidated their position right in front of Dongfeng with both boats aimed at the finish in plenty of breeze. Strategically this was pretty much the strategic element of the game over for the next 500 miles or so. It had also reduced it to a two-boat race for the top spot on the podium. No April’s Fool joke on these boys and girls.
©Geovoile - Image 7 (Click for larger image)
Team AkzoNobel were the closest to getting through before the gate slammed shut in their face, but they fell just short and got trapped by the high – albeit briefly. I’m not entirely sure to what extent that was inevitable. They appeared to change their minds a few times about whether the priority was getting north or east. It’s possible that if they had stuck to a single strategy they might have made it, or it could be that the apparent indecision was more a matter of sail selection and wind angle... only they really know the answer.
It may also be that it’s not worth worrying about as I doubt very much it would have made a difference to the outcome – there were no more paths back into contention for the top two places on the podium.
And sadly for Turn the Tide on Plastic and MAPFRE the same high pressure settled their positions in fourth and fifth (barring accident, breakdown or a full-blown miracle). They were never going to make it across the high and the rest of the leg has consequently been slow and painful.
At least MAPFRE had a rooting interest in what followed, they badly needed Team Brunel to take the win from Dongfeng Race Team to minimize the damage on the overall leaderboard.
If we go forward another 24 hours to Image 8 from 21:00UTC on the 2nd April we can see the lead pair riding home on a low pressure system spinning up off the Brazilian coast just short of Itajai. Team Brunel led the gybe and ran down the band of wind along the coast. While they led on that first gybe, from then on they simply covered Dongfeng Race Team’s every move.
©Geovoile - Image 8 (Click for larger image)
Or at least they tried to – I imagine it got pretty tense onboard Team Brunel when they got close to line and... well, check out Image 9 from 13:10UTC on the 3rd April. The low pressure has moved away and left Team Brunel in a westerly breeze, while Dongfeng found a northerly (check the table of data rather than the flow lines on the chart) and closed to within a mile with just six miles to go. They were threatening a ‘Buffalo Gals’ move right around the outside... It makes me feel anxious for them just looking at that picture.
©Geovoile - Image 9 (Click for larger image)
Once again Bekking and co. stayed calm, they tacked across just in time to maintain their lead. And there was enough wind to get the Dutch team over the line with an eventual advantage of just 15 minutes after 16 days of racing.
Adding it all up
At the time of writing Team AkzoNobel look a dead cert for the final podium spot with about 75 miles to run. Turn the Tide on Plastic and MAPFRE are still struggling with the light winds and are just short of 400 and 600 miles behind respectively. It doesn’t look like much is going to change from here, except on the overall leaderboard when the points for Leg 7 are added.
If MAPFRE finish in fifth place as expected they will add six points to the 39 they already have; and so they will come up just one point short of Dongfeng Race Team’s current total (after Leg 7 has been added) of 46 points – with four legs to go, there will be just a single point in it for the overall title.
It’s only slightly less tight for the final podium spot; with Team Brunel almost doubling their points total after their sweep on Leg 7 they are on 36 points, with Team AkzoNobel (assuming they finish in third) just three points behind in fourth place.
The others are going to struggle to close the gap to the podium in the remaining legs, unless one of the boats ahead has a major problem. Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag will remain in fifth for now with 26 points, although their future appears uncertain.
Vestas 11th Hour Racing have plenty to do to improve on their sixth overall with 23 points, as they are in the Falkland Islands with no mast. And that leaves Turn the Tide on Plastic propping up the table with 20 points after an (assumed) fourth place finish in this leg.
There are plenty of crews with lots to do and lots to play for, and dozens of ways this could run out over the remaining four legs. It’s going to be as gripping and addictive as ever, and I’ll be back after the restart on the 22nd April to see how the strategies are shaping up on the long trek north to Newport, RI.