However, the bonus point for the shortest elapsed time around the world will go to Dongfeng should they beat the other two in Leg 11. This has created an effective three-way tie that will be settled by the result of this final leg. It’s all going to come down to one last 700 mile dash from Gothenburg to The Hague.
How did we get so lucky to have a finale like this? Well…
It certainly didn’t look like Leg 10 was going to be a vintage one at the restart in Cardiff. There were very light winds and strong tides to negotiate before the fleet could clear the Bristol Channel and head for Gothenburg (Leg 10 Preview is here). The race committee were smart enough to postpone for a little while until the tide had turned, so at least the fleet had six hours of drifting in the right direction while they waited for the wind to fill.
The breeze picked up in the evening, a northerly flowing around the eastern side of a big high pressure out in the Atlantic. It hustled the fleet out into the Western Approaches, headed for the Fastnet Rock. If we look at Image 1 from 10:00UTC on the 11th June we can see that it was a straight-forward drag race overnight and into the next morning.
©Geovoile - Image 1 (Click for larger image)
Dongfeng Race Team (red), led from Team Brunel (yellow) and MAPFRE (white). Same old, same old… but by this time they were closing with the coast and things were starting to get interesting as the land warmed up.
In Image 2 from 12:30UTC on 11th June we can see that the flowlines for the weather forecast were predicting a wind shadow along the south coast in the northerly wind. This combined with the thermal effect – as the land started to warm – created an onshore sea breeze that by midday was blowing as a light (4-5 knot) south-easterly.
©Geovoile - Image 2 (Click for larger image)
Dongfeng Race Team held their nerve and the lead through this transition as they passed the Fastnet Rock. The other challengers for the overall win were still right on their tail though, with Vestas 11th Hour Racing (orange), Turn the Tide on Plastic (light blue), Team AkzoNobel (purple) all part of this lead pack - just Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag (grey) had been dropped.
The sea breeze couldn’t last forever though, and everyone knew that there would be a second transition back into the strong northerly gradient wind as the day wore on. We can see from the tracks in Image 3 from 17:00UTC on the 11th June that it was a stressful afternoon. This image captured the moment when Turn the Tide on Plastic and Team Brunel got the new wind first – a 16-18 knot blast from the north-west that punched them into the lead.
©Geovoile - Image 3 (Click for larger image)
It quickly reached the others and the fleet started a long upwind leg around the south-west corner of Ireland. It’s a testament to the closeness of the racing, and the one-design performance of the fleet that five hours later, at 22:00UTC on the 11th June there was still nothing in it as we can see in Image 4. Just one and a half miles separated the top five boats, with Turn the Tide another mile and a half behind in sixth – fantastic racing.
©Geovoile - Image 4 (Click for larger image)
The game was about to change significantly though, from a coastal, inshore mode to a big-picture strategic mode. To see why we’re going to zoom out in Image 5, and go forward just a couple of hours to midnight UTC on the 11th June. We can see a ridge of high pressure on the left of the image that was drifting east from the Atlantic towards the British Isles.
©Geovoile - Image 5 (Click for larger image)
The fleet was going to have to head out into the Atlantic and cross it, or wait on the coast until it drifted over on top of them anyway. There was a consensus that crossing the ridge early was fastest because on the other side was a strong southerly breeze that would make it a downwind blast all the way to the top of Scotland. It was possible, and even likely that if a fast boat won the race to transit across the high they would take Leg 10, as the forecast onwards was all straight-line racing in good breeze.
In Image 6 we see that by 10:00UTC the following morning, 12th June, the fleet were deep in the battle to get across the high pressure ridge. The wind was light, 3-6 knots, and still from the north so they had yet to cross the axis of the ridge, when the wind would switch to a southerly direction.
©Geovoile - Image 6 (Click for larger image)
The leaderboard didn’t mean much at this point, as it was measuring distance travelled northwards, and this was all about who could get into the new breeze first. What made this interesting was that the forecast showed that the strengthening southerly wind was actually closer to the fleet in the north.
The fleet had split; Team Brunel, Turn the Tide and Vestas 11th Hour Racing all went for the straight-forward option: go west. MAPFRE and Team AkzoNobel – perhaps seeing that new breeze stronger in the north – had picked a lane about seven miles to the north. Dongfeng Race Team were hedging their bets in the middle.
This time around the wind filled very evenly for the fleet. If we look at Image 7 from 14:30UTC on the 12th June we can see that (with the exception of the distant Scallywags) everyone now had a building 7-8 knots from the south. It looked like the more northerly position of MAPFRE and Team AkzoNobel would allow them to take the lead. And that was how it turned out.
©Geovoile - Image 7 (Click for larger image)
If we look at Image 8 from 18:30UTC on the 12th June we can see that everyone was now safely into the strong southerly wind on the western side of the high pressure ridge, and they had started gybing back towards the coast, settling on a long starboard gybe that would take most of them all the way around Scotland and across the North Sea.
©Geovoile - Image 8 (Click for larger image)
The gybe brought them back together and gave us a good idea of the winners and losers. MAPFRE and AkzoNobel had solidified their lead as they crossed in front of the rest of the pack – their advantage was worth about four miles. The others (apart from Scallywag) were too close to call. If we go forward to Image 9 from 21:00UTC on the 12th June we see that Team Brunel got a little bit out of whack in this section. They gybed five times before settling onto starboard, in contrast to everyone else who gybed just once. The result was that they dropped themselves out of the front rank, and had some work to do.
©Geovoile - Image 9 (Click for larger image)
The drag race north
What followed next was all about speed. Apart from a couple of (probably unnecessary) gybes from Vestas 11th Hour Racing that dropped them down the fleet, everyone blasted north on starboard towards the top of Scotland. In Image 10 from 09:00UTC on the 13th June we can see that the high pressure had now settled over the British Isles, while at the very top left of the image we can see a low pressure starting to spin up. This was increasing the strength of the southerly wind – the fleet now had around 22-26 knots of wind speed.
©Geovoile - Image 10 (Click for larger image)
In Image 11 from 19:00UTC on the 13th June we get a very solid fix on who had been fast and who hadn’t, as the fleet reached their furthest point north and adjusted their course to head for Gothenburg. Dongfeng Race Team had closed down MAPFRE a little, narrowing the distance to just under four miles. The big winners were Team Brunel, up to third having almost halved the distance to the leader in the short time since they had started to narrow the wind angle to sail across the top of Scotland.
©Geovoile - Image 11 (Click for larger image)
The drag race east
The course was now slightly south of due east, and still in a strong southerly wind. This meant that everyone was now reaching with the wind forward of the beam (true wind angle of 65-75 degrees). Team Brunel were in another gear: check out Image 12 from midnight on the 13th June, just five hours after Image 11.
©Geovoile - Image 12 (Click for larger image)
The fleet had compressed slightly (as a result of the leaders turning onto a slower point of sailing), but even allowing for that Team Brunel’s progress was impressive; drawing level with Dongfeng Race Team and more than halving the distance again to MAPFRE. I think it was around here that Dongfeng Race Team thought they picked up something on their keel, and started a grim 24 hours that only ended when they finally backed down (sailed backwards to allow rubbish dragging on the keel to float free).
It wasn’t that great a period for MAPFRE either, as Team Brunel just mowed them down and flew right by. In Image 13 from 12:00UTC on the 14th June we can see the fleet rounding the southern tip of Norway before heading across the Skagerrak to Gothenburg. Team Brunel now led MAPFRE by half a mile, with Team AkzoNobel up to third as Dongfeng Race Team slipped back. The low pressure (with the cold front very visible to the left of the image) was starting to drag the wind to the south-west, and increasing the strength to 25-30 knots.
©Geovoile - Image 13 (Click for larger image)
In Image 14 from 21:00UTC on the 14th June we can see that the wind angle had steadily widened on the final stretch, but nothing much changed on the leaderboard as they closed on the finish line. MAPFRE were now hanging onto Team Brunel, maintaining the deficit at half a mile.
©Geovoile - Image 14 (Click for larger image)
A couple of thoughts on that; it might have been down to the change in wind angle. Bouwe Bekking indicated that he thought their pace was likely due to a new headsail, and so the shift back to downwind sailing could have negated that. It did seem that Team Brunel only started making big gains when the wind angle narrowed around the top of Scotland.
It could also be that – given that Team Brunel sailed close past MAPFRE in broad daylight – a difference in technique or set-up was observed and subsequently matched. More likely, it was a bit of both – I guess we may find out the answer to that one on the final leg… Meanwhile, Team AkzoNobel were comfortably holding onto their third place. Dongfeng Race Team had slipped back to fifth behind Turn the Tide, before recovering to fourth after their back-down. Vestas 11th Hour Racing were trailing home in sixth with Scallywag in their customary seventh place.
And that was exactly how it finished, with just 1m 55s separating the two leaders into Gothenburg. The first six were all home inside an hour and a quarter – seriously close racing after four days. Although I guess we knew that with a three-way tie for first overall…
This wasn’t just a comeback in Leg 11 for Team Brunel, it’s been a spectacular comeback in the overall race. After a very shaky opening six legs, Bouwe Bekking and his team have dropped just two points (44 points from a possible 46) in the last four legs with three wins and a second place. The momentum is all with them as we go into the final leg.
I’m sure that no one needs me to point out that this Dutch boat – with a Dutch skipper seeking an overall race win at the eighth time of trying – will be racing home to the Netherlands to close out the win. It could hardly be more motivating. Nor could it be more of a pressure cooker. It will be fascinating to see how the three leaders manage a very tricky seven hundred miles with this much at stake; threading their way through the tides and sand banks of the North Sea.