Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Volvo Ocean Race 2008-9: 'How to Win Leg 3' by Bouwe Bekking

by Javier Sobrino

TELEFONICA BLUE has won a thrilling Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2008/09. Skipper Bouwe Bekking is happy to let everyone in on the secret of how the battle was won, shortening the gap on the leaderboard to Ericsson 4 to just 4.5 points. Bekking had said before the leg start that the Volvo Ocean Race was far from over and that the seemingly indomitable Ericsson 4 were beatable. With this result, TELEFONICA BLUE was true to Bekking's word and goes into the Christmas break lying second in the standings, 3 points ahead of Puma.

The blue Spanish boat was at the front of the fleet for most of the leg, only losing out at scoring waypoint of Pulau We by less than one hour to Torben Grael's crew. The victorious arrival in Singapore was achieved by an even tighter margin, just 17 minutes. In leading the fleet home, Bouwe Bekking and his crew added a valuable 8 points to their basket in a leg that echoed the nail-biting win in Leg 3 of the VOR 2005/06 by just 9 seconds. "I wouldn't compare both victories to closely," Bouwe says. "The 2006 leg was a two boat race, and we just had to match race ABN AMRO One; even though they were way faster, we managed to stay ahead. This time we had to deal with three other very fast boats and had to cover them all. The pressure was much higher. We were sailing and stopping, sailing and stopping. We never had a feeling of 'now we are fully in control'."

Four boats crossed the finish line in Singapore within just 19 minutes after 1,950 technically challenging nautical miles from Cochin, India; another example of the tight competition of this Volvo Ocean Race. The 3rd and 4th boats were separated by just 30 seconds.

Earlier in the leg, Ericsson 4 had managed to pass the Spanish boat a few miles before the scoring waypoint, stealing first place from Bouwe Bekking. After entering the intensely tricky Strait of Malacca, the fleet compressed and TELEFONICA BLUE took her opportunity to exact revenge. 500 miles later and the Spanish boat had won her first leg in this Round the World Race; Ericsson 4 was fourth.

The key point of the first 1,400 nautical miles from Cochin to the scoring waypoint of Pulau We came after a few of days of sailing; it was the decision between heading North looking for more wind or South to avoid the strong current: "The last 24 hours have been very frustrating", Bouwe wrote on his exclusive report for after four days on the water. "We have sailable winds, but the current is just roaring, with strength up to 4 knots, and of course right from the direction where we want to go. This means that we are hardly making any progress in the right direction."

At times like this, a tactical decision can make the difference between 'hero and zero', and Bouwe knew that: "Of course wind is important, but we had to get out of the bad current; going south was better for that, but being more north you had better wind." The brainpower was strong on board TELEFONICA BLUE for this leg, as Bouwe explains, "Having Tom Addis -the meteorologist of the team- with us meant we had another set of brains, better said weather brains, who helped us a lot when we had to make decisions." But, how did they take that decision? Bouwe continues with the explanation: "There was a little low pressure system and once we sailed through the so-called trough line, we knew we would have SE winds. Not very strong, but in general enough to enable us to cut the corner".

While the rest of the fleet headed north, the team decided to dive south; just before reaching the scoring waypoint, Ericsson 4 managed to pass TELEFONICA BLUE which was caught waiting for a shift that never happened. "Second place at the scoring waypoint is not a bad result", Bouwe wrote immediately after securing 3.5 points at Pulau We. "The only shame for us is that it is the same boat cashing in maximum points. Ericsson 4 is fast and their navigation is very solid as well... Anyway, well done to them." Bouwe knows Torben Grael's team is a crack crew, but he does not consider them invincible: "Now let's go and get them on the final run into Singapore, I am getting sick and tired to get beaten by them!. It is time that we gain some points on them for the overall score." Said and done.

Once the boats had passed the scoring waypoint, another type of race began at the entrance to the complex Strait of Malacca, 500 nautical miles full of huge commercial ships, fishing boats, fishing nets and other dangers. "Once past the scoring waypoint we entered a very busy piece of water", Bouwe describes. "Not only ships, but more dangerously lots of floating objects. First night there we hit twice something with our rudders, luckily with no damage, and with the light of the first day we saw several big pieces of wood floating by and one was massive in size -it actually looked like a roof of a house; it wouldn't be healthy to hit that." Luckily, after three days in those waters, no serious damage was suffered by any of the eight boats.

"From Pulau We, the conditions changed dramatically, very fluky winds, and the entire fleet compressed. The boats were so close that most of the fleet were in with a chance to win", Bouwe remarked soon after crossing the finish line. The Dutch skipper believes Pulau We was a turning point in the final victory: "We always wanted to be east of the fleet, closer to the Malaysian coast; that opportunity came and from that point on the benefits kept coming. Although we had one really bad position report where we lost 25 miles to the boat ahead and the ones behind, we were in the position we wanted and were sure would come good eventually. The hard part was that we were never sure if we could hold on to the lead. You might think you had a nice lead, which normally you could hold for a long time, but in this part of the world, you are never safe. The wind was so different, even over a small distance. For example, you could be 1 km apart and one boat would have 2 knots of wind, while the other would have 15 knots."

When asked about the secret ingredient for this win, Bouwe is clear: "Just staying cool at all times and keep faith with what we saw on the weather maps. And, of course, great crew work. I am proud of the entire team, who all gave everything and always kept positive. But this win is also one for the shorecrew. They did a tremendous job in preparing the boat and we didn't have any issues. So thanks to you all! It's a fantastic Christmas gift for all the Telefonica Team family."

Over the last 24 hours of the race, the fleet was led at various times by four different boats: TELEFONICA BLUE, Ericsson 4, Ericsson 3 and Puma. It was only in the final stretch that Bouwe Bekking and his crew managed to put some real distance between their blue hull and the other three. "It was crazy", Bouwe said once everything was over. "We were in the lead, we lost the lead, then we got the lead again. The final 6-7 miles the wind died nearly completely, and then the other guys came really close, and then we got a little breeze again."

The Spanish boat crossed the finish line at 14:51:22 GMT, around 17 minutes in front of Puma,18 minutes ahead of Ericsson 3 and 19 minutes ahead of Ericsson 4.

"Revenge? no, this is not about taking revenge", according to Bouwe when asked about beating Ericsson 4. "Reducing the gap with Ericsson 4 is huge for our team, but also a very good thing for the race in general. This will help create more awareness and will reinforce that our sport can be exciting to follow, especially with the public who may not understand so much about the intricacies of this type of sailing, but know good competition."

The next date marked with war paint in Bouwe's schedule is January 10th, the day of the In Port race at Singapore. Until then, the Dutch skipper can smile at the mirror, knowing he has done a good job.

Bouwe Bekking

Volvo Ocean Race

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