Tuesday, 31 March 2009

VOR: Close, but Not Enough

Green Dragon, skippered by Ian Walker (GBR) finish fourth into Rio de Janeiro on leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race, crossing the line at 18:59:40 GMT 28/03/09. Image copyright Dave Kneale/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Riath Al-Samarrai

"This close," said Ian Walker, looking at a one-inch gap between his thumb and forefinger. "We were this close to making the call."

But like three other boats in this fleet of five, they didn't. Ericsson 3 were the only team to head east at the 36-degree south scoring gate and it was the move that won them the longest leg in the history of the race.

Green Dragon, meanwhile, went south with the rest of the pack and ultimately lost the drag race across the Southern Ocean, the victims of a boat speed deficit that Walker rated at about "10%".

When they arrived this afternoon, fourth place theirs after 42 days, 13 hours and 57 minutes of racing, the frustration at that decision was not far from the surface.

"It's something we discussed ad nauseam for four days," Walker said. "We actually nearly broke away at Fiji, three or four days before Ericsson 3 did. We would have been two or three days ahead of them if we had. But that's racing. We took the percentages.

"It's probably the only decision I would change if I could. We missed an opportunity to cut the corner on everyone. You don't get many of those opportunities. We might get one more in the rest of the race."

With that, he perked up. "We did sail a good leg."

Ian Walker steers the Green Dragon into Rio. Image copyright Dave Kneale/Volvo Ocean Race.

They did. It has been well documented that their boat lacks the pace of the front runners in certain conditions, causing the team to seek compensation in different routes that might bridge the gap.

"The tough thing is we are clearly 5-10% slower," Verbraak explained. "If you are in the same piece of water and losing you have to find alternatives. We tried to do that and some times it worked."

In this leg, they were already 73 miles down after two days sailing almost the exact same route of their rivals. And they were 207 adrift in fourth a further two days down the track. Their navigator, Wouter Verbraak responded by placing the boat further east and after nearly three weeks they were back within 32 miles of the leader.

Then Ericsson 3 turned east, got a jump on the fleet, and Dragon dived south to protect their position against Telefonica Blue, who were last with a broken forestay. They were soon 578 miles behind the leaders, but reduced the deficit to 167 miles as they rounded Cape Horn.

"Wouter did a great job," Walker said.

Neal McDonald added: "From where I sit, and I always look at the leg when it's finished and take it apart, I think Ian and Wouter did really well."

After Cape Horn, the team fell off the back of a weather system and were left behind by the front three. "Very tough," Verbraak said. "We just missed out and it hurt us."

All the while, rations onboard were low. "We are all pretty hungry," Phil Harmer said. "Not fun when you're hungry. This was such a huge leg, a really, really long leg. So hard. But we've finished it and can all feel proud. We're here in one piece and can get something proper to eat."

"We had to split the food into watches to stop any problems with the guys," Walker added. "It was actually quite funny because the guys ended up trading and it gave us something to talk about. Poor Guo (Chuan, their media crewmember), I think he suffered in the negotiations a bit!"

Ultimately they arrived in fourth and the feelings about their position were mixed. "Another good result for the Dragon," said Harmer.

"This team is punching well above its weight," added Verbraak.

"I don't think we're too happy," said Walker. "We do it to win, not to cruise. We have some of the best sailors in the world."

Unfortunately for them, though, their boat is not as quick as those winning the legs.

With that in mind, Walker made the most of the result. "We joked that we won the handicap race," he said. "We were about 10% slower than everyone else so after 40 days we should be four days behind. We got in within four days so we have beaten them."

Volvo Ocean Race

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