Saturday, 11 April 2009
The seven Volvo Ocean Race skippers at the press conference in Rio. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.
by Riath Al-Samarrai
Six skippers beat Torben Grael to the press conference room this morning, but reaching Boston ahead of Ericsson 4 remains a conundrum that none of them has fully solved.
There is hope among the chasing pack, not least from Telefonica Blue skipper Bouwe Bekking, who believes his third-placed boat will revel in the conditions ahead.
And Ken Read, the PUMA skipper, is expecting his team to respond positively to the pressure of reaching their home port in first place.
But so far Grael's team have racked up a 9.5-point cushion over second-placed PUMA and, crucially, this next stage is expected to be decided predominantly by boat speed. On that score, gaining significant points on Ericsson 4 in a reaching leg will not be easy.
"Reaching, tight reaching, we are one of the quickest in the fleet," said Bekking, whose team are 11.5 points adrift. "We can see that most the way to Fernando de Noronha (scoring gate) will be tight reaching. If we go the right way we have a very good chance of being first over there. After that it is still reaching and then from the Bermuda Islands different things can happen and we might get splits in the fleet. But our boat is well suited to the next leg.
"I'm feeling very happy about our boat and the Black boat in these conditions. We need to start gaining points soon and I hope we can do it on this leg. I think we are one of the quickest in these conditions, but Ericsson is also very quick."
As is PUMA. The team have proven their credentials by claiming top-three positions at 11 of 14 scoring opportunities, but they are yet to win any. Read admitted his boat might not have the extra gears needed to make it stand out. He said: "I think we have a good boat. I'm not sure we have a great boat, and we certainly don't have a bad boat.
"Ericsson 4, if they get their conditions, especially windy reaching, they just seem to be able to punch it into another gear and off they go. Same with Telefonica Blue, that light and flat water stuff, they just seem to have an extra gear. We just seem to be good. The boat really doesn't have a weakness, but on the other hand...we don't look at the weather map and say ‘fantastic, in that little area there, we are going to be going two knots faster'. We haven't found that yet. Trust me, we are searching for it but so far it is quite elusive.
"Unfortunately Ericsson 4 haven't shown any weaknesses either. In the last race clearly ABN AMRO ONE were so dominant in any wind, but if it was less than 10 knots they showed an Achilles heel. They can show it to us anytime they want. Fact is they haven't. clearly they figured out any weaknesses they have in that time pre-race and they made up for them. Good for them."
How they fare against Ericsson in the forthcoming conditions remains to be seen, especially as the leaders have tactical flexibility. Whereas Grael insisted his team would be "looking to win because that is always our intention", his navigator Jules Salter suggested the objective might be simplified to staying ahead of PUMA and Telefonica Blue.
Salter said: "We've been pretty conservative through the race, so I imagine we'd continue that. If Green Dragon or Delta Lloyd or someone else were to steer off somewhere I would think we might let them go and stay close to Puma or Telefonica Blue, the two boats closest to us. But each situation is different and you can't call it until it's time.
Rio de Janeiro, stopover port for the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.
Time will tell how that - and the leaderboard battle - plays out, but the sub-plots to this leg are numerous. Not to mention the teams that could get between the three main protagonists and enhance the point differences.
Ericsson 3 was identified by Green Dragon skipper Ian Walker as the only boat with "the pace to live with Ericsson 4" and have the fresh memory of winning leg five. "For sure we can win again," said Magnus Olsson, their skipper.
Meanwhile, Delta Lloyd's new rig and fresh inventory of sails, coupled with four new crewmembers, reaped an immediate return at the in-port race, where they finished third.
Skipper Roberto Bermudez played down their chances. "It's a difficult competition, every team is really good, with really good sailors," he said. "It will be difficult to fight with them. If we can get something good in Boston, it will be very good."
Like Delta Lloyd, Telefonica Black missed leg five because of damage, but their skipper, Fernando Echavarri, expects to see his team bounce back.
"We always said to Rio was going to be hard for us," Echavarri said. "Now we have more experience, but we don't have any excuse. This is our opportunity and we have to be thinking about being on the podium...we have a new sail inventory and I think the boat is in good shape to push to be on the podium in this leg."
PUMA also have pressure to deal with. "Everyone I have spoken to in the region says you have to win this leg," Read said. "It's a pressure I've felt this week and we're really trying to downplay it now...we have to treat it like another leg...let the chips fall. With that said, it's really good to be going home."
But better if Grael hasn't already crossed the threshold.
Volvo Ocean Race