Saturday, 28 February 2009

VOR: Bouwe Bekking Explains How They Made Magic in the First Two Weeks of Leg 5

Xabier Fernandez and skipper Bouwe Bekking onboard Telefonica Blue, on leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro. Image copyright Gabriele Olivo/Telefonica Blue/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Javier Sobrino

Leg 5 is the longest in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race: 12,300 nautical miles from Qingdao, China, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, including the third equator crossing of this Volvo Ocean Race, a visit to the Southern Ocean and a turning of Cape Horn. Bouwe Bekking's TELEFONICA BLUE began this leg as one of the favourite teams after two offshore wins in a row, Leg 3 and Leg 4, but only a couple of minutes prior to the start, a crash against a rock in the exclusion zone of the start in Qingdao switched on all the alarms. After almost 19 hours of repairs and checking the Spanish VO70 skippered by Bouwe Bekking finally started Leg 5, 150 miles behind the leaders.

But this is all in the past. After almost two weeks of racing, TELEFONICA BLUE has managed to star in an impressive comeback. On day 4 of this 5th Leg, the Spanish blue boat was 285 nautical miles behind the leaders, trying not to lose too many miles despite an unfavourable scenario with no room for tactical movements. After one week of fighting, TELEFONICA BLUE passed Green Dragon, and before the end of the second week, on February 26, the position report on the VOR website showed Bouwe's boat in second place: an impressive recovery.

The first question for skipper Bouwe Bekking is simple: how can you explain that? "First of all we are a team that never gives up," the Dutch sailor explains. "After the dramatic departure delay we just had to push on and keep believing in ourselves. How else could you explain the gains on the leaders and on Green Dragon."

After 4,000 nautical miles, TELEFONICA BLUE is still sailing in the same tack, reaching along all the way down from China. "Booooooring!" Bouwe says. Not that boring when you check the record numbers of the boat: maximum boat speed of 32 knots and several days of covering close to 500 Nm in 24 hours.

But that amazing rhythm was before entering the Doldrums. The head of the fleet contacted the ICZ -Intertropical Convergence Zone- on Sunday the 22nd, and what they found differed with what is expected of the Doldrums and was way different in comparison to the last two Doldrums crossings -Leg 1 in the Atlantic Ocean and Leg 2 in the Indian: "The big difference is that none of us really stopped, I think the worst average over a 3-hour period was just over 6 knots of boat speed. Of course we were hoping for a full stop to create a 'proper' restart for us."

Bouwe is experienced when it comes to sailing around the world and has thus had his fair share of experiences with the Doldrums. "They are definitely not our friends," Bouwe explains, "we have been sailing in more headed breeze all the time like the other boats." This difficulty makes it even harder to understand the impressive performance of TELEFONICA BLUE. Don't forget that the Spanish team changed the rudders of their VO70 in Qingdao in order to improve the performance and steering despite a 3-point penalty according to the rules: "They feel really good, better than I had ever hoped for," Bouwe recognises. "We always knew that when reaching we would be faster, but it seems upwind they do well also, like for example, right now we are sailing with our big code 0 in 13 knots of breeze and have full control and we're going fast. With the old rudders the zero had to come down in 12 knots of breeze. We expect a similar gain for heavy running, so the choice has been right."

Apart from the improvement shown by the rudder change, Bouwe takes the opportunity to give credit to his crew, the whole team and the designers of the Spanish VO70: "Give a bunch of good guys a good boat and the results will come by themselves! Just kidding; of course this has not come together as easily as it sounds. All the hours of homework, preparation and work done by the designers, the builders of boat and rig and the shore crew have created what we have."

This part of the world has been named by some of the fleet as a "squall zone." Squalls are an important factor to keep in mind when sailing, as the behaviour of the wind in these conditions tends to be very extreme.

Controlling the clouds and squalls is no easy matter, but TELEFONICA BLUE has managed to take advantage of the situation. "If anybody could tell me how to control them, he would be onboard in an instant," Bouwe laughs. "The reality is that we can't control the clouds. On this leg they travel at roughly 90 degrees to our course, so you are very limited with your course changes as the clouds are big. But keeping an eye open during the day tells you roughly how quickly the breeze will hit you."

This means experience and good eyesight play key roles, but all this changes during the night when visibility drops to zero. "At night time the only 'eyes' you have is the radar," Bouwe says. "You can predict pretty well when entering or departing a cloud. We are using the radar also during the day to see how big a squall is, and once we are in, to see roughly how long it will take to get out of it."

When TELEFONICA BLUE and the rest of the VOR fleet left Qingdao, the water temperature was around 5 degrees Celsius and the air temperature was just above zero. Sailing south means heading towards the equator, and as the boats add miles to their hulls the temperature around them changes. Bouwe tells us about the change and how it affected life on board: "The temperature change came rather quickly; within one day the water temperature went from 6 to 23 degrees. The air temperature was a bit more gradual, as the wind was coming from the north and still kept another two days of chill in it. In particular the rise of the sea temperature was nice as the spray is not freezing anymore. You judge quickly how many layers of clothing you have to take off. Right now we are in very warm weather, which means a lot of rashes appear, and sleeping during the day time is much harder."

After the 'dramatic' departure from Qingdao and two weeks of magical performance, a new race started for TELEFONICA BLUE once they contacted the fleet, a race that now includes new tactics. "From now on it will be very tricky," Bouwe Bekking says, as his boat sails less than 20 miles behind the leader approaching the Fiji islands. "First of all, we want to stay close to the fleet, as we seem not to be slow, so we'd rather keep slowly chipping away than go for the big fish. It will crucial to see if everyone will make it to the east of Fiji; if that is the case than I can 'relax' and keep doing what we are doing. But if some make it to the east and we have to pass to the west of Fiji that will mean losing valuable miles quickly."

Fiji is an important turning point in this 5th Leg of the Volvo Ocean Race even though it doesn't directly add any points to the leader board. The first of the two scoring waypoints of Leg 5 is still 1,000 nautical miles south of Fiji, in 36ºS, close to New Zealand. "There is still a long way to the scoring waypoint but I expect that everybody will sail a southerly course and just pass east of New Zealand. From there on, the trick is to find the best way around the South Atlantic high pressure system into the southern ocean."

What is clear is that Bouwe Bekking and TELEFONICA BLUE made magic to achieve a fantastic recovery. What is next, God only knows.

Bouwe Bekking
Volvo Ocean Race

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