Saturday, 14 February 2009

VOR: Bouwe Bekking Ready to Face the Longest Leg in the History of the Volvo Ocean Race

Bouwe Bekking. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Javier Sobrino

The gruelling 12,300 nautical-mile Leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2008/09 starts on Saturday, 14 February from the freezing Chinese port of Qingdao taking the fleet to the colourful Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. This is the "monster leg", in the words of Bouwe Bekking, skipper of TELEFONICA BLUE, winner of the two previous legs.

Bouwe arrived in Qingdao with a serious back injury suffered during the atrociously tough Leg 4 with very little time to recover before the restart. Straight after jumping off the boat on 29 January, Bouwe started working on his recovery. The objective was nothing less than 100 per cent readiness by Valentine's Day. The effort has paid off. The relief is written all over his face. "The physio work has been steadily reducing and I'm sitting a lot on the bike. We brought one over to my hotel room and I spend roughly an hour a day sitting on it with a 'view' over the city."

The schedule of the race, always meant the 2 weeks stay in Qingdao would be tight. Tighter still for those teams with the long job lists after the body and boat breaking of Leg 4. The absence of the minimum wind conditions for the in-port race scheduled for last Saturday, which was rescheduled for Sunday and eventually raced on Monday did not help team preparations either. "It was annoying to waste two days just waiting, and I would rather have ticked it off on the scheduled day, but that is sailing", Bouwe says. "We lost one day for the shore crew to work on the boat out of the water, but in reality this has not had a negative effect."

Leg 5 is an extremely important link in the chain of the VOR 2008/09. Apart from being the longest, with including time in the Southern Ocean and rounding Cape Horn, it is the only leg with double scoring. There are two scoring waypoints at Latitude 36ºS and Cape Horn. This makes a big difference in the approach to the leg, according to Bouwe Bekking, "of course the scoring way points are every important. They count as a full leg. If you win the race to first one, there is a big chance you will be first into the westerlies, which will be a good set-up to win the second one as well. We won't be alone in pushing to the max."

Aside from the scoring waypoints, such a big racetrack offers up more key points than previous legs. Rather than explaining his strategy for the leg, Bouwe puts some questions on the table, "how do we cross the first ridge somewhere around Taiwan? Where are we going to cross the doldrums? How far south are we going to dive once past New Zealand? And, last but not necessarily least, inside or outside of the Falkland Islands"? All valid questions that will be answered as the fleet adds considerable miles to their hulls.

Sailing his sixth Round the World race, Bouwe is one of the most experienced sailors in the fleet, yet even he knows very little about sailing the first part of the course. At least this leg means "a return home" to waters with which the fleet are more familiar. A relief in many ways, "once we are around New Zealand we know what to expect, so that makes it a bit easier." But 'easier' doesn't mean 'easy', especially when the Southern Ocean. "This is the leg where we can get everything, from calms to storms in the Southern Ocean is involved. The temperature will play a key part as the yachts move "from freezing to soaring hot and back to the freezing cold before the searing heat again!" And an underlying threat is the possibility of encountering one of the sailors' main enemies: "Ice is always a fear", Bouwe says.

The official ETA in Rio de Janeiro for the fleet is 20 March. Thirty-four (34) days of non-stop, full-on racing. No small feat, and yet Bouwe prefers to be even more conservative, expecting, "anything from 32 to 45 days."

Since the start of the race, in October last year, and after four legs and after more than 15,000 nautical miles, we've seen only one crew change on-board TELEFONICA BLUE: Tom Addis replacing the injured Laurent Pages after Leg 2. For Leg 5, two new faces will be jumping on board the Spanish VO70: David Vera and Michael Pammenter, both sailors from sistership Telefonica Black. "David Vera is coming for Pepe (Ribes, the bowman); he can fix everything. Mike is coming for Daryl (Wislang, second bowman); Mike is under 30, which we need to comply with the rules".

Apart from these changes to the "human power" of TELEFONICA BLUE, the VO70 is undergoing another important change for this Leg 5: new rudders. The alteration means a penalty of 3 points for the Spanish boat according to the rules, but in words of Bouwe, "it's worth it". Before this modification, TELEFONICA BLUE was 4 points behind Ericsson 4 in the leaderboard, and 4 points in front of Puma. Now, Bouwe Bekking's team stands 7 points behind the leader and only 1 point ahead third, "I'm confident we've made the right call. We really think we will go faster in the coming legs. We think both in heavier downwind conditions and in reaching this will give us benefits."

"This is not a 'last minute' decision", Bouwe continues. "We had in mind to swap them for the second half of the race, especially in view of the expected heavy reaching and running conditions of this long leg. In the next leg to Boston there will also be reaching and then crossing the Atlantic to Europe there will be more reaching and running. Add to this the good feedback received from our team mates on Telefonica Black (who have already made the change), it makes sense to change the rudders now. We are in this race to win and I think this will help us do that."

This stopover has been Bouwe's first introduction to China and he is clear when you ask him that it's been a good experience, "I have been pleasantly surprised, you can buy everything over here and I think people are more focused on making money than in the west. Some words from my history teacher at high school have been stuck in my head: 'even the hardest line communists will become the best capitalists over time'. I think China is heading that way."

According to Bouwe, the Volvo Ocean Race visiting Qingdao will help the growth of sailing in the country. "For sure sailing will become more popular. Remember the Chinese won their first Gold medal in this discipline at the Beijing Olympics, plus the Green Dragon in this race is attracting a huge amount of attention. The consequence of this is that more people will want to go sailing." Mission accomplished.

Bouwe Bekking

Volvo Ocean Race

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