Saturday, 14 February 2009

VOR: Leg 5 Start - They're Off (Well, Some of Them, Anyway)

Leg 5 race start in Qingdao. Telefonica Blue sustain damage and return to the dock for repairs. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.

PUMA is quick out of the starting blocks with Green Dragon and Ericsson 4 squabbling over second place. Misfortune strikes for Telefonica Blue.

by Volvo Ocean Race media

Saturday 14 February 2009 06:50 GMT

PUMA has got caught out too close the coast, the northerly course they were sailing has put them into a hole and they are parked up, averaging just a couple of knots of boat speed over the last 15 minutes. To the south, Green Dragon and Ericsson 4 are bow to bow, and pulling ahead from their southerly position, which has a couple of knots more wind speed. It’s still very light for all these guys...

And meanwhile, Ericsson 3 is charging towards Qingdao from the east-southeast – almost on a parallel but opposite course to the three boats leaving China. Magnus Olsson and co. have less than 15 miles to run in good breeze – blowing ten knots from the south-southwest. So we can expect the pace to pick up for the leading trio as they get away from the coast.

06:35 GMT

There is still nothing much in it for the three boats racing, PUMA holding the lead and a more northerly line than the other two, with Ericsson 4 and then Green Dragon to the south of them. The gaps between them are around a few hundred metres. All three boats headed just a little south of east. The breeze is still very light, just four knots, and it now seems to have gone round to the south...

06:20 GMT

PUMA is holding her lead, about a couple of hundred metres ahead of Ericsson 4, with Green Dragon about the same distance astern of Torben Grael and his men. All three boats headed east, with PUMA holding a bit further north than the other two – but that’s slowly separating them from the coast, which runs away to the north-east.

Telefonica Blue is lifted out of the water after sustaining damage to their keel on the start of leg 5 in Qingdao. Image copyright Helena de la Gandara/Volvo Ocean Race.

News on Telefonica Blue – they came to a dead halt from six or seven knots on a shallow patch just off the harbour. They put a man in the water immediately to try and check the damage, but it was too murky to be sure of the extent of the problem – so Bouwe Bekking took the decision to suspend racing and the boat is now out of the water. The really bad news is that it looks like they are going to need a full structural check, and that could mean as much as 24 hours.

05:50 GMT

PUMA extending on Ericsson 4, and Ericsson 4 extending on Green Dragon in turn – no surprises there as they are heading out into that stronger breeze offshore. But it’s still generally pretty light, so big gains to be made for those that can get into the better breeze first.

05:45 GMT

PUMA around that start mark and headed for Rio – whether it’s via Hawaii or New Zealand we can only guess…

Ericsson 4 goes through in second place, one minute and six seconds behind, with Green Dragon a further minutes and 19 seconds behind in third.

Telefonica Blue is about to get pulled out of the water, so we should have a damage report soon. Ericsson 3 is 27 miles away, and doing 15 knots, so there’s plenty of breeze offshore.

05:40 GMT

PUMA around the last headland and on course for the start-line buoy, which is the final mark that they must round before being free to pick a course for Rio. It does look a little lighter near the start area though, and we could see the fleet compress again...

05:35 GMT

PUMA stretching away now, while Ericsson 4 have got themselves in front of the Green Dragon.

Meanwhile, news from the pit-lane… Ericsson 3 is about 30 miles away from Qingdao, and doing more than 10 knots, so it looks like they could end up starting this leg with Telefonica Blue. The good news is that they have plenty of breeze, so it’s out there, and this leg is going to kick-off as soon as these first three boats get into it.

05:30 GMT

PUMA still using the Code Zero, although this return leg to the start line – which they must go around before they are free to set sail for Rio - pretty much upwind. Ericsson 4 setting up to leeward of Green Dragon, and trying to push her bow out in front.

A return to form for Ken Read out of the starting blocks – leading comfortably at the turning mark, with Green Dragon holding off Ericsson 4. We have about six to eight knots of breeze, and with the big sails up they were all moving pretty nicely on a reach to that mark. A bit of a procession, but a good show for everyone promenading on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in downtown Qingdao.

05:25 GMT

Telefonica Blue have got into the harbour before the tide dropped too much, but they can’t get back out for another two to three hours at least – the boat will be pulled out of the water, so they are worried about some damage from touching the bottom.

05:20 GMT

PUMA are still leading, then Green Dragon and Ericsson 4 – all reaching west along the waterfront of Qingdao, to this first mark.

The early word on Telefonica Blue is that they hit something on the way out – but we’ll confirm that for you as soon as we know for sure. If so, they will almost certainly need to haul the boat out, and that would mean a three to four hour stop at the minimum.

It’s all pretty slow at the moment, just a light offshore breeze - but this is a coastal course, not the windward/leeward triangles that we’ve done on the previous Leg Starts. So the first goal is a headland out to the west, along the 40 kilometre seafront boulevard of the city of Qingdao.

05:15 GMT

PUMA working herself into a reasonable lead, with Ericsson 4 and Green Dragon just behind her, as they get to this first headland.

05:10 GMT

Green Dragon got the best of the start, in the middle of the line, PUMA at the committee boat, and Ericsson 4 a little late at the pin end buoy. Then we had a little right hand wind shift, that put PUMA into a controlling position.

No word yet on what the problem is for Telefonica Blue – because they suspended racing before the start, the rules only enforce a two hour minimum stop.

05:00 GMT

The start gun for Leg 5 has gone. The fleet are heading round a five mile loop, out to the west along the city front and back, before they set off south on their 12,300 nautical mile odyssey.

Telefonica Blue have suspended racing, and dropped their mainsail. They had a man in the water before the start, and have some sort of problem. And still no sign of Ericsson 3, so right now only three boats are headed for Rio on a perfect day...

04:00 GMT

And then they arrived in droves. What initially was a band of some 100 drummers has, in the last hour or so, swelled to roughly 900. The beat is the same: bam, bam, bam-bam-bam. But now it is so loud that MC Guy Swindells might need a bigger amplifier if his wisdom is to be shared.

He continues to bellow through his pre-race routine, but the army of red and gold drummers and percussionists are putting up a good fight. The show is drawing huge numbers of camera-clicking spectators, people waiting for the real action to start. Visitors in the race village are measureable in their thousands this morning and they have now had their first glimpse of the stars in the drama.

Crew by crew, the sailors walked the huge model of the Great Wall, striding across the last stretches of land before stepping on a boat for up to 40 days. The skippers, like in the arrival ceremonies, are dressed in cloaks and helmets, axes in hands. There’s a battle on the horizon, but Volvo Open 70s will be the weapons of choice.

Among the hordes watching on is Gerd-Jan Poortman. He is one of the few original members of Team Delta Lloyd that has retained his position onboard, but today is one of mixed feelings for him. He was unable to sail past Cape Horn with ABN AMRO TWO in the last race because of a serious back injury, and now he misses out again because his boat is damaged. “It’s pretty annoying,” he says. “But I’m young and I’ll get other chances. I’d have loved to sail this leg.”

Elsewhere, the build-up continues. Guo Chuan is, as ever, being followed by camera crews, capturing every movement of the only Chinese sailor to have raced this event. Telefonica Blue skipper Bouwe Bekking is smiling, taking his sixth lap of the globe in his stride. He has cause to be confident, having won the last two legs, but Ericsson 4 control the leaderboard and their skipper, Torben Grael, appears to have not a trouble in the world. He’ll be in his native Brazil in about six weeks, but in-between the whole complexion of the race might have changed. Exciting times.

Not so much for Ericsson 3. They always knew they faced a race against time to get here from Taiwan – where they suspended racing in leg four before resuming two days ago – and now it is looking highly unlikely they will start with the fleet. They are currently 43 nautical miles from the finish and making just five knots.

03:45 GMT

The sailors are dockside and the departure ceremony is about to begin as the boats leave the dock for the longest leg in the history of the race. A light rain has started to fall, and the wind, already light, has eased to near calm. It looks like it will be a slow start to the race.

02:45 GMT

The flags are flapping, the spectators are arriving, drummers are beating and sailors are milling around. It’s early on the start day of the longest leg in the history of the event.

The crews, with the exceptions of a few short-handed circumnavigators and record chasers, have never sailed a course like the 12,300-nautical mile marathon before.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Neal McDonald, Green Dragon’s veteran watch captain. He admits he’s not quite sure how many times he has rounded Cape Horn – “I think it’s five” – but he’s certain of one thing. “I love it, it’s part of the adventure that I do this race for. This leg has a bit of the unknown and that really is part of the fun for me.”

His team-mate, Damian Foxall walks past with his wife, Suzy-Ann, and one-year-old son, Oisin. There are still a couple of hours before dock-out but the emotional farewells have been going awhile.

One guy not used to saying goodbye from the shore is Richard Mason, the Ericsson 3 watch captain. He suffered a prolapsed disk in his back during leg four and is missing the one leg he wanted to sail most. “The guys will be battling on this leg, they all will, and it’s the leg not to miss. I love that kind of sailing, you get pretty sentimental about Cape Horn and I’m pretty annoyed about missing it.”

Start Day for Leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Qingdao, China, to Rio De Janeiro. At over 12,000 miles, Leg 5 is the longest leg ever attempted in the history of the race. Image copyright Dave Kneale/Volvo Ocean Race.

Down on the dock, the preparations are in full swing. A Mandarin sound-check is going out around the race village, 100 or so drummers are hitting a dramatic beat. The boats are pretty much deserted. “Everything’s done,” Neil Cox, the PUMA shore boss says. His predictions of a top-three were less illuminating. “Any boat that finishes is a winner.”

The wind, meanwhile, is around six to eight knots. It’s not ideal, but then again the memories of the in-port race postponements are still fresh in the mind.

It’s nearly a complete picture, but for Ericsson 3, who are less than 50 miles from the finish and making 'stately' progress at about four knots.

02:30 GMT

Ericsson 3 is still charging - well, at least making progress - towards the finish line in Qingdao in an effort to finish leg four, collect 4 points, turn the boat around, and start leg 5 within reasonable distance of the fleet. The team hopes to be able to re-provision and ready the boat for leg 5 within two or three hours of finishing. At 02:30 GMT, Ericsson 3 was 49 miles from the finishing line, but making just four knots in light conditions.

Volvo Ocean Race

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