Friday, 27 March 2009

Volvo Ocean Race: The Sweetest Victory

Ericsson 3, skippered by Magnus Olsson (SWE) (pictured) finish first into Rio de Janeiro on leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race, crossing the line at 10:37:57 GMT 26/03/09, after 41 days at sea. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Riath Al-Samarrai

What a difference a few legs make. Just three months ago, when Ericsson 3 docked in India, Magnus Olsson expressed mixed feelings about his team's third place finish. "We are still sailing a bit defensive," he said.

Today, as the Nordic sailors completed one of the most astonishing wins in this race's history, he could rest assured that the message had been taken onboard.

The final stages onboard Ericsson 3, on leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro. Image copyright Gustav Morin/Ericsson 3/Volvo Ocean Race.

The manner of their victory has, to put it mildly, stunned rivals and observers alike. Specifically, it boils down to a staggeringly bold manoeuvre made on March 4 when, with second place in their possession, Ericsson 3 crossed the scoring gate at 36 degrees south, collected the 3.5 points on offer, and then dismissed the most common convention of Southern Ocean sailing.

Instead of diving to the high latitudes, they let the pack sail away while they turned around and changed their bearing from 161 degrees to 51 degrees. Aksel Magdahl, like all the other navigators, had seen the potential of staying north in order to avoid a high pressure system and then utilise the breeze of lower pressure.

But whereas his rivals followed tradition by going south, Magdahl rolled the dice.

Ericsson 3 in Guanabara Bay, just off Rio, at dawn. Image copyright Dave Kneale/Volvo Ocean Race.

At the time Telefonica Blue's veteran skipper Bouwe Bekking said: "If that route wins them the leg, they will write history, as up to now in all the legs down south, the south has won...I am happy not to be in their skipper's shoes."

A day after the move, Ericsson 3 were last on the leaderboard, but a further three days later they were top. Another three days down the track they held a 280-mile lead. Ultimately Ericsson 4 closed to within six miles at one stage just after rounding Cape Horn, but Olsson's crew, who were first at the Cape Horn scoring gate, extended again to claim the leg honours.

A big pay-out for a gamble which Magdahl felt wasn't particularly "special". He said: "The northerly route didn't seem special at the time but when all the rest did not follow us then it suddenly seemed a big decision and very important. It then became the biggest sailing decision of my life, the biggest sailing moment of my life, that is for sure."

Ericsson 3 sails into Rio. Image copyright Dave Kneale/Volvo Ocean Race.

Olsson certainly enjoyed the end result. "Unbelievable," he said amid the hollering at dockside. "We actually deserve it.

"We had a fantastic strategy when we needed it; Aksel did a fantastic job there. And then we executed that strategy in a very, very good way."

That final point is equally critical, as Finland's Thomas Johanson pointed out. "It was a great, great call by Aksel. We all believe in him and he believes in us. He has taken a risk after a lot of thought and it has had a great result.

"But the decision had a lot to it. We had to sail really well to make it work. We had to push 100% to make it. It was tough for the boat and the crew to be in that low pressure with a really bad sea state."

They emerged, though, and recorded a great win that said much about their transformation as a team.

Crowds, including other Ericsson team members, gather to greet Ericsson 3 at Marina Da Gloria in Rio. Image copyright Dave Kneale/Volvo Ocean Race.

"We have changed every leg," Johanson said. "We know each other, we know how hard to push, we feel more comfortable. It got us a really great result."

And all in the most unlikely of circumstances. The team suspended racing from leg four in Taiwan because of serious structural damage and, after working round the clock to make repairs, just seven men sailed the remaining 650 miles to Qingdao. They arrived five hours after the fleet had left and, after re-provisioning the boat and adding three men, departed for Rio de Janeiro after just a two-hour stop.

They caught up by the evening and the rest is history. Olsson was stunned. "Of course, you couldn't (expect us to win). We didn't look like a winner then. Coming there tired, carbon dust all over the boat and late and a few guys new in the crew and all that, but we managed to turn it around, it's fantastic, it really is."

If anything, Olsson believes the adversity helped Aksel make his bold call. He said: "Because we were late and all that and we had no pressure on us...that perhaps made the self-belief in us come up a little bit higher."

He added: "This team is really developing. They should have confidence in themselves because they are great sailors."

Ericsson 3 finish first into Rio. Image copyright Dave Kneale/Volvo Ocean Race.

Whether or not the result inspires even greater things remains to be seen, but the confidence in the team is limitless. "We can win more legs, for sure," said Magnus Woxen. Johanson agreed: "There is a lot of talent and ability in this team."

With that, the team dispersed to enjoy land for the first time in seven weeks. Self-belief almost certainly won't be a problem anymore.

Volvo Ocean Race

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