Volvo Ocean Race – Choosing the northern route turned out to be a brilliant tactical decision. But not all decisions went so well. Because of one wrong gybe and changed weather patterns, Team Brunel lost its considerable lead.
With only the Volvo Ocean Race tracker as a guide, it’s difficult for fans to understand how the Dutch team lost more than 80 nautical miles in less than a day. Skipper Bouwe Bekking looks back at the highs and the lows.
After the start in Sanya, we headed south as fast as possible, says Bouwe Bekking, taking a sip of water. ‘That meant that we were sailing closer to the wind. In sailing terms this means that we were close-hauled. The other boats were sailing slightly deeper or on a beam reach. This means that the wind hits the sails slightly more from behind, giving the other boats 2 knots more speed.
After a day’s sailing, we were about 10 miles behind the rest of the fleet. This was a conscious decision because it allowed us to choose a point when we could change tack northwards. When we were out of range of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) we changed tack with Team SCA. Every VO65 is equipped with a device that transmits a signal indicating the position and speed of the boat. This system displays a little icon on a digital chart showing other vessels exactly where we are. The system works up to a distance of about 12 miles. We were amazed that the other boats continued to sail east.
Bouwe Bekking was happy that Team SCA also opted for the northern route. ‘It turned out well that the ladies went north with us. It’s always handy to have a sparring partner. On the first days, there was little more than a 12-knot wind and we were sailing together with Team SCA. When the wind grew stronger, we quickly left the ladies behind. That’s when we knew that the speed of the boat was good enough. Because Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Alvimedica, MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team were sailing straight towards the finish, we were up to more than 130 miles behind them.
Bouwe Bekking is quick to point out that the decision to head north was not a gamble. According to the weather chart, there was hardly any wind after the Philippines. By heading towards Taiwan, we sailed in a large curve around this area of calm. Historically speaking, the northern route has often been the fastest route. The final aim was to arrive in the north-east trade wind as quickly as possible. After a few days, it looked as though our plan was working. Thanks to a wind in excess of 20 knots and a better wind angle, we managed to take the lead within five days.
Bekking and his navigator Andrew Cape then chose to sail for a longer time slightly deeper – and therefore faster -than the rest of the fleet. ‘This too was a conscious decision. We were simply taking the fastest course to Auckland. There was more wind to the west. And with the doldrums ahead of us, you have to build up as big a lead as possible.
Half a day later, the latest weather models suggested that there would be more wind in the east. We then had to head up slightly, resulting in a more easterly course. At that point, we still had a considerable lead over the others.’
On 18 February, the men on Team Brunel suddenly had to cope with an unexpected calm. In a couple of hours, the Dutch boat lost more than 20 miles of its lead. ‘Not long after the calm, we had to cope with a strong wind shift, which meant that we had to tack to the east.
Two days later, Team Brunel reached the infamous doldrums around the Equator. Above this imaginary line that divides the northern and southern hemispheres, there is a big prevailing wind blowing clockwise. Under the equator, there is a prevailing wind blowing anti-clockwise. These two big winds meet at the Equator. There are heavy rainstorms and thunderstorms, sometimes with very strong gusts. The wind comes from every direction and varies in force. And sometimes there’s no wind at all.
The doldrums were at their worst. On 21 February, Team Brunel was faced with an enormous thunderhead. As the first drops of rain hit the deck, the wind dropped completely. As a result of being becalmed for four hours, Team Brunel dropped to fourth place. Yet, entirely unexpectedly, the same cloud brought wind with it. With a speed in excess of 20 knots, Bouwe Bekking’s team once more built up a considerable lead over the other boats. ‘We were racing ahead and covered more than 130 miles in six hours,’ continues Bouwe Bekking. ‘And then the weather models that we get from the Volvo Ocean Race organisation every six hours once again appeared to be wrong. Because we were sailing towards a windless area, Andrew Cape and I decided to gybe to the east. Together with Capey, I decide the tactics and which course we will sail. Every big decision is taken together. We even wake each other up for that. This gybe turned out to be a mistake because the weather that was forecasted never materialised. Every mile that we sailed to the east was one mile lost. We lost our lead and were now in fifth position.
Thanks to the unpredictable doldrums, the fleet grouped together again a few days later. Team Brunel and Alvimedica were on the west of the fleet. It later turned out that the most wind was in the east. ‘Dongfeng Race Team, MAPFRE and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing were about 8 miles further east of our position. It’s hard to predict the weather at such a short distance. As it turned out, the boats in the east were the first to get the wind and built up a lead of more than 30 miles in six hours. From that point, we were playing catch-up.
A few days from the finish, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Dongfeng Race Team and Mapfre were still benefitting from a favourable wind. Alvimedica was lucky and could use a favourable wind shift, which put the American-Turkish team up with the three leaders. Although Team Brunel was fairly close to Alvimedica, Bouwe Bekking’s team had a totally different wind to the leaders. ‘You can hardly see these differences on the Volvo Ocean Race tracker,’ continues Bouwe Bekking. ‘On the tracker, it looked as if we were very close to Alvimedica, while in reality we were several kilometres away. You can compare that with the fact if you are in Amsterdam, there’s a totally different wind strength and direction in Haarlem. To put it briefly, the tracker does not see local winds and storms, which means that tactical decisions sometimes look inexplicable. This is further enhanced in light winds, because then differences in speed can be much bigger.
It isn’t good to finish in fifth place. Andrew Cape and I can take the blame for that. We made an error of judgment, as a result of which some decisions did not turn out as we expected. The lads will now get a week off to recover. But meanwhile, we are going to evaluate the last leg in which all the major angles will be looked at – such as trim and mutual communication. There have been four different winners in the last four legs. In spite of this disappointing result, we are still lying third in the general ranking and our team spirit is high enough to improve our performance.
by Team Brunel