ABU DHABI OCEAN RACING LEADS VOLVO OCEAN RACE AFTER TENSE SECOND PLACE FINISH IN AUCKLAND
Abu Dhabi, UAE - February 28 2015: Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR) – the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) entrant from the United Arab Emirates’ capital – surged into first place on the overall leaderboard after coming in second on Leg 4 of the round-the-world yacht race, from China to New Zealand.
The team, backed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) and led by British double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker, crossed the finish line in Auckland at 2035 on Saturday, February 28 (local time), a fraction over four minutes behind winners MAPFRE after almost three weeks at sea on the more than 5,000 nautical-mile passage from Sanya.
ADOR held off a sustained attack on the final day of the leg from its main rival in the overall standings – Dongfeng Race Team – who finished a close third, another four minutes back. ADOR had to be at the top of their game to fend off the Chinese yacht as the sun set over Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, matching their every challenge with a blocking countermove.
ADOR’s second place extends the team’s unbroken string of podium places in the offshore legs and ties the Abu Dhabi team with Dongfeng on points at the top of the overall leaderboard. The race’s rules break the tie in favour of ADOR giving the Abu Dhabi the overall top spot based on the count back of points.
“It’s been one of the most hard fought legs I can recall,” said ADOR navigator Simon Fisher. “The top three were closer at the finish after 5,000 miles than they were at the end of the inshore loop leaving China! Well done to MAPFRE for their victory. We are very happy with second. We had a great battle with Dongfeng and I won’t lie, we are delighted to get one over on them and take the overall lead.”
ADOR was the most consistent team during the Leg, rarely dropping out of the top three and finally taking the lead in the early hours of February 22 – shortly after crossing the Equator for the third time in the race - when Walker’s men overhauled long-time leaders Team Brunel, who had got in front early in the Leg courtesy of a brave tactical call to pursue a much more northerly route around the top of the Philippines.
ADOR’s lead was far from secure, however, and only hours later as the team encountered the virtually flat, calm conditions of the Doldrums zone, Azzam ground to almost a full halt, allowing Dongfeng and MAPFRE to sail around the outside. But ADOR responded immediately, setting about preventing the Chinese and Spanish crews from turning their overtaking move into an uncatchable breakaway.
Despite some of the tightest racing in the race so far, ADOR found the time to welcome ‘King Neptune’ aboard shortly before the Equator, for a long-standing maritime tradition for sailors making their first crossing of the line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres.
ADOR’s under-30 reserve Alex Higby took the initiation that took him from ‘Polywog’ (crossing the Equator for the first time) to ‘Trusty Shellback’, with his punishments including a having to drink a noxious smelling concoction put together by boat medic Phil Harmer, being daubed with the contents of the bilge and washing-up water, and being subject to some highly rudimentary hairstyling from the rest of the crew.
Meanwhile, as Dongfeng and MAPFRE continued to make gains in the east, ADOR stayed resolute on its more westerly track and was eventually rewarded with stronger breezes that put it bow-to-bow for the lead with the other two as it made the transition from the Doldrums into steadier easterly winds with 1,000 miles to go to Auckland.
When MAPFRE strayed too far east and dropped back bay 10 miles Dongfeng and ADOR found themselves less than a mile apart, locked in a close-quarters match race more akin to in-port rather than offshore racing.
The Spanish crew were far from out of contention however and as the leading trio approached the northeast coastline of New Zealand and ADOR opted for the inshore route to cover Dongfeng, MAPFRE stayed further offshore and held on to breeze for longer. By morning on February 28 – the 20th day of the Leg – the red yacht had poked its bow into the lead.
There were no regrets on Azzam however as Walker’s men had their eyes on the main prize. “Losing out to MAPFRE doesn’t mean much in the big picture,” Walker said. “Our absolute imperative is to make sure we beat Dongfeng to level the score overall.”
Remarkably, after more than 5,000 miles of ocean racing that had taken the fleet from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, and almost three weeks away from land, at sunrise on the final day the leading three were in clear sight of each other as they began the final 500-miles into Auckland.
And that’s the way they stayed for the rest of the final day as they first tacked along the New Zealand coast before hoisting gennakers to sail downwind towards Auckland through the Hauraki Gulf. Predictions of flat calm conditions close to Auckland that would have kept the teams out until the early hours of the following morning proved unfounded and the top three held on to the breeze all the way to the line.
Already palpable, the tension between the top three crews ratcheted up even further as night fell making the conditions even harder to read. ADOR stuck closely to its plan of tracking Dongfeng’s every move and blocking any advances the Chinese/French crew made. This allowed MAPFRE a clear run to the finish to take the victory at 2131 local time in New Zealand.
“We have been trying to hang on in front of Dongfeng for a few days and we just managed it, which is great because we know we can beat them in a tight battle and it puts us in first place overall,” said Walker.
“The finish was quite remarkable; to have three boats charging up towards the harbour less than a mile apart after thousands of miles of racing is simply incredible.
“The fact that we are now leading the race is a vindication of our race strategy of aiming for podium finishes. It has stood us in good stead so far and I see no reason to change going forward.”
The sailors now have a seven-day break in Auckland to recuperate, while the shore crew get Azzam stripped down serviced and ready to race again before the Auckland In-Port Race on March 14 and the start of Leg 5 to Itajaí, Brazil the following day.