Onboard Exclusive: Volvo 60 Match Racing

What it’s like to end a 10-day leg with a Hauraki Gulf match race

Its been a couple of days now since we finished the 10-day race from Sydney, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand via Hobart, Tasmania. The finish was as close and exciting as any race could be. For the last 2000 miles, we were never more than a few miles away from another Volvo 60 -- usually race leader Illbruck -- always within sight so we could easily monitor small gains and losses with our radar. After rounding New Zealand’s North Cape--one of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen--we were locked in a battle with Illbruck and Tyco. At stake were valuable points in this nine-race--round the world series, the Volvo Ocean Race.

Thanks to a small head start at the ‘restart’ in Tasmania--and a good tactical call early on--Assa Abloy soon was out to an insurmountable lead in first that at times exceeded 100 miles, and Amer Sports also enjoyed a safe second position in the breakaway. But third place was not going to be so easily determined¿ with the three of us always within a mile of each other (in distance to the finish) for the final 12 hours. Jibing downwind in a building breeze off of the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, in the pitch black, the tactics involved were more akin to a short buoy race than an ocean race.

As a cold front closed on the coast line, we made our move aboard Team News Corp and reached up and over the top of Illbruck and into the “lead” (i.e. third place) of less than two boat lengths with Tyco less than a mile astern. From there it was a sea saw battle as we approached the northern edge of the Hauraki Gulf, scene of the America’s Cup and a very familiar body of water for me. As the front neared, the breeze piped up to over 30 knots. Exhilarating conditions aboard these water-ballasted craft¿and our boat speeds were steadily in the high teens and low 20s. The breeze shifted from the north to the west as we expected and the crew pulled off an excellent jibe in trying conditions. Illbruck wasn’t so lucky and we gained another couple of lengths as they spun out and lay on their side--spinnaker flapping for a few precious seconds.

Honestly at this point I thought that we’d achieved our goal. We were closer to the finish -- hot reaching towards the line less than 12 miles away and both Tyco and Ilbruck were slightly aft of abeam and farther downwind--with a slower sailing angle to the line. Plus the wind was expected to shift further left--any minute now--solidifying our lead. But fate had not finished dealing all the cards, and as we surged through the beautiful Tiri passage in the dawn hours, Illbruck had drawn even and the breeze was starting to fade and shift back to the north, which was unfavorable for us, the most westerly boat. Meanwhile a pod of helicopters with TV camera crews (carrying the action live back to shore) and photographers were relishing the drama unfolding within sight of downtown Auckland.

So in a body of water where I have sailed countless match races ¿we were locked in a real doozy. Since the Volvo Ocean Race is scored by position across the finish line rather than time, a few precious feet either way were going to mean a lot on the scoreboard. As the breeze dropped from the 30s to the 20s Illbruck squeezed in front of us by less two boat lengths. We would remain that close or closer right up until the finish. Meanwhile, streaking in from the east side of Tiri Tiri Island was Tyco -- a boat we were sure had lost out big time on the shift. But due to the dying of the breeze and the shift north, she was able to carry a tight reaching spinnaker towards the finish, whilst Illbruck and us battled on a broader, slower more downwind angle. At one point I thought it ironic that here I was hoping for more of the 28 knot and stronger puffs we’d experienced a few miles before, in the same body of water where--aboard an America’s Cup boat I would be hoping for the race committee to abandon racing because of excessive winds. That highlights a major difference between the AC boat and the Volvo 60--the latter is built for strong winds and going around the world¿at remarkably fast speeds--and a very, very wet ride. But one similarity is the closeness of the racing. Aboard Illbruck, skipper John Kostecki had obviously decided that they were going to match us, jibe for jibe, all the way in.

As we passed the volcanic island of Rangitoto--only about 2 miles from the finish--it was clear Tyco had pulled off the old end-around and gone from fifth to third. It hardly seemed fair, but this leg had a lot of that for us. Meanwhile Illbruck and Team News Corp were bow to stern, going jibing with heavy asymmetrical spinnakers flying in the dropping breeze. Neither crew wanted to risk the short-term loss of a sail change to put on a lighter spinnaker. Despite 10 days at sea--deprivation of sleep (both crews had gone into sprint mode all night long) and clothing damp right down to the bone--it was all forgotten as we attacked trying to steal the wind of Illbruck. With just a half mile to go we still hadn’t gotten past, so I called for a final jibe so that we passed underneath the wind shadow of North Head, a famous landmark for any Kiwi yachtsman. It was our last chance, maybe somehow we would ghost through the hole in better shape than Illbruck, which was less than 30 feet ahead of us. But such was not to be: Illbruck survived the wind hole better than us and eased off to a several minute margin to take fourth place.

After finishing--amidst the fanfare of New Zealand yachtsmen who had come out to witness the closest and most thrilling finish in Volvo history--as we dropped our sails, coiled our lines, and turned on the engine, the numbness of coming fifth rather than our goal of third hit hard, as well as that bone-tired feeling of a punishing 10 days racing. No doubt this crew will live to fight another day--and over the past 10 days we had proven that our boat and team were the equal of any boat in the race--but that doesn’t do much in the short term to take away the bitter disappointment we felt.

To add to our woes, the left shift we had been counting on breezed in right after we finished--an hour earlier and we would have been golden. And as the commuters drove into Auckland for another day at the rat race, the clouds opened up and poured rain¿. Welcome to New Zealand!

The Volvo Ocean Race really does it right when it comes to maximizing the publicity surrounding the racing, and one neat feature is that when each boat finishes it receives a formal welcome at the awards dock, right in front of all the fans. It’s about a 30-minute ceremony, so because we three boats had finished so close that meant that we had to kill about an hour motoring around the harbor in the rain whilst Tyco and then Illbruck received their accolades--the just desserts of finishing ahead. Finally it was our turn and we pulled into the Viaduct Basin just as two of Oracle Racing’s America’s Cup boats towed out for a day at the “office”. By now I was feeling pretty much brain dead, as always after a long ocean race, but it was nothing a 14-hour sleep couldn’t rectify.

And so ended my first experience in the Volvo Ocean Race--disappointing, yes, but at least we gave it a good battle, and proved to ourselves once and for all that this race was within the team’s grasp. In fact, but for some very bad luck around the south tip of Tasmania on the first part of the leg, we would have enjoyed a jump similar to the one that helped propel Assa Abloy into their success into New Zealand.

Now, one third of the regatta is complete and Team News Corp stands third on points. With a bit of good fortune, hard work, and safe sailing, I firmly believe this crew can win.

My focus is now shifting to the Stars & Stripes America’s Cup campaign, so I won’t be aboard for the next few legs, but I will rejoin Team News Corp and sail some of the shorter legs later in the series. The next leg is a biggie, the second and final southern ocean leg--from Auckland, around Cape Horn to Rio. The crews have three weeks to get themselves and their boats healed.