As hordes of spectators weave through the Volvo Ocean Race village in Gothenburg, Sweden today, crews of the eight teams are busy combing through their boats, scuttling every ounce of excess weight. The forecast for the races final 250-mile leg to Kiel, Germany, which starts at 2 p.m. local time on Saturday, is for light air and lots of current. That forecast, and the narrow stretch of waterway in which they must sail, has navigators and weather forecasters pouring over weather and tide models, coming up with the answer to the all-important question: Which sails to take? Complicating matters for the navigators is the fact that the race committee intends shorten or lengthen the course midway to ensure the fleet finishes something afternoon, but before evening, on Sunday.
Once the race is underway there will be two battles for fans to follow–illbrucks defense of its lead against Mark Rudiger and Neal McDonalds Assa Abloy challenge, and the three-boat tango for third between Grant Daltons Amer Sports One, Jez Fanstones Team Tyco, and Ross Fields Team News Corp–all three tied on points.
For Assa, 5 points behind illbruck in the overall standings, winning this race would be a coup, to say the least; illbruck has been the overall race leader since winning Leg 1 nine months ago. Assa Abloys tactician Chris Larson, who has helped his team win all of the races inshore legs thus far, says there are two possible combinations for them to steal illbrucks fire: They must first win the leg and hope that illbruck finishes sixth or worse. With this combination, Assa would win on the tiebreaker. If Assa finishes second and illbruck seventh or last, Assa gets the win. Assa trained in the island-strewn waters off Gothenburg, and Rudiger says that will give them a distinct advantage. McDonald said the light air would suit his team just right. “Were just going to go in and sail like we have been, and sail hard. When the opportunities come our way were going to take them.”
As far as illbruck is concerned, the game plan is simple; they must either win the leg or never let Assa out of their sight. “I know one thing for sure,” says Kostecki. “Well be fast. Weve always been quite fast, which is a nice thing to have up your sleeve. One thing is weve done a good job managing our sail program, so we have some great light air sails–fresh sails. Im not sure any of our competitors have a fresh inventory, but we have brand new sails for this leg. Yes, light-air downwind sailing has been our weakness, but over the last three legs weve really worked on it. In the Miami to Baltimore leg we actually opened up our lead at times when it was light-air downwind conditions. So I dont think its a weakness for us anymore. Weve put sails in some of the gaps that other teams seem to have an advantage over us.
“Weve measured in a real light-air sail for less than 4 knots–a masthead sail. We expect to be reaching early on in the leg, and in light-air reaching conditions we have a huge advantage. People have been trying to copy us, but its really hard to copy sails–its impossible. You can get the idea, but you cant copy shape. With one particular sail, we had six or seven versions of it before we started racing. Weve since had to re-cut it and rebuild it using different fabrics. I know everyones been trying to copy it, but theyve been blowing their sails out because theyve got either the wrong fabric or the wrong shape.”
While the top-two teams tangle, theyll be trying to keep themselves out of the mix of the other boats–primarily Amer, Tyco, and News Corp. To beef up their afterguard, News Corp has called in tactician Peter Isler from the sidelines. Amer One currently stands on top of the threesome, but thus far, their Frers design has been lethal in only heavy upwind conditions. Unfortunately for Dalton, thats not the forecast. “You cant cover two boats; if you do that youll lose one of them,” he said at todays skippers briefing. “All we can do is sail as hard as we can; its not rocket science.”
In light of the forecast, Amer intends to sail with a full crew, but Tyco will swap out Mike Quilter and Guy Salter for Damian Foxall. News Corp will sail with 10–off the boat are Campbell Field, Nigel King, and Jeremy Robinson.
Gurra Krantzs SEB, Knut Frostads Djuice Dragons, and Lisa McDonalds Amer Sports Too, all well out of the running for a podium finish, will be doing everything they can to close out their challenges with respectable finishes. Krantz has added Gavin Brady to the afterguard, Djuice will sail the leg with only nine crew (leaving ashore Stig Westergaard, Erle Williams, and Aarve Roass. Frostads lead navigator Jean-Yves Bernot will be back at the nav station.