John Kosteckis illbruck Challenge, the pre-start favorite of the Volvo Ocean Race was the first to reach the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone this morning. That bragging right, however, was a double-edged sword. As the first team to enter the squall-dotted zone north of the equator, illbruck hoped to be the first to escape, leaving its competitors wallowing as they blasted towards the next waypoint, the Archipelago de Fernando de Noronha off the coast of Brazil. On the other hand, as they sailed from cloud to cloud, working towards the exit door, those close behind could have reduced the gap, or worse, passed by under the cover of darkness. Yet, shortly before 2000 GMT, after an astonishingly short passage, illbruck reported that they were free.
“Well, after several calls that we were through, maybe this afternoon, we have finally sailed out of the doldrums,” wrote illbruck watch captain Mark Christensen. “From 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. there was not a squall cloud in sight but as our watch ended there were a couple approaching on the horizon, nothing too dramatic I hope. At least now, the wind direction is lining up with the forecasted direction and strength. We are currently on the wind in 10 knots with the masthead Code Zero up. The general feeling on the boat is upbeat. We were warned that we could lose our whole lead in the doldrums but we have escaped with a handy margin.”
Illbrucks apparent exit from the Doldrums will be a harsh reality for Gurra Krantzs Team SEB. Today, the crew onboard the Swedish entry is watching the fleet slip away at a frightening pace. The last 10 days have been an emotional roller coaster ride for them following a series of events sparked by a single broken mainsail headboard car. Forced to sail east to stop in the Canary Islands last week for parts, they were eventually on the historically unfavored side of the rhumb line. A bit of luck and strategy got them to more breeze, but with every mile they sailed south, they sacrificed as many miles towards Fernando de Noronha to the west. They were also putting themselves at risk of crossing the doldrums at one of its widest points.
They rode their southbound train into the lead this weekend, and at one point sat atop the leader board by 20 miles over illbruck. Yet, with each subsequent position report, illbruck and its pursuing pack-Roy Heiner and Mark Rudigers Assa Abloy, Kevin Shoebridges Tyco, and Ross Field and Jez Fanstones Team News Corp-were carving away at SEBs lead, mile by mile. By Saturday afternoon, illbruck had not only taken the lead, but also in doing so established the best 24-hour run in this race, 278 miles. Assa Abloy later upped that mark to 286 miles. The ride ultimately ended for SEB on Sunday as it slipped to fifth, and then sixth. In todays 1600 report, they were seventh, 160 miles in illbrucks wake.
“We have gone from great joy to great disappointment and I think we all feel a bit gutted but we have got used to it now and we are struggling for every meter to get out of the doldrums and into the southeasterly trades and start looking forward again,” SEBs navigator Marcel van Trieste told race headquarters. “I think where we missed out is when we did our easterly course after the Canary Islands, and, although that eventually paid off, it could have paid off earlier, it could have paid longer and it could have paid off a lot more.”
While the bells toll for SEB, the others in the lead pack, today Assa, Tyco, News Corp, and Grant Daltons Amer Sports One are focusing on either staying close to illbruck or avoiding windless clouds. At the latest position report, which reflects the ever-changing nature of the racecourse, Assa moved into second, passing Team News Corp in the process. “Halfway through this first leg and we have some hell of a yacht race with the first four boats in sight after 14 days,” said News Corps Fanstone. “As this carries on, what little hair I have left will be gray by the end.”
Tyco, after reportedly positioning itself to the west, slipped further behind News Corp. Amer Sports One continued to hold even despite reports from the boat of its Code Zero headsail exploding and halyard locks failing. Thus far, it has not been an easy first leg for the five-race veteran and his squad.
“This morning at 10:00 the sked news looked really good with big gains for our gray boat,” wrote navigator Roger Nilson on Sunday. “The last two skeds we had shown promising speed. Then it all started … the second, only remaining spinnaker lock at the masthead became history. It just simply gave in. We were about to change sail as the backside of the easterly wave [weather system] hit us, with strong southeasterly gusts and rain. But the spinnaker was stuck and we had to struggle downwind with Jeff Brock at the masthead. For a while we could not even get him down. After six sail changes in 2.5 hours, as the wind shifted a lot in direction and strength, we settled down with our fast code 3 reaching spinnaker. Back in the game we felt … bang … Suddenly the sail exploded and we have a vulnerable gap in our sail wardrobe.”