…but no cigar

…but no cigar

Leg 3, Day 12
4February 2012
Ken Read Skipper, PUMA Ocean Racing

I bet that almost every final leg blog from any Volvo boat starts with…"This has been a tough leg." Don’t imagine any of you have ever heard a Volvo sailor saying, "This leg has been a breeze." None are. This was no exception. 

A quick recap from what seems so long ago. A light air beat/reach out of the Maldives. We did well with this portion of the leg showing as good speed as we have against the fleet. Night two, a bunch of squalls mixed it up and that is where Telefónica and CAMPER got to the north. Tele would never look back. I believe they lead on the water from that point on to Sanya. I know that your distance to the finish may say differently but the fact is, Telefónica sailed a flawless leg from that point on. Very impressive. 

We approached the Malacca Strait and we just snuck by CAMPER right at the northwest corner of Indonesia in a really fun battle in which Tele, CAMPER, Groupama and ourselves were within miles of each other. From there on, the Straits were the Straits. Dire straits at some times, and straight ahead in other times. A flukey bizarre place to be racing boats. The shipping traffic is always the main concern, but the amount of fishing and nets this time was far worse than I remember the last time I sailed through. As was the debris. Huge hunks of wood, plastic, trees, broken up canoes, refrigerators, you name it we either hit it or nearly hit it. During the day you are dodging and weaving through the mess. During the night you just pray. And clearly we didn’t pray enough because we became a snarled fish ourselves with Tele and Groupama just hundreds of meters away. Well documented by now, our fishing net incident has been dissected on board the boat. Could it have been prevented? Don’t see how. Handkerchief-size black flags to mark either end of a submerged net, at night or early am, doesn’t quite cut it on the visibility scale of 1-10.   

But, we exited the Straits within shouting distance of the leaders Tele and Groupama and there began our long slog north to China. Via Vietnam. Never thought I would be saying that. And, here is where our race was clearly defined. 

On board the boat between Tom [Addis] and myself there has always been two ways of approaching this section of the race. Straight ahead and beating up the Vietnam coast to get out of the north to south flowing current, or approaching from the east and spending your "easting" early and getting around the good side of two large tidal eddies that are prominent in the South China Sea. Avoiding the current that runs down the Vietnam coast was the key. We clearly liked the east option. 

The second night out of the Straits we were headed on starboard tack and tacked to port thinking this may be the ticket to the east for the fleet. To be honest, the Vietnam option looked dubious. The weather routing projections at the time relied on short tacking the coast (maybe 30-50 tacks over a 200+ mile range) in what was looking to be quite a windy and rough northeast "surge."  The northeast surge is what they call a butt whooping around here – 30+ knots of breeze and steep waves. So, our choices were to short tack a lee shore to get out of the current, or take your port tack early on a great shift in the middle of the ocean and sail into the "surge" from the east? We took the easterly route, obviously.   

What is strange about this sport sometimes is that your fate is given to you, like it or not. Once we tacked to port we had a fantastic shift, and when we looked at the scheds for the next 15 hours we kept the left shift that nobody else ever really appeared to get. We had breeze in the 30’s and everyone else was in the high 40’s and 50’s. In essence, we went where the wind gods took us and the others did the same thing. And, like Frank Cammas said in Leg 1 when they split from the fleet down the African coast…I was really surprised nobody else came the way we did. Clearly they saw something we didn’t. It didn’t work for us. 

Believe me, you never want to go on a flier. Our lives, on the water or not, are all about taking calculated risk. It is what Tom Addis and I do every minute of every day out here, manage risk against mother nature and the other competitors. We never thought we would be alone in our easterly option, yet once we committed we had to stay the course or give up a ton of mileage. It was lonely out there to the east, I must say. The old expression "Welcome to Cornersville, population 1" comes to mind. 

Also believe me, there were several times on our lonely little adventure that we thought we had nailed it. But it didn’t happen. It’s that simple. I put up my hand. At the end of the day it is my call and it didn’t work. So shake it off and get back into it. 

That we did. Very proud of this team; through the disappointment of the bad tactical call the team stayed focused and we managed to salvage only the loss of one boat in the overall scheme. We got back within sight of CAMPER and put away Abu Dhabi, but that wasn’t good enough to get back on the podium.   

So are we disappointed with a fourth on this long and brutally hot leg? Absolutely. Are there good things to be taken out of it? Of course. And we will continue to get better with several changes hopefully for the better here in China. 

One way to keep everyone upbeat on this leg was a running commentary by Tom as to where we would be and what we would have left on the course if we were going the Qingdao as we did in the last race. Storms and a thousand or so miles of additional upwind sailing. Not to mention sub-freezing temperatures and snow. That always brought a smile to everyone’s face. This leg as it stands is not in the record book as the most pleasurable by any stretch. Upwind sailing is not fun…period. But we do what we do, and we know it is in the brochure when we sign up. It’s the same for everyone and I can say that the boat and the team have held up remarkably well. 

So we get back into it. Simply trying to improve. Both in speed and decision making. We have a long way to go and a lot of unknowns and points on the board to be had. Deal with adversity the only way we know how – head on.   

And on a final personal note, last time we were in China I was having a hard time typing my final blog because it was freezing below in the boat, the end of my right index finger was missing and I was all hopped up on pain killers. I have gone back and read those blogs by the way, and the pain killers clearly bring out a dark yet creative side to human beings when it comes to writing. Anyway, we had a 42-day leg to look forward to and the best part about Qingdao was the bowling alley at the hotel we stayed at. My point, life goes on and we will keep pressing to get back onto the podium ASAP. Lets start by turning this around at the In-Port Race in Sanya. Don’t look too far ahead. Now, the expression "one step at a time" comes to mind.