MIAMI, FLORIDA // In the 39-year, 11-edition history of the Volvo Ocean Race, this might be the biggest in-port race yet ... well, at least until the ones in June and July.
As the six entries zigzag out today to the open Atlantic Ocean waters off Miami, four jockey within 17 points of each other overall, easily the closest table in the history of a race long given to round-the-world dominations.
"We've known right from the start just how valuable every point was," said Chris Nicholson, the first-time Volvo skipper of the Spain-New Zealand entry Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand.
"Certainly as the race progresses there's more pressure being applied on these races. There's still the possibility this race might just boil down to the last race in Galway (Ireland, July 7), so that then you'd have to say, 'This last race in Galway, this is the race.'"
In-port races, which occur at each of the 10 stopovers, grant points in increments of only one, with six for the winner, five for the runner-up and so on.
The nine ocean legs in between grant points in increments of five (30, 25, etc.). Yet with front-running Telefonica (Spain) on 164 points, Groupama (France) on 153, Camper on 149 and Puma (United States) on 147, even one-point increments shout meaning.
In the practice race on Thursday, the boats vied so thickly for the prime starting position that the official boat amid them seemed almost imperilled. The congestion forced Camper, for one, to turn 360 degrees and restart.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam won that race, its role established as spoiler with its distant 68 points. The four contending teams have taken to rooting for Azzam to butt in and clip points from rivals.
Abu Dhabi's goal is "to try and get on the podium more," Ian Walker, the skipper, said.
"It's to try and save a bit of face, isn't it? Try and get back to where we were in the in-port races," of which Abu Dhabi won the first and third while lagging in ocean legs.
Telefonica, meanwhile, surged ahead by winning the first three ocean legs, but has won none of the last three while Puma, which retired from Leg 1 with a broken mast, has won the last two legs to barge into contention.
"We need to keep riding this crest," Ken Read, the Puma skipper, said.
The preciousness of points got a mighty demonstration in Leg 5, between New Zealand and Brazil, when Camper and Abu Dhabi met unexpectedly on the Chilean coast.
Each summoned shore-team members to mend broken boats. Crews shared a hotel. Almost frantically, Camper managed to repair its boat and continue while Abu Dhabi could not, a difference Abu Dhabi sailors attribute to the need for hauling Azzam out of the water, while Camper could stay wet during repairs.
Sailing alone almost two weeks behind the fleet, narrowly beating a spiteful weather system around Cape Horn at the base of South America, and withstanding some harshness near the Falkland Islands, Camper reached Itajai on April 17, just four days before that in-port race, for 15 of the most hard-won points in the whole circumnavigation.
Concerned for his team and hoping against further damage, Nicholson said: "I was just relieved that we scored the points," with those little things bigger than ever.
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