x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Leg 2 of Volvo Ocean Race strewn with challenges

As if the Volvo Ocean Race was not complicated enough, competitors will now have to tackle issues such as threat of pirates on their way to Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team prepare for Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race, which starts on Sunday.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team prepare for Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race, which starts on Sunday.

Much of the chatter here has concerned pirates because, in general, people do like to chatter about pirates, as Johnny Depp well knows.

Still, the anti-pirate modifications that will mark the Volvo Ocean Race Leg 2 that begins on Sunday and streams for Abu Dhabi should not occlude two other matters. Leg 2 might well become a sailing donnybrook, and it might even owe part of its fascination to the modifications themselves.

After all, in addition to all the strategic vagaries and fickle low-pressure systems and Agulhas currents and wildlife-and-debris in the ocean the race already flings, Leg 2 has that niche, however much a bummer.

It is the only one in the 38-year history of the race with a secret port and a sturdy ship picking up the whole fleet.

That does present a fresh visual, even if Groupama 4 skipper Franck Cammas said of hoisting up yachts, "It's not a big deal".

And even if Ken Read, the Puma skipper, having seen a ship corral his yacht near the improbably remote Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, said, "We were picking a boat out of the middle of the ocean with two-metre swells ... Where I think we're going is a little more controlled than what we did. I do not recommend lifting a boat out of a two-metre swell, because I'm still shaking over that one."

There might come compelling administrative decisions, as when Knut Frostad, the race chief executive, noted, "If a [trailing] boat is 10 minutes away" from the pick-up time, "we are not going to leave. If it's a thousand miles away, obviously it's a different scenario."

The glitch will, of course, divide the leg into two point-gathering segments, and sort of make it two legs in one.

"We'll be racing to a point, and getting there as fast as we can," said Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper. From there, their trail will vanish from the screens for a while.

Well beyond even all of that, though, Leg 2 might be a reason for people to check on a sailboat race in the small hours, even those who never in life expected to check on a sailboat race in the small hours.

It has the three boats - Abu Dhabi's entry, Azzam, Puma and Team Sanya - recovering from busted parts and first-leg retirements. It has six boats which hardly got to look at each other during Leg 1 - with only Telefonica and Puma sailing as neighbours for any duration - learning who is fast during a truncated Leg 2.

What's more, it has weird weather.

"I would say it's normally not like this, as they say at just about every regatta you go to around the world," said Walker.

"The [weather] models are changing all the time.

"I think there are going to be some difficult days ahead for the navigators.

And potentially, there's not going to be as much hard, downwind sailing as we would like," Walker added.

On Saturday, he asked for a notebook and pen and began to draw. (Note: football managers never, ever do this.)

He drew a creditable likeness of South Africa, then pointed out that traditionally, boats will leave here and scream due south or even oddly southwest to find the westerlies of the top part of thae Southern Ocean. Eight times out of 10, those westerlies show up there.

Well, those westerlies have not taken a hike, he said. They have not even phoned ahead to RSVP regrets.

"The westerlies look a little further south," he said, which "makes the route a lot further to sail" and presents "quite difficult dilemmas."

That might - might - prompt sailing nearer South Africa, saddling up on a low-pressure system and maybe even coursing through an intersection of current and weather that could produce waves of ... well, he pointed to buildings to guess their height.

All that, plus some "pretty big doldrums to cross," Walker added.

Only four things seemed guaranteed:

- It gets really real, as Camper skipper Chris Nicholson indicated when he said on Saturday, "The switch is flicked. We're going offshore now."

- The French won't stray this time, puckish as it was, their lonely hug of the West African coast on Leg 1 for a distant third, of which Cammas said, "We were confident in this option ... and we were wrong for sure."

- "Some sunshine and nice weather as we approach Abu Dhabi," as Walker guaranteed a press conference on Friday.

- "The fleet will be very tightly packed coming in to Abu Dhabi" in early January, Walker said, "so that'll be quite a fun finish," owing to the secret details of the pirate-averting detour.

Beyond those, most anything. Leg 2 has all the marks of a good story, which we all still love to be told, even in the small hours on a laptop.


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