x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bleak forecast gives Volvo Ocean Race sailors jitters ahead of Leg 4

Conditions have been deemed 'dangerous' for the stage which starts on Saturday.

The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew take part in a practice race in Sanya, China, on Thursday.
The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew take part in a practice race in Sanya, China, on Thursday.

SANYA, China // The fourth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race does not start until tomorrow afternoon, but already it roils with contempt and dread.

Mother Nature will supply the contempt, and the sailors are feeling the dread.

"We're going to get punished for something we didn't do," the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing bowman Justin Slattery half-joked on Thursday.

He may have spoken in the still air of the stopover village on this island of Hainan – with wind so dormant the practice race was abandoned – but the brunt of chatter around here comes from a meteorologist having spoken from an office in Spain.

That would be Gonzalo Infante, the race's chief meteorologist, who has eyeballed the first two days of the 5,200-nautical-mile push for New Zealand and dragged out the foreboding language.

His assessments included: "Conditions will be very dangerous, pushing man and boat close to the extreme," and, "ultimately the teams will go into survival mode to make it through the South China Sea unscathed."

That owes to a monsoon revving up to the north of Taiwan, which by Saturday will have helped itself to the entire sea, its north-easterly winds lapping at 40 knots.

As of Thursday, the disturbance figured to last until at least Tuesday.

"Right now it looks like a day and a half of what could be a sustained 40 knots, gusting to 50, and big seas," said Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi skipper.

As Walker explained, even if the wind opts to ebb relative to forecast, it still will have spent days agitating the sea into a huff. For the six boats, the scenario forges one haunting memory with at least three potential ramifications.

For the memory, sailors need only recollect the last Volvo Ocean Race, which doubled as the first to course through this region.

The Singapore-to-Qingdao Leg 4 of January 2009 might have looked meek at 2,500 nautical miles, but the race CEO Knut Frostad wound up branding it the harshest in the race's then-36-year history.

The eight boats got strewn all over the seascape, all but one notably damaged. Three withdrew from the leg. Some hung out in Philippines bays for refuge.

Those included Puma, in front by 10 miles when its boom broke, and Green Dragon with both Walker and Slattery aboard, which moored in Salomague Bay after extended agony. Walker spoke in the New York Times of "fearing for our boat and for each other", deeming it "very satisfying on a personal level to get through it" and finish fourth, because "for a while we didn't know that would happen".

At the time he told of repairing a broken frame by using cut-up chunks of a carbon media desk – that took 18 hours, six for epoxy glue to cure – and on Thursday Slattery told of four or five days of nothing but "catnaps" and two days of "basically babysitting the boat" across 620 nautical miles back to the Philippines.

Asked for a specific memory, he said: "They're all the parts you forget. If you remembered those, you wouldn't be here."

Known for his toughness, he nonetheless quipped that the forecast makes him want to "get back on an airplane".

This storm, he said, "is going to be worse than that", which flings questions related to scheduling, rhythm and strategy.

Any decision on whether to postpone departure still lay well off as of Thursday, with the brevity of the Auckland stopover – probably 12 or 13 days – factoring in. Walker had not formed his opinion just yet.

On the one side, he said: "Nobody wants the whole fleet decimated, right?" On the other, he said: "Having said that, there's an argument that the boats are sailing around the world," but, he said, "It's very easy on shore, in shorts and a T-shirt and sunshine, and full of bravado, to say, 'Oh, we've just got to get on with it'."

As the front-running Telefonica did not even go out for the practice race and redid its rigging partly out of forecast-related caution, Slattery and Infante used the familiar term "survival conditions".

Said Slattery: "You're looking after yourself and the boat, leaving the fight for another day."

He rued the timing and wondered about strategy.

The timing, he said, will scuttle the usual accumulation of rhythm as a leg begins.

As for the strategy, he said: "It's going to be interesting to see how we all end up handling this. I would suspect everybody would just back off and look after the boat."