x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Volvo Ocean Race too important to be decided in-port

The winning boat deserves to be crowned at sea, not after a mini-race in an Irish bay.

Four boats are in contention to win the Volvo Ocean Race, with the remaining in-port races likely to help determine the winner. Rafael Marchante / Reuters
Four boats are in contention to win the Volvo Ocean Race, with the remaining in-port races likely to help determine the winner. Rafael Marchante / Reuters

We earthlings prefer that our sporting events wait until the last minute to decide themselves. Routs and blowouts can make us cranky enough to change channels and contribute to the unthinkable catastrophe of poor television ratings.

Imagine, then, a sporting event that hopes - fervently - that it will not come down to the end.

Well, imagine you are racing around the world in 70-foot boats. You withstand four oceans, umpteen seas and a thousand chunks of debris in the Malacca Strait. You demonstrate your mettle in the vicious Southern Ocean, which possesses not a mite of concern for your well-being.

You go around the snarling Cape Horn. You sleep irregularly, eat freeze-dried food and spend entire weeks shower-less. Day in and day out, you grapple with nature's fiendish puzzle, mining your depths of fatigue just groping for an edge.

Then, after 39,270 nautical miles, the whole thing comes down to a merry little hour-long spectacle in an Irish bay, a mini-race designed to please spectators and sponsors.

In two words: please, no.

A brief primer on the Volvo Ocean Race: it has nine ocean legs ranging from 485 nautical miles to 6,705, with seven of them exceeding 3,500. For each of those, the six entries reap points based on finish, on a 30-25-20-15-10-5 scale.

It has 10 stopovers, including Abu Dhabi last January, with each staging an in-port race in which tactically hurried contestants weave around markers, often visible from shore. For each of those, the six entries vie for points on a 6-5-4-3-2-1 scale, even though the distances are nowhere near 20 per cent of the yawning ocean legs.

That is clunky maths, but this is, after all, a new, 39-year-old, 11-edition event still finding its way.

Now, back in those days when everybody says everything was better than now even though it wasn't, this event did not have these in-port races. Those grizzled old sailors just went from port to port. And even when the in-port race concept debuted in 2005/06, the race still never confronted its riddle of 2011/12. The best boat would get ahead early and stay there.

Oh, but now, the eighth of nine ocean legs has begun with four boats in contention. Team Groupama (France) leads at 189 points, with Telefonica (Spain) at 181, Puma (United States) at 176 and Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand (Spain/New Zealand) at 166.

After all the sweat lay four more chances at points: the two shortest ocean legs (Portugal-France and France-Ireland) and two remaining in-port races. Already there is a kerfuffle over the in-port race last Saturday at Lisbon, with the Telefonica team protesting a penalty that cost it somewhere between one and five dear points.

If nobody clinches before the in-port race on July 7 at Galway, Ireland …

Please, no.

Mike Sanderson - whose name is engraved on the trophy as skipper of the winning boat in 2005/06 - is the current skipper of the sixth-place Team Sanya (China). At the press conference last Friday in Lisbon, he answered a question about something else and then volunteered: "I just hope it doesn't come down to the in-port race in Galway. Let's hope these ocean warriors can duke it out in the next couple of legs."

Arriving at Galway unsolved, he said, would be "a great shame".

If you stated that in-port races do not rank among the favourite endeavours of hardy ocean sailors, nobody would accuse you of inaccuracy. "What we're asked to do in these in-port races is very, very tough," Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper, said, citing the "sailing in very confined spaces".

Still, Walker and the others comprehend the value for fans and sponsors. The in-port race in Lisbon's Tagus River last Saturday may not have been the most momentous sporting event going, but it might have been the most gorgeous, the boats almost reach-out-and-touchable as they surged toward the 25 de Abril Bridge. The boats suffer the congestion of the spectator boats and the TV boats yet benefit from the spectator boats and the TV boats.

Asked if in-port races should count for so many points, Walker quipped, "I think they should be a lot more," a reference to Azzam winning three of the eight in-port races thus far, most in the fleet.

More seriously, he said, "No, I can't change my stance," which from the outset was that they should count for less.

Implicit, of course, was that they shouldn't count for the whole thing.


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