2017-12-28 / News

U.S. captures bronze in third leg to Melbourne

Volvo Ocean Race fleet off to Hong Kong

Sailors aboard Vestas 11th Hour Racing battle through the mighty Southern Ocean en route to Australia from South Africa during the third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. The American boat finished third. 
SAM GREENFIELD/VOLVO OCEAN RACE Sailors aboard Vestas 11th Hour Racing battle through the mighty Southern Ocean en route to Australia from South Africa during the third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. The American boat finished third. SAM GREENFIELD/VOLVO OCEAN RACE Passage through the notorious Southern Ocean culminated with a third consecutive podium finish for the Americans in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race.

Rigorous racing from Cape Town to the Australian state capital of Melbourne challenged the crew of Vestas 11th Hour Racing, which departed Dec. 10 from South Africa. The team, led by Bristol native Charlie Enright, finished in third place on Christmas Day. The leg to Melbourne was worth double points, which moved Vestas to third place overall, just seven points from the lead.

“It was a tough leg, both physically and mentally,” said team co-founder Mark Towill, a Brown University teammate of Enright. “We are happy to be on the podium again and happy to be on land for Christmas.”

After struggling for the first few days out of Cape Town — starting in 30 knots of upwind conditions then transitioning into lighter, shifty wind— the U.S. boat caught the fleet by taking a northerly route and sailing a more favorable angle to get south by the fourth day. From there, the team sailed into the Southern Ocean in third place and held that position for thousands of miles of gybing along the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone. Known as the ice gates, the zone marks the southern boundary in which race officials have forbidden the yachts from crossing to prevent collisions with icebergs.

“We saw ice that was hundreds of thousands of years old when we were at the University of Cambridge last summer learning from the British Antarctic Survey,” said Danish sailor Jena Mai Hansen, a Volvo Ocean Race rookie who is onboard Vestas. “But I would like to keep it so that is the only ice we see in this race.”

That’s when strong winds and big seas pushed the sailors to their limits. During a gloomy stretch of days, the fleet faced winds in excess of 40 knots that defines the treacherous Southern Ocean.

“We are sending it down mountainous waves,” said onboard reporter Sam Greenfield on day five. “That is not an exaggeration. They look like something out of another world.”

Sailing as far south as possible allowed Vestas to travel the shortest distance to Melbourne, but the wind direction from astern means the trade-off is to constantly gybe in order to stay close to the ice gate.

“When it’s really windy like this, maneuvers are really expensive,” Enright said. “When you know it’s the right thing to do, but the right thing to do takes two hours and 100 percent of everybody’s effort, sometimes it’s hard to reach that conclusion. Lucky for us we bit the bullet and have stayed in touch with the group.”

The highest recorded gust on the blue boat was 50 knots, and the top boat speed was 38 knots. The crew gybed more than 30 times, including 10 maneuvers in 19 hours, with air and water temperatures below 50 degrees

“Cold, tired, stiff,” Greenfield said halfway through the leg. “Gybe after gybe after gybe. Grinding along the ice gate has turned us into a boat of the gybing dead.”

By the 11th day, Vestas passed the final ice gate and turned north for Melbourne. From there, the estimates looked like a Christmas arrival.

“It’s really nice to finally be free of the ice gates,” said Vestas navigator Simon Fisher, a Brit sailing in his fifth edition. “Now we’re looking forward to some fast sailing and getting warm.”

No one was happier than the two Australian sailors onboard, Stacey Jackson and Tom Johnson, who were excited to reach their homeland

“I really hope someone is waiting for me on the dock with a sausage with tomato sauce or a Vegemite sandwich” Jackson said 48 hours before finishing.

“I’m super excited about getting to Melbourne to see my family,” added Johnson. “The only thing on everybody’s mind right now is going fast.”

The team opted to go into stealth mode in the last push, which hides their position reports from its competitors. The leading boats MAPFRE and Dongfeng opted to turn north sooner than Vestas and Brunel, which finished fourth. When stealth mode was over, the team was sailing just 11 miles ahead of Brunel and closing the gap on Dongfeng.

It was the last stretch in the harbor in Melbourne that really pushed the sailors mentally. With warm showers and cold beers practically within sight, it was just a narrow channel full of ripping currents between the boat and the dock.

The sailors are now off to recover for a few days before proam sailing Saturday and the start of the fourth leg to Hong Kong on Jan. 2.

The fleet is expected to arrive in Narragansett Bay from Brazil in mid-May for its only North American stopover. The boats will depart Newport May 20 for the transatlantic leg to Cardiff, Wales.

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