Overall Volvo Ocean Race leaders, Ian Walker (GBR) and his seven Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crewmates, left Lisbon for Leg 8 to Lorient, France, on Sunday with their eyes glued on the weather forecast – and the progress of their two closest rivals.
The penultimate 647-nautical mile (nm) stage is the shortest of the nine-month race by some way, but no less challenging for that.
Walker summed up: “There are light winds chasing up the Portuguese coast, but by the time we get to Cape Finisterre, it should be a dead beat to Lorient (France), and probably quite windy, over 30 knots.”
He is banking on plenty of upwind sailing. “It’ll be interesting as we haven’t had a lot of upwind in this race. We don’t really know what the pecking order is in these conditions, so it could be a very different leg from the others.”
The fleet, restored to seven boats again after the return of Team Vestas Wind (Chris Nicholson/AUS) in Lisbon, following the rebuild from the collision with a reef in Leg 2, should take three to four days to reach Lorient on the Brittany coast.
In-form MAPFRE made the early pace on Sunday at the start of Leg 8 (1400 local time/1300 UTC), only to be relegated to second place by Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED) as the fleet left the final mark behind.
Conditions in the Tagus River proved to be extremely challenging as the fleet attempted to deal with the tough, near windless conditions, couple with a very strong tide.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, however, were towards the back of the pack, not quite the start that Walker and his crew would have wanted.
The race is intriguingly poised with the Emirati boat, on paper, able to clinch overall victory if results go their way when the boats arrive after around four days of sailing.
However, he brushed aside all premature talk of that prospect at the pre-leg press conference on Friday.
“There’s a lot of this race left. In offshore sailing, you can lose it going up a river at the end,” he said.
“I’ve seen Admiral’s Cups lost in the dying seconds. We’re a long, long way from winning this race. When you start to think you’ve got it won, that’s when you start to lose.
“I prefer not to even look at the scoreboard – these guys (his rival skippers) know they still have plenty of chance to beat us in this race.”
It is not just Team Brunel and Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA), who will want to upset Walker’s bid to claim the trophy.
MAPFRE (Xabi Fernández/ESP) are currently in red-hot form. They were narrowly pipped at the end of Leg 7 into Lisbon by Team Brunel, but bounced back with a paper-thin, in-port race victory here on Saturday at the expense of Walker’s boat.
Their cause is boosted by a desire to underline their credentials as one of the classiest crews in the fleet, after two separate brushes with the independent, international jury following rule breaches, which have cost them a total of three points.
Similarly, Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/USA) are improving leg on leg, and have garnered two podium places in the last 10 days: third in Leg 7 and the same position in the in-port race.
They spent much of their pre-race build-up based in Lisbon, training in the Tagus River and nearby Cascais and were hoping to make that local know-how pay in the early stages of the leg.
Team Vestas Wind are simply delighted to be back in the mix again, after climbing their own Everest to repair their shattered boat in time to re-join the fleet for the final two legs.
Team SCA (Sam Davies/GBR) know that the last two, sprint, coastal legs offer them their best chance of upsetting the established order of dominance.
They too have improved leg after leg, but that progress has yet to be rewarded on the scoreboard. Davies, whose home is near Lorient, would love nothing better than to claim their best results at the climax of the 12th edition.
“It’s a shorter leg, a sprint, which is a little bit different. We know that we can stay with the group – we’ve been in the lead after three or four days in other legs,” she said in a pre-leg interview.
“We have a good chance. These last two legs are the ones that stay in everyone’s memory at the end of the race.”
The fleet is expected to reach Lorient early on Thursday (June 11). They will have a short maintenance period there before setting off for the final leg to Gothenburg, via a pit-stop in The Hague, on Tuesday, June 16.
The event finishes with an in-port race in Gothenburg on June 27. In all, the boats will have covered 38,739nm and visited 11 ports and every continent.
Current latest standings (low points wins, In-Port Race Series splits ties): 1) Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 16 pts, 2) Team Brunel (Netherlands) 22, 3) Dongfeng Race Team (China) 22, 4) Team Alvimedica (Turkey/U.S.) 27, 5) MAPFRE (Spain) 27, 6) Team SCA (Sweden) 43, 7) Team Vestas Wind (Denmark) 52.