Vestas 11th Hour Racing have won Leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race, crossing the finish line in the River Tagus in Lisbon, Portugal this afternoon.
It’s a tremendous victory for American skipper Charlie Enright and his team, who earn 8 points for their efforts (including a one point ‘bonus’ for winning the leg).
It wasn’t easy. The wind shut down on the final approach, and an early morning lead of 34-nautical miles over second-placed MAPFRE was whittled down to 10-miles, with the finish in sight, but the current in the river even pushing the leaders back out to sea in some of the lulls.
But the crew on the Vestas boat held their nerve, tacking first up and then down, zigzagging towards the line, into agonisingly light headwinds, and finally securing victory with MAPFRE in turn just starting to slow down, still some 9-miles back.
“It’s incredible,” said Mark Towill, Team Director, from on board the boat moments before the finish.
“What a way to kick off the event. it’s been an incredible performance for the team… It’s been a challenging leg. We still have a lot to improve and long way to go… Today is our day, we’ll enjoy it, but then we have to get back to work and focus on the next leg.”
Charlie Enright is the third American skipper to win Leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race. The others were John Kostecki, on illbruck in 2001-02, and Paul Cayard on EF Language in 1997-98. Both of those teams went on to an overall victory – so the omens for Charlie Enright are certainly good.
Vestas 11th Hour Racing – which carries US and Danish flags – are the first American flagged team to win Leg 1. They are also the first Danish team to win a leg.
“We have a long way to go certainly, but this was a good way to start,” said skipper Charlie Enright. “SiFi (navigator Simon Fisher) did a great job. He didn’t really make any missteps. But every sked is nerve-wracking, especially when you’re stuck in a river going backwards!
“But we pride ourselves on not getting too high or too low and I think we executed that on this leg. It’s about having confidence in ourselves and committing to the process and now we’re starting to see the results of that.”
The winners weren’t the only team to have an excruciating finish experience. When MAPFRE was within 1.5 miles of the line, they too ran out of wind and had to watch Dongfeng Race Team rush into the river behind them. With only a small lead as a buffer, the tension for Spanish fans was rising fast.
But as Vestas did before them, the MAPFRE crew found a little zephyr of wind to finish 15-minutes ahead of the Chinese team.
“Very pleased with the result. It’s a solid start, exactly what we wanted. We’re very happy,” said Xabi Fernández, the skipper of MAPFRE immediately after finishing. “We have to say Vestas did very well early on and we didn’t see them again… But then we had a strong 12-hours after Gibraltar and we stepped it up there.”
The experience and desire of the MAPFRE crew was on full display in the 30+ knot winds they had pushing out of the Mediterranean on the second night. Fernández and his team put in more manoeuvres than the rest of fleet to stay in a narrow band of strong winds and emerged from the experience in the second place slot they would never relinquish.
Dongfeng Racing Team skipper Charles Caudrelier made an excellent recovery on Leg 1, needing to scratch and claw for every inch, after falling to the back of the fleet on the approach to Gibraltar. And fight they did, slowly reeling in the fleet and finally recovering to pass team AkzoNobel with only 220 miles to go, to complete the podium.
“The first 24 hours were bad,” Caudrelier said. “After that we sailed very well with good speed and good decisions and finally we managed to pass akzoNobel to finish in third so it was a good effort by the team.”
The drama didn’t end with the podium places decided. Just over an hour later, team AzkoNobel were forced to fend off a late charge from Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, who attempted to make the pass by sailing slightly closer to the coast. It nearly worked too. But in the end, Simeon Tienpont and his team grabbed fourth, with SHK/Scallywag settling for fifth.
“I’m unbelievably proud of the guys and girls on board,” Tienpont said. “I couldn’t say it enough during the leg to them… We went out with a full ‘streetfight’ mentality and my compliments to all the sailors. The team morale was high and we sailed our socks off!”
“I’ve never finished like that before,” Scallywag skipper David Witt said “We tried to get akzoNobel by coming down the shore. It was pretty close… then we got stuck on the bottom… we had to swim an anchor out to get us off the rocks so we could drift across the finish line!
“(But) we’re really happy. We were right in there for most of it… We’re on the up. We’re getting better. Look out in a couple of legs time.”
The race for the final two positions was as intense as any that came before. Although it was a battle for sixth and seventh place, both Team Brunel and Turn the Tide on Plastic pushed as hard as possible to earn the extra point.
As with the boats in front, it was a slow-motion dance to the finish line, with Brunel gliding across in the dark, guided by America’s Cup star Peter Burling, to secure sixth place.
“We’re a bit frustrated,” skipper Bouwe Bekking said. “We weren’t very fast. We never reached out target speeds… but we’ve been fighting hard and it was actually an enjoyable leg… The boys and the girls sailed the boat nicely right to the end.”
That left seventh place for Dee Caffari’s Turn the Tide on Plastic.
“I’m gutted, we came last,” Caffari laughed at the dock after the finish. “We just had the greatest two-boat testing with Team Brunel for 200 miles, so it was fantastic.”
But the glory for Leg 1 goes to Vestas 11th Hour Racing, who completed Leg 1 in 6 days, 2 hours, 8 minutes and 45 seconds.