Volvo Ocean Race Victory: Anatomy Of A Risky Sailing Strategy

By Mark Corke

Only one Volvo Ocean Race skipper had the audacity to sail the course less taken — a gamble that paid off big time.

Dongreng winner of the 13th Volvo Ocean RaceThe Dongfeng Racing Team went big on a risky sailing strategy and went home with the hardware for winning the 13th edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. (Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race)

With seven boats in the race, three tied for the lead heading into the final leg, team MAPFRE representing Spain, which had the most consistent results through the previous 10 legs, was looking like the favorite to win not only the leg, but also overall victory in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race.

The start was June 21 for a leg estimated to be 970 miles from Gothenburg, Sweden, to The Hague in the Netherlands. Rather than a straight-line run, there was a mark the fleet had to go around just off the Danish coast in Aarhus (to provide an opportunity for locals in that area to see the boats).

Basically, there was only one route the boats could take from Gothenburg to Aarhus, and the fleet would not split up until they got around the Jutland Peninsula and out into the North Sea. The North Sea is shallow for the most part, and this makes the waves steep. There are also some areas the boats needed to avoid or they risked running aground.

As the boats went out into the North Sea, crews needed to decide whether to take an inshore route hugging the coast, or head out into the sea where there was a promise of stronger winds. Because of shoals, once a route was selected, they were committed. Although the boats had sophisticated weather software, things can and do change and strategies may not always work as planned. Winds early on were 30 knots, but these dropped to 12 to 15 later in the leg.

The Chinese-flagged boat Dongfeng decided early to take the inshore route, which could have delivered light winds and thus slower boat speeds. Also the North Sea has some hazards, such as oil platforms, wind farms, and traffic-separation schemes. MAPFRE chose to head out into the North Sea where stronger winds were predicted.

There was an area of high pressure over the British Isles, and this was predicted to move west leading to increasing wind speeds and a wind shift. The gamble was that no one could predict exactly when this would happen.

Dongfeng skipper Charles CaudrelierDongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier and his navigator plotted the winning course. (Photo: Martin Keruzore/Volvo Ocean Race)

On Dongfeng, skipper Charles Caudrelier and navigator Pascal Bidégorry had chosen a different and potentially longer route, staying close to shore, than their two closest rivals Team Brunel and MAPFRE. All three yachts had a chance at line honors, so coming into the final leg they had tremendous pressure to pick the best route and secure ultimate victory.

Caudrelier noted, "In my mind there were two reasons not to go offshore. There was a big risk of not having any wind at some stage. And the other reason was that, although it was 10 miles longer to take the coastal route, with all the jibing the other teams had to do, they must have been the ones who ended sailing 10 miles more. And that's where they lost it."

Caudrelier's strategy turned out to be correct. Unfortunately for the boats that took the offshore route, the wind shifted earlier than predicted, and this slowed them down. Rather than being on a reach (the fastest point of sailing for these boats), the wind came from astern, forcing them to jibe frequently, which was slower. 

Look for an in-depth report on the Volvo Ocean Race in an upcoming issue of BoatUS Magazine. For a look at how hard these racers go, check out this video of the fleet racing in 40-plus knot gusts and huge waves.

— Published: August 2018

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