Published: Wednesday, 21 January 2015

[Editor's note: As of Wednesday morning in Asia, Dongfeng's lead over Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing was 46.7 nautical miles, with MAPFRE in third 51.1nm behind the Chinese boat.]

Dongfeng Race Team saw a runaway lead in Leg 3 cut down to less than 30 nautical miles on Tuesday as the Malacca Strait caused headaches galore for all the fleet.

Malacca Strait A Nightmare For Dongfeng In Volvo Race 3

(Photo: Sam Greenfield/Dongfeng Race Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

A day earlier, the Chinese boat had been surfing towards an apparently easy win into its homeport of Sanya on Hainan Island with an advantage of more than 106nm on the chasing pack.

But as the sun arose on Tuesday in the Malacca Strait, the 500nm stretch of water that separates the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Malaysia, the early position reports told a completely different story.

While the rest of the fleet were flying along in good pressure, Skipper Charles Caudrelier and his crew were effectively moored up in zero wind. At one stage, their lead was cut to about 16nm.

Slowly but surely the weather gods finally smiled again on Dongfeng Race Team, which could be the first Chinese-backed team to win a leg in the 41-year-old race.

By 1240 GMT on Tuesday, Dongfeng’s third leg lead over Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (Ian Walker) was back to 29.8nm with MAPFRE (Xabi Fernandez) 1.5nm further adrift in third.

Malacca Strait A Nightmare For Dongfeng In Volvo Race 1

(Photo: Sam Greenfield/Dongfeng Race Team/Volvo Ocean Race)

For Walker and his crew, it has been a roller coaster 24 hours in which they have progressed from fourth to second despite having to drop anchor at one point when the strong Malacca Strait current threatened to push them backwards in a particularly windless zone.

The technique, known as kedging, is legal providing there is no forward propulsion caused by the procedure, which took around 10 minutes to carry out.

Fifth-placed Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED) and MAPFRE also followed suit for a short period before normal sailing was resumed.

Boats in the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race (2011-12) had to take similar measures as they approached the Leg 7 finish in Lisbon when the strong current caused a reverse tide flow in the River Tagus.

Malacca Strait A Nightmare For Dongfeng In Volvo Race 4

(Photo: Francisco Vignale/MAPFRE/Volvo Ocean Race)

The leaders have around 1,350nm still to sail with the most testing stretch of the entire 4,670nm leg from Abu Dhabi still ahead as they weave through a 1.5nm gap towards the end of the Malacca Strait, past Singapore, and out in to the South China Sea.

For Caudrelier, so determined to make his mark in the Volvo Ocean Race history books in Sanya, it has been a tortuous time. Victory in Sanya would give Dongfeng Race Team the outright race lead after three legs. Dongfeng set out from Abu Dhabi tied on four points with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Brunel.

“No wind, the current is against us. Our boat speed to the goal is maybe zero so it’s a nightmare for a leader,” he said.

To add to his problems, the Malacca Strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and the fleet will need to dodge huge tankers while watching out for a mass of man-made debris plus all kinds of stationary and slow-moving fishing vessels.

Malacca Strait A Nightmare For Dongfeng In Volvo Race

(Photo: Sam Greenfield/Dongfeng Race Team/Volvo Ocean Race)


“I dreamt that Alvimedica overtook us and woke up crying.” – Dongfeng Shore Crew member

Malacca Strait A Nightmare For Dongfeng In Volvo Race 5

(Photo: Amory Ross/Team Alvimedica/Volvo Ocean Race)

The beauty of a game like tennis, football or even athletics is that it’s all over in a matter of hours. No more screaming at the TV, stressing over the score on the radio or cheering your favourite team on so loudly that even the neighbours down the street can hear, you can relax because it’s over and you know the score. Yes, we like those sports, the ones that aren’t 9 months long.

It’s so easy as a spectator to will something to happen, you can get so emotionally involved that getting cross at your player or team is almost a given. Why aren’t you winning? It’s so easy – just go faster, hit harder! We’ve all been there and we’re there again today.

The past 24 hours have seen the pure madness of the Malacca Straits and its patchy weather conditions absorb Dongfeng’s hard-earned 100+ nautical mile lead and spit it out as almost nothing.

Team Brunel is calling it a restart, Alvimedica is calling it a chance and Dongfeng is calling it a nightmare.

The following extract from Onboard Reporter Sam Greenfield’s blog give an idea of what the Dongfeng team is experiencing after helplessly watching 70+ nautical miles evaporate into thin air”

I asked Charles about the past 24 hours. He didn’t really answer so I asked him to sum it up in one word. “Nightmare, nightmare” he says. He doesn’t even look at me.

Pinned down by windless zones and adverse currents, this stretch of the leg was always going to be a lottery but the reality of leading the fleet for 16 days and the prospect of winning the home leg to China got into the heads of the Dongfeng crew. “Subconsciously we keep fantasising about arriving home first,” said Charles, “We’re not thinking about what it’s doing to us mentally.”

The forecasts all suggest that once the fleet escape this part of the Straits, they could have stronger northeasterly winds to carry them down the narrowest part to Singapore. But as we’ve seen, the madness of Malacca can throw just about any boat it wants. Let’s just hope it is someone else’s turn next to feel its wrath, and that Dongfeng will have just a little sprinkling of good luck tonight and make it to Singapore with some kind of reasonable position in the fleet intact.

There’s still 1352 miles to go, but the reality is this leg is about to start again from stretch and this is the cruel (although lucky for some) fate of offshore sailing and it’s painfully unpredictable nature.