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Volvo Ocean Race: Telefónica fend off challengers in tightest of races

27/01/2012
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Telefónica (Iker Martínez/ESP) leads from PUMA’s Mar Mostro (Ken Read/USA), CAMPER (Chris Nicholson/AUS) and Groupama 4 (Franck Cammas/FRA) in a fight that will last at least 25 nautical miles to Statue Point situated on the northern tip of Pulau We, the island the fleet must leave to starboard before entering the Malacca Strait.

Overnight the weather played a big part in juggling the leaderboard. At 0700 UTC this morning, Team Telefónica were clinging onto a lead of 1.5 nm ahead of CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand. PUMA’s Mar Mostro (Ken Read/USA) had regained third place after a cloud captured Groupama 4 and brought her to a standstill.

By 1000 UTC this morning, it was all change again as PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG deposed CAMPER to take up second, just 1.10 nm astern of the leg leader. In the closest of races, CAMPER is still just .4 of a mile behind PUMA’s Mar Mostro and Groupama 4 is less than 5 nm further back.

The wind in lee of Sumatra only shifted 30 degrees to the right overnight, which let Telefónica retain her leading position and, while the top four fight it out, the split in the fleet has extended to over 60 nm to Team Sanya in sixth position.

“The racing is still locked tight so there is no room for error,” commented CAMPER’s co-skipper Stu Bannatyne. "You have to be on your game, but it’s hard going. It’s more puffy out here than a 1970s perm, and things aren’t going to get any easier once we reach the Malacca Strait."

Groupama had a tough night, losing third place after spending 45 minutes trapped by a cloud. Cammas was pragmatic. “It’s annoying, but it’s just starting," he said. "We have to expect lots of unstable areas in the next days."

Meanwhile, the sheets on the winches of Groupama are burning bright red as the crew attempt to capitalise on any gains they can make and minimalise any losses. “Much like a salesman on commission,” remarked bowman Brad Marsh today.

The leading boats now face a 25-mile beat to Statue Point on the north tip of the island of Palau We in 10-15 knots of breeze before they can contemplate what lies ahead in the Malacca Strait. This stretch of water will present some complex navigational and tactical challenges, which will cause many lead changes.

“The Strait promises to be a minefield of opportunities and losses,” Marsh explained. "Like a game of snakes and ladders, one wrong move will drop you a long way back and one lucky move will make you look famous."

In the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09, the eventual overall winner, Torben Grael’s Ericsson 4 entered the Strait in first place, but ultimately finished the leg in Singapore in fourth. Leg 3 this time finishes in Sanya, allowing a longer runway to make up lost miles.

Already the hazard of fishing boats is making itself known. Most of the fleet have seen the small craft trailing long nets, but as yet no one has become ensnared, although ground is lost while altering course to avoid them.

For Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (Ian Walker/GBR) and Team Sanya (Mike Sanderson/NZL), it has been tough going, with huge changes in wind direction and pressure. Both teams now trail the leaders significantly, but in the minefield of the Malacca Strait, anything can happen and often does.

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