Fifteen days after the start of Leg 3 in Portsmouth, England Kingfisher swept to her first victory in the EDS Atlantic Challenge, leaving her nearest competitor, Sill more than 200 miles behind her.
Hitting speeds in excess of 20 knots during the last few hours, taking full advantage of the low pressure system sitting over the mouth of the Chesapeake, skipper Ellen MacArthur drove the boat under the Baltimore Bay Channel Bridge at 07:34:19 GMT.
"We're pretty chuffed," MacArthur said of their finish. "We've seen all sorts of weather and really tested the boat." The weather followed them as they finished, being "vicious through the entrance [to the Chesapeake]." Co-skipper Nick Moloney was brimming with enthusiasm about their win, as he said, "We're going to take it."
"We are really happy with the way we sailed," Moloney enthused. "We had doom and gloom for days on end, during the last depression." he said. Then as they came through the weather the sun came out and they found themselves "reaching and running" in great weather conditions.
Moloney commented on Kingfisher's amazing streak to the finish line, saying that they have come to the conclusion that they were in a completely different weather pattern, which gave them the edge over Sill and ECOVER.
In the most recent log from Gartmore, the team congratulated Kingfisher, but cautioned, "We would however, just like to say that the leg results remain subject to a protest." The protest was filed by Gartmore against Kingfisher and Sill over water current information allegedly received illegally. The matter is with the International Jury.
This leg has centred around the race for first between Kingfisher and Sill Plein Fruit. By the end of Day 1, they had assumed their customary positions at the head of the fleet, but at that stage there was very little distance between all the boats. FILA> in fourth place could see Gartmore and iECOVER just to the north, while Kingfisher and Sill were almost within hailing distance of each other. But after a night and morning of racing, some distance spread the fleet into a pattern that held for many days. Throughout the leg, Kingfisher and Sill sailed very similar courses, matching and covering each other throughout the 3,430 gruelling miles.
Two days into the leg, the fleet was subjected to the first big storm. By this time, Sill and Kingfisher had made their decision to take the northerly route; they hoped that by doing this they would avoid some of the strength of the storm. None were spared the gale force winds and huge seas, but Sill to the north broke out of the depression first and headed north in relatively mild conditions.
In contrast, co-skipper Nick Moloney reported eloquently, "It's getting pretty gnarly out here." They punched through the centre of the low and bore the brunt of the back side of the depression. With their wind instruments damaged, Kingfisher sailed through the storm "in 'Mini Transat' mode. Basic navigation by feel, none of the digital age here for now!" As Sill and Kingfisher battled the last few hours of the gale, they were forced to hold to a south westerly course until better winds let them turn right again to pursue their northerly course. After two days of gale conditions, all the boats in the fleet were able to resume sailing under fair conditions. Sill and Kingfisher have both been able to tack to starboard and resume their north westerly courses.
With a second storm ahead of them, Sill extended her lead over Kingfisher to 75 miles, catching the breeze first. With a repaired masthead anemometer Kingfisher prepared for the storm.
After the three leading boats Sill, Kingfisher and ECOVER turned south west, Kingfisher began her advance on Sill, recording the best 24-hour speed of the fleet at 10.9 knots, compared to Sill's 9.1 knots for the same period. Aboard Kingfisher, MacArthur pointed her yacht southward while the leader Sill held its course. The decision cost Kingfisher a few miles. In her radio call that day, MacArthur said an evening of light winds and strong current were the reasons they lost ground. "I thought we could just slide down the coast but, it looks like a depression developed over us," she said. "We also had about a 1.5 knot current working against us. So, we lost some miles to Sill."
As the northern boats headed south they prepared for a rough couple of days, as they dealt with the weather and currents. "It's going to be messy, worse than the seas off Ireland," MacArthur claimed. Stuck in second behind Sill Plein Fruit and seemingly unable to find a path past her, it was beginning to look like another second-place finish for Kingfisher.
With the news of Sill damaging her mainsail, co-skipper Moloney said that, in the short run, he did not expect to gain much on Sill, even with the damage she sustained. "They say they are sailing with one reef in the main," Moloney said. "And so are we, so for now I really don't see much gain for us." This proved true for a while as Kingfisher failed to sneak past Sill.
Covering tack for tack, the two boats headed west onto the Grand Banks and shallow water. "We are heading into a complicated weather system, so we will see what we can pull off," MacArthur said in the radio call.
Two weeks into the leg, Kingfisher took the lead from Sill. In a tactical move that solidified her lead, instead of sailing southeast as Sill did, Kingfisher sailed south gaining more miles toward Baltimore and leaving Sill behind.
When Kingfisher sped into the lead speculation was that Sill might have torn its already damaged mainsail again. The real story was far more serious; in light upwind conditions, a small titanium clip that holds the forestay to the deck had snapped. Despite this damage and having to stop to jury rig the forestay, Sill still presented a threat to Kingfisher. A new front presented itself to the leading boats and brought strong headwinds. Once through the front though, Kingfisher found good reaching conditions on the other side and, Moloney said, the crew spent several hours sailing in perfect reaching conditions: "We had the knot-metre pegged at 23 to 24 knots for quite a while."
Two days before the finish, Kingfisher had widened its lead over Sill Plein Fruit to 103 miles. But with good downwind conditions and a respectable lead, MacArthur remained cautious: "There is still a long way to go and the race is not over until the last boat crosses the finish line," she said. "We look at what happened to Sill and FILA and know that anything can occur when you are pushing a boat hard."
But push she did, to blaze in under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in a hard won, brilliantly sailed Leg 3.