With 186 miles to the end of leg four of the Volvo Ocean race, a thrilling finish in Qingdao is unfolding as the podium places are being fought for.
The tenacity shown by the crew of Telefónica Blue is surely worthy of a leg win, but the chasing pack of Ericsson 4 and PUMA is closing, and light air is forecast for the finish area. Add to the mix the myriad of fishing nets and commercial shipping and the picture becomes more complicated.
Twenty-nine miles behind Telefónica Blue, PUMA and Ericsson 4 are dodging fish traps and match racing each other in a fight that will last until the finish gun fires. Skipper Ken READ
(USA) has brought PUMA right back contention after an unscheduled stop to repair their broken boom. The team is back, looking strong, and full of fighting spirit. Both boats are sailing slightly faster than Telefónica Blue, which will have skipper Bouwe BEKKING
(NED) looking anxiously over his shoulder.
"Luckily, we get an update every three hours to see where the other two boats are, so at least we can try to cover them as best as possible. It is so simple, stay between the finish and your opponents. A piece of cake on paper, but I am sure we will have a bit on,"
The last five hours have been more than eventful for Ericsson 4 as they raced up the Chinese coast, with PUMA giving chase. The area, the delta of the Yangtze River, is dotted with what Ericsson 4's Media Crew Member, Guy SALTER, describes as 'thousands' of fishing nets.
"The huge lines of buoyed traps consist of two larger buoys, about the size of 50-litre drums, separated about five metres apart by a piece of bamboo, which appears to be anchored. From the bamboo, is the net, which seems to trail in the tide, often with a smaller marker on the end of the net, about 10-metres down tide. Or, at least, that's what the majority of them look like,"
"In among the thousands of markers, are the fishermen working them on small boats and minding their own business. Add a few Volvo 70s, and the excitement starts,"
The action began just as daylight was failing and Ericsson 4 went to leeward of the first net. Quickly, they became entangled, but broke free immediately. They tried a different tactic with the next net, passing it to windward. This time when they became entangled, it was the bamboo crossbeam that bent in half and snapped in two. The net then broke and Ericsson 4 collected her 'get out of jail free' card. But, when they hit the third net, luck ran out.
With PUMA bearing down, the crew struggled to rid themselves of the net, heeling the boat and flossing the fins, but to no avail. They were firmly entrapped.
"We only had two choices,"
wrote SALTER. "Leave the rope on keel and ignore the vibration and slowly watch PUMA run us down, or furl the code zero sail and reverse the yacht to let the rope and net wash off the fins, which would hand second to PUMA".
The team decided to back down. PUMA passed Ericsson 4 by three boat lengths and snatched second place. Once free of the net, the Ericsson team sheeted in the sails and gave chase.
They hunted down the black cat to within five boat lengths, a fight that will continue to the bitter end. They are so close that the Ericsson crew can see PUMA's reflective camber stripes on the sails, which are lit up by Ericsson 4's navigation lights. It is going to be a long night. "Don't be surprised if a fishing net helps determine the difference between second and third place,"
Completing the fleet on the water, in fourth place and back in racing mode for the first time since leaving Luzon, is Green Dragon. After three or four days of hellish conditions, the team has been given a break at last. According to skipper Ian WALKER
(GBR), the wind is down to below 20-knots and the waves are such that his team is able to sail at near to 100 per cent.
"We are now going faster towards Qingdao than at any time in the leg. We feel like we have escaped the worst, but we must not rest on our laurels,"
he said. Navigator, Ian MOORE
(IRL), added that the keel was now fully canted and the team was making almost 11 knots on course. "It doesn't sound like much, but at times we have been down to five or six knots, just to keep the impacts down to an acceptable level. It feels like we are racing again,"
Meanwhile, the latest leg four casualty, Delta Lloyd, has suspended racing and joined Ericsson 3 in the Taiwanese port of Keelung City last night. The extent of the damage to both yachts is under investigation.
Telefónica Blue has just 186 nm to go to the finish, and computer routing software is predicting a finish for the first boat at approximately 11:00 UTC tomorrow.
Leg Four Day 11: 13:00 UTC Volvo Ocean Race Positions
(boat name/country/skipper/nationality/distance to finish)
1. Telefónica Blue ESP, Bouwe BEKKING (NED) DTF 186 nm
2. Ericsson 4 SWE, Torben GRAEL (BRA) +29
3. PUMA Racing Team USA, Ken READ (USA) +30
4. Green Dragon IRL/CHN, Ian WALKER (GBR) +324
Delta Lloyd NED/IRL, Roberto BERMUDEZ (ESP) SUS
Ericsson 3 SWE, Magnus OLSSON (SWE) SUS
Telefónica Black ESP, Fernando ECHAVARRI (ESP) DNF
Team Russia RUS, Andreas HANAKAMP (AUT) DNS
Volvo Ocean Race Leaderboard
(After Singapore In-Port Race)
1. Ericsson 4, skipper Torben GRAEL (BRA), 39 points
2.Telefónica Blue, skipper Bouwe BEKKING (NED), 33.5 points
3. PUMA, skipper Ken READ (USA), 31 points
4. Ericsson 3, skipper Magnus OLSSON (SWE), 24 points
5. Green Dragon, skipper Ian WALKER (GBR), 22.5 points
6. Telefónica Black, skipper Fernando ECHAVARRI (ESP), 19 points
7. Team Russia, skipper Andreas HANAKAMP (AUT), 10.5 points
8. Delta Lloyd, skipper Roberto BERMUDEZ (ESP), 10 points
Go here for all the news on the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09
Volvo Ocean Race - www.volvooceanrace.org