Image © Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race
There is little doubt that Leg 7 from New Zealand to Brazil was a major milestone for all seven teams competing in the 2017-18 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.
It is unlikely anyone came away completely unscathed from the 14,000-kilometer passage through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn that saw some of the most extreme weather and intense racing in the race’s history.
Just 12 hours after he stepped ashore in Itajaí we sat down with team AkzoNobel’s Australian watch captain Chris Nicholson to get his unique perspective on the leg.
All the teams faced huge adversities on the way to Brazil, but one terrible incident overshadowed everything else: the tragic loss of British sailor John Fisher from Sun Hung Kai Scallywag on Monday March 26.
“For me the leg will not be remembered for the racing or the results, but for the loss of John Fisher,” Nicholson said.
“In this sport you meet a few people who are the ones you go to when you need things sorted out. Fish was one of those – the sort of person you want with you, quite often because you think they are better than you.
“Reliable and trustworthy – that’s how I would describe Fish’s character. You could see that within the Scallywag team he had a presence – not many people have that sort of ability to have an effect, an influence like that, but Fish was one of them.
“It’s a terribly sad loss to his family and friends and the Scallywag team. I know he will be missed by everyone in the Volvo Ocean Race and the wider yacht racing community.”
Casting his mind back to the Leg 7 dock out in Auckland Nicholson remembered a heightened sense of tension and anticipation on the pontoon as the seven crews said their goodbyes to friends and family.
“On a personal level it was easier than normal because my family had gone home the day before – and that wasn’t an accident,” Nicholson recalled.
“Maybe it sounds selfish, but for me it’s really difficult leaving the family on the dock, especially going into that leg when you know what’s on the line.
“People have more anxiety around that leg and we see that it is justified. It’s easy at other times to say that these are the great legs and the sailors’ favourite legs, but then when it comes crunch time, when it’s time to step on the boat and go – that’s when it hits you.”
Image © Jesus Renedo/Volvo Ocean Race
The team AkzoNobel crew knew they were in for a tough opening 48-hours with strong headwinds forecast for the coastal section of the course across the Hauraki Gulf, around the top of the Coromandel Peninsula and out to East Cape – likely to be their last sight of solid ground until Cape Horn.
“The first couple of days upwind were uncomfortable,” Nicholson said. “But number one, even to entertain thinking about doing this race, you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“The number of scrapes, bumps and bruises people take along the way and the fact that most of the time the weather is either too hot, or too wet and cold, means you are never right, you are never comfortable.
“The boat was banging and bouncing us around, but we knew it was going to get worse than that, so we didn’t really worry too much about it. You can get used to that, but you know it’s only going to get worse on the Southern Ocean leg.”
The team AkzoNobel Leg 7 crew was a mixture of experienced Volvo Ocean Race veterans like Nicholson – taking part in his sixth race around the world – and Simeon Tienpont, Jules Salter, Justin Ferris, Luke Molloy and Nicolai Sehested – with nine Volvo Ocean Race’s between them – and first timers Martine Grael, Emily Nagel and Brad Farrand.
According to Nicholson the team’s preparation for Leg 7 hadn’t varied very much from the standard way the sailors prepared for any other leg: group weather and safety briefings along with each person being held accountable for their own areas of responsibility.
“From my side of things, I didn’t do too much different in the group, but I did a lot more individual chats,” Nicholson remembered.
“I think that’s important because everybody needs something different in regards to where their focus should be and what they need to sharpen up on or need praise for or criticism for.
Image © James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race
“When you think about what this race entails – and this leg in particular – it is quite remarkable. We take these individuals and shove them into the space of not much bigger than a normal bedroom for 21 days and then we work them and tire them to the bone and exhaust them, and then see how they get on.
“It’s an unbelievable social experiment. I don’t know of any other sport that subjects people to this.”
During the week the crew spent hurtling day and night through the mountainous seas of the Southern Ocean the sailors got virtually no respite from the extreme weather which included gigantic rolling waves and winds approaching 50 knots.
“It was relentless – that’s the only word for it,” Nicholson said. “We never had a break and I very much doubt any team did.
“I think I can remember one four or five-hour section of 17 knot winds. But even in 17 knots you are still getting hit by the occasional wave and still getting bounced around because the seaway is so messy.
“The first respite we got was just around the Horn when we were able to take the pictures of us and that was just temporary because we were protected by Cape Horn in that fleeting moment.
“Other than that, there just wasn’t a break or a spell where you could dry out a little or where you would eat an extra meal or two and get a bit more sleep. That just didn’t happen because it really was – as I say – absolutely relentless.”
Image © James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race
So strong were the Southern Ocean waves barrelling along the deck, that across the fleet there were multiple reports of helmsmen being washed off the wheel by the force of the water.
These are commonly described as “firehose conditions” in the media, but Nicholson – who himself was dumped unceremoniously on his backside more than once – believes the term doesn’t do the scenario justice.
“The thing is, it’s not a surprise,” he explained. “You see the wave coming and you have already yelled out to everyone “Bad wave, hang on!”.
“So you know it’s coming, you hang on as hard as you can, and yet you still get washed off.
“Picture yourself getting hit by the firehose and you have to hang on to the pole – chances are you will be able to hang on to the pole. So, it’s far stronger than the firehose.
“I equate it to when I was a little kid at the beach and you get hit by a big dumping wave on the shore. That feeling where you have no control over your body, it’s the same as that.
“You have to be clipped on short to the wheel, so when you get knocked off you are not far from it and you step back up again and away you go while the boat is still in a straight line.”
Nicholson made his fifth rounding of Cape Horn on Friday March 30. As an aside – remarkably, only three of his previous times around were while racing, as one of them was during a training run.
Despite being understandably delighted to become a five-time Cape Horner Nicholson said he got equal satisfaction from the achievement of the team’s first timers who he said could be justifiably proud after what he considered one of the toughest Southern Ocean crossings he could recall for several races.
“I appreciate it more now than I ever did before and I appreciated seeing these guys and girls go round for the first time,” Nicholson said.
“It was a tough leg – there has been other Southern Ocean legs where it never blew over 30 knots and so were relatively easy. But this was not that, this was a traditional full test of everyone.”
The fact that the team spent their time in the Southern Ocean racing largely in winds that were gale force (officially 34 – 40 knots) and occasionally storm force (greater than 48 knots), makes Nicholson’s comment that the sailors had been “kicking themselves for missing a few wind shifts along the way” all the more remarkable.
“It’s a testimony to how well all the crews were sailing the boats that where you normally would expect to catch up when you miss a shift by an hour or so, we didn’t and we were sailing the boat well,” he said, adding: “Again, that word relentless - it applied in all aspects of that leg.”
There is a long established perceived wisdom that the key to success in the Southern Ocean comes from ‘knowing when to push and when to back off’.
Nicholson, however, questions whether the concept of ‘backing off’ even exists, citing this chilling example as evidence:
“In the middle of the night in one of the squalls I think I got the peak wind strength of 46 or 50 knots with the fractional zero headsail up,” he related.
“I was the one that called for it [the headsail] to be furled [rolled away]. You could determine that as backing off, but I was fully on the limit there, so I would argue that we weren’t backing off, but actually still going fast as we could, because – at that point, in those conditions – the fastest way from A to B is by reducing sail.
“In that regard we didn’t ever back off, we pushed as fast as we thought we could the whole time whilst keeping it safe.”
Nicholson can tell instantly when a boat is being sailed beyond its limits or those of the crew.
“It stands out as really obvious if you are abusing the boat or the skills that are on board there. You can instantly tell that the boat is uncomfortable and the people on board are anxious that we are out of control.
“It happens in the blink of an eye but it’s really clear. You don’t let it get there and if it does get there you do something about it in a hurry,” he added.
Image @ James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race
Shortly before rounding Cape Horn in fourth place the team AkzoNobel crew spotted the Spanish yacht Mapfre limping along with a badly shredded mainsail.
Having gone through a similar experience themselves in the Southern Ocean on Leg 3 from Cape Town to Melbourne, Nicholson said the crew took no pleasure from seeing their rivals in trouble.
“You just know from experience that they have had a moment – an experience – to get to that point. Whatever it was, you know it hasn’t been good, because to do that level of damage means a significant incident has happened.
“You know that it’s been a big night for them – especially coming into the Horn in the conditions we were in. That stuff shakes you up, it really does. Everyone gets back on the bike and goes again, but it still rattles you for quite a while.
“I’m sure I will have a chat to Xabi [Fernandez, Mapfre skipper] down the line and compare war stories on it, but there is no pleasure in seeing someone else go through it because you know what it is like.”
After Cape Horn team AkzoNobel’s weary sailors were rejuvenated – at least for a while – by the promise of warmer weather and waters ahead and the tantalising prospect of maybe reeling in one or more of the top three teams.
The crew slowed temporarily at the request of race control after Vestas 11th Hour Racing was dismasted and Turn the Tide on Plastic reported rig damage, but soon after it was their turn to encounter technical problems, when significant water ingress from a broken keel plate under the boat that forced them to sail cautiously for the remainder of the leg.
“All the boats had wear and tear from the Southern Ocean section and the really high boat speeds that we maintained for most of our time down there. That took its toll on boats and people.”
“It was a pity because the section from the Horn up to Itajaí is usually full of opportunity and we were completely prepared for that and ready to push again,” Nicholson recalled.
Image © Pedro Martinez/Volvo Ocean Race
Back ashore and reflecting on the the team’s third place in Leg 7 which sees the team fourth in the overall standings, Nicholson said he believes the sailors should take a lot of positives from the performance but must also toughen their resolve over the final four legs of the race.
“Third is fantastic and we got there through persistence and consistency,” he said. “The pleasing thing is we were fast. We were knocking out really fast skeds a lot of the time and we hadn’t proved that to ourselves or anyone else until this leg.
“But we didn’t get some things right and the truth is we could have ended up fifth or sixth in this leg very, very easily if some other boats hadn’t got damaged. I’m not looking at this glass half empty, but I do think we need to keep it really in perspective and remember that we might not get comeback opportunities like that in future legs.
“I do believe this team has got great potential, but we have just got to try and bring it all together. Everyone else is saying the same thing and it’s just whether we are going to be a team that does it or not.”
What then should be the goal for the team between now and the finish at The Hague in the Netherlands in July – a podium place or a race victory?
“With regards to the points and everything else that is going on, this is now such a complex race to predict,” Nicholson answered. “Podium is now a possibility, but there is also an equal chance for us to go the other way.
“It’s all there for us and what we need to work out is whether we want to be a team that takes it on and strives for the win, or if we will end up a little mediocre and be content trying to be on the podium. Alternatively, we could get tired, drop our guard and fall out of contention.
“The truth is that any of those things could happen and the final three months of this race are going to be fascinating.”