It was only two practice starts and a quick race down Auckland Harbour and back, but the crew on Telefonica, the current leader of the Volvo Ocean Race, were taking it seriously.
Looking surprisingly fresh only four days after arriving in Auckland, they were all business as they lined up with Camper, Abu Dhabi and Groupama for a bit of round-the-buoys racing. There were members of the press and other hangers-on on all the boats, and they weren't exactly competing for sheep stations, but the four crews seemed keen to get some close-quarters combat in before Saturday's In-Port race, which does count for VOR points.
After a long practice sail past North Head, we returned to the startline off the Volvo Village on the Viaduct. At the first attempt, Telefonica was second across the line and quickly settled hard on the wind, showing her speed and pointing ability. The second time was even better, with Iker Martinez pulling off an excellent flick onto port and back onto starboard to be first across. Again the blue boat showed her speed before breaking off and returning for the "real thing".
For this start it was easy to see the experience Iker has gained while winning three world championships and two Olympic medals in the 49er. Bouncing effortlessly from port to starboard wheel to check Abu Dhabi undernath the massive headsail, he again pulled off the perfect procedure, trapping Abu Dhabi below him then flicking quickly onto starboard tack and gassing Groupama and Camper. There were a few short sentences in Spanish, the only word of which I could discern being "vamos"or "quickly", but generally the crew were relaxed and working in unison.
As the four boats sailed towards the first mark at North Head, it was obvious that Telefonica has an upwind advantage over the others, and that Camper is the slowest. Abu Dhabi followed Telefonica by five boat lengths, while Groupama were to windward but well behind.
There was a quick headsail peel before we came round the mark and hardened up even more towards Rangitoto Island, and Telefonica increased her lead. Groupama was the only boat that needed to tack, and it forced her back behind Camper. But Franck Cammas managed to establish an overlap at the mark, so the order was Telefonica, Abu Dhabi, Groupama and Camper.
But then it was "all change" up front. Abu Dhabi showed amazing speed down to leeward of us and basically sailed around Telefonica to lead around the wing mark. As Iker Martinez pinched up to cover the rapidly-gaining back markers, Abu Dhabi leapt further ahead.
There were a few raised eyebrows among the media contingent as the boats headed under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, before turning a closely-placed mark and tight-reaching to the finish. After several unsuccessful attempts to get my own boat under the Rip Bridge at Gosford, I consider myself a bit of an expert on masts and bridges, and I'd say there was less than four metres clearance. Which made it all the more exciting when Iker headed straight for the bungy jumping platform, which hangs about five metres below the bridge and was occupied at the time.
We needn't have worried. Iker again bounced from wheel to wheel, expertly helming the big boat a few metres to the left of the platform. We crossed the line in second place, and continued on down the harbour, hoisting a staysail and a different gennaker, both of which were studied intently before we dropped the sails and motored back to the Viaduct.
The overall impression from the day's racing, which as I said wasn't for sheep stations, was that there are distinct differences in the performances of the boats on different points of sail.
Telefonica is definitely fast upwind, while Camper is definitely slow on a tight reach. Groupama didn't seem to have much of an edge on any of the points of sail we indulged in today, but is definitely not slow on any of them either. Abu Dhabi is very quick downwind.
It was interesting to watch Groupama and Camper reaching close together and behind us. While Groupama's bow was out of the water most of the time, Camper was more bow-down and pushing a lot of water out of the way. This may be the problem that has been plaguing her - her keel is well forward and she appears to be bow-down when others in identical conditions are not.
The Pro-Am race tomorrow is unlikely to throw a lot of light on the subject, but the In-Port race and of course the Big One - the Southern Ocean leg around Cape Horn - will tell us weather the Kiwi boat can be competitive in the second half of the race.
- Roger McMillan in Auckland.
BTW: Iker Martinez told me he expects Nathan Outteridge to win the Olympic 49er gold medal. "It is his time" were the exact words, adding that he thinks Outteridge and Iain Jensen are the form team and deserve to win.