Ten seconds. It’s less than the amount of time that it will take you to read this sentence – and it’s also the whisker-thin difference between the first two Volvo Ocean Race teams to return to Alicante at dawn this morning.
World-class sailors, and one-design boats. If Leg 0 has proved anything, it’s that the margins in this incredible race are finer than ever. Every single decision, every second-spending error, and every sloppy sail change could make the difference between winning and losing.
For the winners, Team Vestas Wind, completing their first competitive sail, their success was a thundering statement of intent – and all the more incredible considering that they didn’t even announce their participation in this edition until last month.
“Nice job guys!” comes the shout from the Danish team's Shore Manager Neil 'Coxy' Cox, as his drained but delighted team moored up on the dock.
As the sun rose a new dawn, Chris Nicholson, vindicated and victorious, squints in its glow. “It’s really cool for our team,” he smiles, as his young sailors – the taste of success still tantalisingly fresh on their lips – begin roping and restraining their blue machine.
“For how busy we’ve been in the last few months, to actually be able to go out there and be competitive, do all the manoeuvres, and also have time to focus on some strategy and tactics, it was exceptional.”
Desperate not to give anything away so close to the beginning of the real thing, and still learning from every precious moment out on the ocean, the practice leg was something of a game of cards, and a game of chance, for the fleet.
And in a race so tight, every little decision becomes a huge risk. The bravery and courage to go ‘all in’ on a hunch – an educated guess – invaluable.
Only three of the fleet – Team Vestas Wind, second-placed Team Brunel and Team SCA – chose to sail north of Ibiza, and it was a gamble that paid off in style.
Finishing fifth of the seven contenders, SCA’s Sam Davies has seen her team make real progress this weekend.
“We gybed first, and made a big gain,” she smiles. “That’s what we’ve worked on with our coaches. It’s obviously a success from our practice, and proof that hard work pays off.”
The trio of boats finally found the wind, beating ever loudly like a drum on their sails, and they also found their rhythm, tearing ahead in the race for the half way point: Palma, Majorca.
For Bouwe Bekking’s second placed Brunel, who have been so secretive in their preparations so far, the frantic first exchanges were a huge learning curve – and their skipper reckons that his team paid a high price for their lack of competitive practice.
“You could see it at the start,” he admits. “It was the first time we hoisted our practice sails, and we were just no prepared. It was pretty badly executed. But these things happen sometimes. You just have to shrug your shoulders – normally during the Volvo Ocean Race there are lots of opportunities, and we were faster than most of the guys, so after a few hours we were right back into it.”
Nevertheless, they sustained their attack and battled with Vestas Wind for first place, level-pegging all the way back from the Balearics to base.
“It was really slim,” says winning sailor Tom Johnson. “We were neck and neck, pretty much from Palma. But it was awesome for us because we haven’t lined up against anyone yet. We wanted to see where we sit.”
In third place, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing arrived on the podium 12 minutes after their rivals – and skipper Ian Walker is just glad to get this milestone out of the way.
“I’m just itching to get going,” he beams. “We didn’t sail particularly well, we got on the wrong side of a couple of things strategically. It was important to try and dig out a result. If we can get in the top three even when we’re doing things wrong, then that’s a key to doing well in the race.
“It’s like you’ve done your revision, you want to sit for your exams and see how you go. I’ve put about eight years of my life into trying to win a Volvo Ocean Race and I think this time around we’ve got all the ingredients.”
The Emiratis, white shirts stained yellow with sweat, a souvenir of their exhausting efforts under an unforgiving sun, chose to sail between Ibiza and Formentera, along with Team Alvimedica and Dongfeng Race Team – and the Rhode Island boat’s skipper Charlie Enright looks a little weary as he explains that decision.
“Passing between the islands wasn’t always the plan. We tried to leave ourselves options until the last minute, based on where we were relative to the fleet – it wasn’t necessarily one that we wanted to make.
“But we learned a lot from how it started and how it ended. We hope to continue the momentum into Leg 1 – we managed to pick a few boats off in the end.”
Arriving at the finish line 35 minutes after the leaders were Dongfeng Race Team – the Franco-Chinese boat which has suffered enough drama this weekend to last them a while.
First, Charles Caudrelier’s crew charged into the lead, disappearing over the horizon at the front of the fleet following some impressive, tight manoeuvres in Alicante bay.
Next, they dropped a sail into the sea – having to stop and retrieve it, a sacrifice which cost them 300 metres – and finally, Chinese crew member Horace suffered a hand injury, clinging onto the boat as he slipped overboard.
“He’s young and he’s learning that he has to take care of himself,” reasoned a relieved Charles, on the dock. “It could have been a lot worse in race conditions. It’s not very funny to lose someone in the water, in the middle of the night.”
It was a last minute decision to pass between the islands, rather than south of Formentera – a move that Team España made, and a mistake that saw them fall way behind the fleet. Their ETA is currently 12.00 UTC.
“We changed our plan and passed on the wrong side of the island,” adds Charles. “But I’m very proud. We had a good start, and a great improvement for a young team like this.”
As the sailors grab their overnight bags, and head off for a shower, there are big smiles, back slaps and muted celebrations in the Team Vestas Wind base, as Coxy fries up a hearty breakfast.
“I am proud of the boys,” he shouts, above the sizzling grill. “We won’t look into it too much, but it’s a nice way to start for sure.”
The young sailors look delighted. But is it because of the first place or the prospect of fresh food? I ask Coxy.
“It has been nothing but work for them so far, now they’ve been sailing and they’ve felt the emotion of doing well in the lead and coming back to the dock.
“They can feel what the race is about.”
And so can we.