The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper is sheltering in the relative dry of the galley, just metres from the rushes of icy water invading the cockpit. His forehead is creased like a folded old map. “It’s frustrating,” he adds. “But we’re under no illusions – we’ve been looking at the weather now for three or four days, and it has always said that the fleet is going to close right up.”
His Emirati boat has been heavily involved at the right end of the fleet for days now – weeks even. It boasts more than a 400 nm lead over last placed Team SCA. But it’s not been easy to cope with, the constant chopping and changing with the other boats. The incessant sound of stubborn sailors echoing in the distance.
Ian continues. “We’re still in the lead, and we’ve still got every chance of winning the leg so we’re a lot better off than some of the boats.”
Gaining an inch, losing a mile. It’s thrilling, but it’s tiring. There’s delight, and there’s disappointment.
“It's frustrating,” says Abby Ehler, on Team SCA. “It's hard because you're sailing the boat fast and rally well, but sometimes you just get unlucky. And we got unlucky.”
They ebb and they flow, these days out on the ocean. One moment, the sweet smell of success, and then – poof – it’s gone with the wind.
“We’ve had a good 24 hours,” adds navigator Simon Fisher. “Fast, downwind sailing – but now we’ve got a bit of a transition.”
He pauses, before breaking the bad news to his team mates. “The front’s died out – and now it’s going to go light. We’ve got to pick up a new one in the morning.”
At this stage in the leg, the Jekyll and Hyde weather conditions are big turning points – both figuratively, and literally.
Anticipation and anxiety builds and throbs with every position report. The closest race in years, these sailors are used to seeing changes in the rankings. But they also know that, just days out of Cape Town, the next change of leader could be the last.
“We must survive these next scheds,” says Aussie bowman Luke Parkinson, enthusiastically, as his boat waits for news from Race Control. “If we do, it could mean the leg win.”
It’s agonising. They’re so close, yet so far. Sniffing and searching for some breeze – any breeze – capable of slingshotting them to South Africa.
The first five teams have been gybing in unison for days, like well-trained synchronised swimming teams, skirting the ice exclusion zone and hurtling through the Roaring Forties.
At the back of the fleet, Team SCA is trailing by over 400nm – but closing that gap, mile by mile, hour by hour. The magenta boat is getting faster all the time. And they want you to know that they aren’t out of this race yet.
“We’ve been trying to hook onto this frontal system that’s been coming through, so we’ve been gybing a little bit,” Liz Wardley explains. “The timing has been really important, trying to get maximum pressure so as to get east as quickly as possible.”
She smiles. “The other guys aren’t going to have this – it’s our own private little front. And we’re going to send it!”
With the front boats slowing in more high pressure around the mysterious Gough Island, an inaccessible volcano standing awkwardly in the middle of the South Atlantic, the hunt is back on – and SCA smell blood.
“Change is afoot,” writes Onboard Reporter Corinna Halloran. “Soon, the rich may no longer stay rich, and that is an incredibly exciting feeling.”
It’s funny. Despite their ranking, there’s a certain freedom about the all-female team – and it feels a little like a role reversal.
Whilst Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing stresses and frets on the hunt for a front, the girls are racing along with the wind in their hair. No wonder they exude the positivity of a team 10nm in the lead, blasting 25 knots.
“What’s keeping us positive is that we all love sailing, so we’re out here doing what we love,” adds Liz. “The boat feels good. It’s awesome down here, so pure.”
They’re not locked into position, being forced one way, or another. They’re not within eyeshot, or earshot, of any other boat. And that means that they sail their way, all the way. The first race is against themselves.
“It helps really being in the moment, one day at a time,” says Sally Berkow, trimming. “We have no reason we shouldn’t be with the pack. We’ve proved that we can sail amongst them – we’ve just had some bad luck.”
It’s all about the paper-thin difference between a good call and a bad call. There are so many shifting variables out there on the ocean – the wind, the waves, the waypoints – that even the most experienced navigator needs their luck to come in. And when it doesn’t, sometimes you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, shrug your shoulders, and look to the sky.
“We’re in the Southern Ocean and we’ve got albatrosses gliding around. It’s pretty special to see,” Liz smiles. “The myth has it that albatrosses are the lost sailors, and they follow you around giving you wisdom and safety.”
In the build-up to the race, SCA took their wisdom from Swedish sailing legend Magnus Olsson, who sadly isn’t with us anymore. Instead he’s out following the boat, whispering windy words of encouragement into their sails.
“Everytime I see one now, I think of our lost sailor, giving a thumbs up. It’s Magnus, bringing us some good karma and some heavy wind.”
If there’s one thing Magnus instilled in this crew, it’s his positive mindset – and that takes work to maintain. Until they see another boat on the horizon, this battle is as mental as it is physical, or strategical.
“We have to think long term, ”Annie said. “But I've also come back from a loss to win. It takes concentration and focus, and we have that. I have faith in us.”
Watch this space. Let’s see if they can make this role reversal real.
By Jonno Turner/VOR
|Position report at: 03 Nov 03:40 UTC / Updated 3 hourly||
||Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing||0||0||915.2||22|
||Dongfeng Race Team||12||0||927.1||22|
||Team Vestas Wind||65||4||980.2||21|