MAPFRE’s stand-in skipper Xabi Fernández (ESP), was savouring a memorable Leg 4 triumph in the Volvo Ocean Race on Sunday, but his stint in charge will come to a halt for the next stage through the Southern Ocean.
The 38-year-old Basque took over from his long-term partner and best friend, Iker Martínez, for the last two legs while the latter concentrated on his 2016 Rio Olympics preparations.
Xabi, for so long the right-hand man of his illustrious partner, has clearly not been daunted by the challenge, guiding the Spanish crew to fourth in Leg 3 and then following up with a paper-thin victory on Saturday night on the 5,264-nautical mile (nm) stage from Sanya to Auckland.
He told a press conference on Sunday morning that, despite his success, normal service on board MAPFRE would be resumed when the fleet sets sail for Itajaí on March 15 for the toughest of all nine stages, Leg 5 through the Southern Ocean.
“Iker is coming back,” Xabi told reporters. “He’s flying out on the 6th (March). He’s going to be with us on the next leg, which was always the plan.
“I am especially looking forward to him coming back. We are already a very strong team with Jean-Luc (Nélias, the navigator) and the rest, but we’ll be stronger with Iker in again, for sure.” So will he be back for the rest of the race now?
“It depends a lot on how things are going. He has some commitments, of course. For sure, he’ll be doing the next leg and for sure he’ll be doing the cross-Atlantic leg (from Newport).
“But there’s a question mark for the leg from Itajaí to Newport.”
The six skippers who arrived in Auckland harbour within seven hours of each other in the small hours of Sunday morning, local time, looked remarkably fresh after snatching very little sleep before a press conference attended by the knowledgeable New Zealand sailing media.
Ian Walker (GBR), skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, had every reason to look buoyant, despite being pipped into second place by four minutes 25 seconds.
Their second successive runners-up spot, however, has given them the overall race lead over Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA), who they beat by under four minutes.
Both have eight points but Walker’s men have the advantage thanks to their superior record in the in-port race series where they lead after four races.
Walker outlined a clear, pre-race strategy in October: Finish on the podium in every leg and the chances are you will end up on top come the end of the race in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27.
So far, he has carried out that plan to perfection with, successively, first, third, second and second places, but he conceded: “The difference between the teams is getting less and less, but our strategy is consistency. However, it if it becomes a two-horse race, it could be the wrong strategy.”
Caudrelier, without wishing to slight Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/USA) who won the first in-port race in Alicante back in October, has identified that all crews are taking the inshore series increasingly seriously since it could well break ties by the end of the event.
For Enright, it was another leg of learnings tinged with slight disappointment that his U.S./Turkish-backed boat could not build on their third-placed podium finish in the last leg in Sanya.
“Nobody goes into a leg hoping for fourth place,” he summed up succinctly. “We’ve still got work to do on our boat speed.”
Bouwe Bekking and his team on board Team Brunel are still very much in the hunt for the overall title in third place on 12 points, but the Dutchman was typically forthright in his conclusion of feelings on board the boat following their second fifth place in a row, having triumphed on Leg 2 to Abu Dhabi.
“We feel gutted, not only myself, but everybody on the team,” he told reporters. “We made one mistake – and we paid for it. We had some sickness on board, but that was no excuse.”
For Team SCA (Sam Davies/GBR), it is a familiar story of gradual, but constant improvement, despite again finishing at the end of the fleet.
“Results haven’t changed, but we’re improving. We’re almost in contact with the rest of the fleet. We’re learning as we sail next to them,” she said.
She, her crew and the rest of the fleet will now enjoy some well-earned rest in New Zealand’s sailing-mad and most populous city before the action resumes on March 14 for The New Zealand Herald In-Port Race.
The departure for Itajaí, a leg of some 6,776nm, begins 24 hours later on March 15. It is the longest leg of the race and, the skippers agreed, the one that could well point to the eventual destination of the trophy in the race’s 12th edition.