The shadow boxing of the past few days has descended into a brutal street brawl as the elements take cheap shots in the closing stages of Leg 8. Both Ericsson 3 and Telefonica Blue have sustained heavy psychological blows. Today it was PUMA's turn.
Slamming upwind and hot footing it through a minefield of tidal shifts, in the waters off the Hook of Holland, can take its toll. And forget tip-toeing through the tulips found in this part of the world, try threading your way round tankers in a Volvo Open 70. Rows of them.
For Ericsson 3, the mood is dark and the pain acute. A tactical decision to continue north overnight, against the run of play, resulted in a massive hemorrhaging of miles. At midday yesterday, the Nordics were in third place on the leaderboard, just seven miles off the leaders, Telefonica Black and Green Dragon.
By 10 ZULU today, that deficit had ballooned to 55 miles and their ignominious slide to the foot of the rankings continued unchecked. Setting the fastest time in the Rotterdam Gate Race was scant consolation.
Media Crew Member Gustav Morin revealed that Ericsson 3 was far from a happy ship. "There is everything but happy days on Ericsson 3 for the moment,” he wrote. “We have been stuck behind the other boats on the wrong side of a low pressure.
"They have been sailing downwind in a lot of wind, while we have more or less been lying still.
"In other sports you can throw your racket, scream at the referee, pick a fight with your opponents or get changed for another player. Here you are left alone with 10 other guys who have the exact feelings as you, and there is absolutely no point of doing anything than just cheer each other up and try to recover the losses and make up a new game plan. There are no opponents to fight with, no referee to blame and no one waiting for you on the bench.”
Telefonica Blue were badly caught out by the constant tide and wind shifts near the exclusion zone in the Dover Strait. Skipper Bouwe Bekking was not amused.
"We had an absolutely shocking last 24 hours, were just nothing worked out and losing a lot of miles,” he said.
"We have been battling hard, but no gains to be made. We came very close to PUMA and Delta Lloyd near the Dover Strait, but they got a puff first and extended again. This morning the wind swung from the NE into the SW, meaning we sailed right into the old swell, doing about 15-20 knots of boat speed. Boat breaking stuff.”
For long periods, the Blue boat has appeared to be without a prayer in this leg, and Media Crew Member Gabri Olivo has looked to the heavens for an explanation for their position in economy class on the leaderboard.
"Probably someone didn't go to church last Sunday,” he reasoned. “This morning we were just in front of Ericsson 4, Delta Lloyd and PUMA, catching up with Ericsson 3 and quite happy about the battle that we had during the night to keep our position.
"Then we decided to go a little lower than the others and slowly but continuously, we got sucked into a mixture of a header and a less favorable tide that we never got out from.
"Things went from bad to worse when we had to stop the boat three times to clear some weed from the keel. Within four hours we lost sight of all the others. As you can imagine, the darkness came onboard. You can see on everyone's face how bad the mood is.”
PUMA hit the canvas soon after the Gate Race when they blew out a spinnaker. It meant a course change and an altering of outlook on board.
"We have been in a heavyweight prize fight for days now and fighting off blows to the head and sleep deprivation,” Read said.
"Sailing back into third place today and then amazingly blowing our big spinnaker up sailing downwind just after the Rotterdam loop. Then the chain reaction occurred and the culmination of it all is a complete split from the fleet and hoping beyond hope that this new tactic works.
"The spinnaker just broke, right below the head patch. Absolutely no warning. After the chute exploded we had to put up small sails and in turn we sailed a higher course than the rest of the fleet. So we lost touch. Our best hope is to try and punch through the center of the low and wait for the rest of the group to hit their light air eventually.
"The team is down right now but all realize that we can't quit and need to press on. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way. Today may have been one of those days for us as time will only tell.”
By the 16:00 GMT Position Report, and with 295 miles remaining to the finish, PUMA’s mishap had relegated them to the bottom of the pile – 32 miles adrift of leader Ericsson 4.
Green Dragon held second at +4 miles ahead of Delta Lloyd and Telefonica Blue (both +19). Bekking’s men were in an arm wrestle with the sistership, Telefonica Black (+21), while Ericsson 3, who’s travails are well documented earlier, was 27 miles off the lead and just ahead of the wounded PUMA.
Ericsson 4 have not escaped unscathed from the past few days. The first night out of Galway Torben Grael’s men they found themselves having to right the boat after a gybe became a broach in 35+ knots. A broken wheel was the upshot.
Nevertheless, they stepped into the battle that had raged between Green Dragon and Telefonica Black for the past 48 hours and claimed the outright leadership of the leg at 07:00 GMT this morning.
Grael and navigator Jules Salter benefited from a big wind shift as the fleet made its way towards the Rotterdam Gate Race off the Hook of Holland.
"It was a tough night onboard Ericsson 4 as we made our way through the constant changing maze of ships and wind shifts,” reported Media Crew Member, Guy Salter, adding that sleep was at a premium given the constant tacking required in the North Sea. Even for a recovering sleepaholic.
"For this whole race I have won Ericsson 4’s highly-coveted 'Golden Blanket' award – it hasn’t been the easiest of feats I can assure you – but dogged determination and perseverance has seen me fight off some very tough competition.
"This leg however I thought I would step aside and allow one of the other chaps onboard to live the glory. So here I am with only three short naps under my belt over the last 30 hours totalling no more than four hours’ sleep and through no fault of my own I am still the leader in the sleep stakes. The rest of the lads are living off less than two hours’ rest for the same time period – such has been conditions for the last day or so.”
Salter also reported that the crew of Ericsson 4 may be in need of dental work such has been the pounding over the past few days.
"It’s extremely choppy, very uncomfortable slamming which is near impossible for the lads to drive through without shaking a few of those old fillings loose.
"I hope the dentists of Marstrand are ready – they may have 77 new customers looking for amalgam replacements.”
This afternoon the fleet was being propelled by a 25-30 knot westerly gale off the coast of northern Holland from where they will make their turn towards Scandinavia. Computer routing software is predicting a finish in Marstrand in the early hours of Thursday this week.
PUMA’s Rick Deppe had more to report on the hazards of being on board a Volvo Open 70 in the busiest shipping lane in the world.
"The amount of shipping traffic is staggering. If they are a danger to us, we must equally be a real pain to them. We seem to change direction for no reason and I'm sure that they are very confused as to how a sailboat can go so fast.
"If Singapore seemed like the parking garage for the world’s shipping fleet then the Straits of Dover would have to be the M25 and DC Beltway combined at rush hour.”
More like bewitching hour on PUMA.