In one of the closest finishes in the race to date, Ericsson 4 held off the recently resurgent PUMA and Green Dragon teams to win Leg 8, and claim their third consecutive leg win and fifth in the race so far. The victory puts Ericsson 4 in an all but unassailable position on the leaderboard.
"We're very close to winning the race," admitted Ericsson 4 skipper Torben Grael. "But we're not there yet."
His team now holds a 15-point lead with just three scoring opportunities left (for a maximum 20 points) before the finish in St. Petersburg.
This may have been one of the shorter legs of the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race, but the intense sprint from Galway to Marstrand was no less testing for its short duration. The leg threw a bit of everything at the crews, who were exhausted beyond all sensibility by the time they reached the finish off the small island of Marstrand.
The battle for second place, between PUMA, who made a late pass, and Green Dragon, was particularly close (less than a minute separated the pair), as was the fight for fifth, where Delta Lloyd stole past Telefonica Black just metres before the finish line for a 19-second margin of victory. All seven teams finished within one hour and 19 minutes.
PUMA is on a roll after a disappointing performance in their hometown in Boston. The team made some crew changes ahead of the leg to Galway, and has since posted two second place finishes in the offshore legs, as well as their first win of the race at the Galway in-port race. Their finish position on this leg was particularly sweet as the team appeared to be in danger of finishing in last place 24 hours ago.
"The 'no-quit' in this team is beyond imagination," said skipper Ken Read, dockside in Marstrand. "We had every reason to quit and I think we're kind of stunned to be honest. 24-hours ago we were sailing with a triple reef and a number four jib, upwind in a gale, while the other guys were running down the coast. I give (navigator) Andrew Cape a lot of credit. We got ourselves in a tough spot and he got us out of it. He could have said 'let's just follow them in' and he didn't. He deserves a ton of credit."
PUMA was forced to split from the fleet after 'blowing up' one of their spinnakers. At the time, Read said they were "hoping beyond hope" that the tactic would work. PUMA sailed to the opposite side of a low pressure system, forced into that position by not having the sail required to sail the same angle as the fleet. They soon tumbled to the nether regions of the leaderboard.
But by yesterday afternoon, it looked like their tactic of punching through the low just might work. Still a long way back, PUMA were sailing in much stronger wind than the opposition, and pulling back the miles. But they wouldn't get past Green Dragon until both had reached the tip of Denmark and made their final turn for Marstrand.
"I almost feel bad a little bit for Green Dragon," Read said. "They sailed a great race. They were right at the front pretty much the whole time. That's their best effort yet. We got them going around the corner at the end. We had a little pace on them in reaching conditions and we just got by them."
But Ian Walker, skipper of the Irish team, was in no mood to accept anyone's pity. It's the second consecutive podium finish for the Dragons and Walker and his men were happy with the result.
"We sailed pretty much a perfect leg, so there's no point in being upset," Walker said. "This leg, there were a lot of big tactical gains. We sailed a very different route to everyone else in the race. It clearly paid. It was only at the end when we were all straight-line reaching that they all came smoking past us."
In the end, the Ericsson 4, PUMA, Green Dragon, podium placing was the same as in the leg to Galway. And PUMA and Green Dragon finished with a couple of hundred metres of each other.
In fourth place was a disappointed Telefonica Blue. Combined with PUMA's second place finish, the result sees Bouwe Bekking's team surrender second place on the overall leaderboard to the American team. Bekking wasn't happy with the result.
"In the areas where we are normally very strong we just sailed badly," he said. "Fourth place...well for a big part of the race were seventh, so in that sense, it was a good effort, but it's always disappointing when you don't win."
This fight for second is likely to last all the way to the finish in St. Petersburg, with PUMA and Telefonica Blue battling down to the bitter end.
Further back, Delta Lloyd stole a point from Telefonica Black just ahead of the finish line, the boats nearly overlapped as they crossed the line.
"We had only one possibility, which was to go through an impossible gap full of rocks, so that's what we did," was the way navigator Wouter Verbraak explained the passing move. "It was tight, but we made it. Fantastic. We took them 10 lengths before the finish. Really, really cool."
Ericsson 3 completed the leg in a disappointing seventh place.
The results for leg 8 set up an interesting leaderboard with just three scoring opportunities left.
Ericsson 4 is in a very strong position to lock up the race on the next leg, the short Swedish sprint to Stockholm. Meanwhile, PUMA and Telefonica Blue appear destined to fight for second place until the very end.
After two poor legs, Ericsson 3 will need to start looking over their shoulders at Green Dragon, now just 5.5 points behind. Similarly, Telefonica Black is suddenly less comfortable with Delta Lloyd lurking just 7 behind.
The teams are on a restricted regime now in Marstrand due to the 'pit-stop' designation here. In general, all repairs have to be made by the crews, and no new sails, or food, or other material is permitted to be brought on board. Crew substitutions are allowed however and Telefonica Blue have previously announced Tom Addis will step down for Simon Fisher.
Leg 9 starts on Sunday.