FIGHTING TO THE FINISH
They were separated at the finish line by just five minutes and four seconds, but the difference in mood between the crews of Ericsson 3 and Telefonica Blue was far more pronounced upon arrival today.
For while Ericsson 3 docked wearing hats of the colonial patriots from the 18th century, dancing and prancing in celebration of second place, Blue's sailors were hardly overjoyed at third.
The reasons why were not hard to figure out. "We're a bit sad because we basically gave it away," said Blue skipper Bouwe Bekking.
Moments earlier, Magnus Olsson was in typically good form. "What a bloody wonderful team," he said. "A great result."
And one that was partly caused by Blue's misfortune and misjudgement.
Bekking's crew had, for 12 of the 15 days at sea, led the fleet. At one stage the advantage they grabbed 10 hours into the leg, had reached 108 miles. En route they rounded the scoring gate in first place, navigator Tom Addis playing an almost perfect strategic race.
"We had a good strategy going into this leg and played it out really well through the gate and into the trades," Addis said. "That was all very much part of the plan set out from that start."
Then it got tricky. From April 20 until April 23 the fleet began closing in as Blue headed into an area of lighter winds. On the 23rd,when Ericsson 4 had closed to within six miles, a call to gybe towards the west was made, a decision that had Bekking fretting for days in advance.
"A very tricky call has to be made," he wrote from the boat on April 22. "You gybe too early and you run out of pressure, you gybe too late and you end up with a bad angle to the whale exclusion box...That will be the race call."
In many ways, it was. Blue went early, hiding their move for 12 hours under the guise of their StealthPlay. When they reappeared, they were in third, and three hours later, when Ericsson 4's own stealth period ended, Blue were fourth, about 55 miles off Ericsson 4's lead.
Ericsson 3 and PUMA profited in the aftermath - Olsson's crew actually held first place for one sched on April 25 - before Blue regained third from PUMA on the leg's final day, enabling them to take second on the overall leaderboard in a thrilling end to the stage.
It added some gloss to Bekking's leg, but the over-riding feeling was that this result was a massive missed opportunity, leaving his team 13 points behind Ericsson 4.
"At 5am this morning it was a race for fourth so there was a bit of a victory in taking PUMA and a podium," said watch captain Jonno Swain. "But for sure we are disappointed. We had our chances. Boat speed is one thing, but we made a mistake. It is one of the risks you take. Maybe in the future we will have a talk about it and say ‘do we really want to split from the fleet?'."
Bekking added: "The last 24 hours was a highlight of the race. We fell behind and came back and if it had been a little longer we might have caught another place. But that's yacht racing, that's how it goes.
"I said from the beginning that (the point at which they gybed) would be the decision maker on this leg. We did it wrong. Very simple. After the first sched we knew it would not look pretty."
Given the attention afforded to navigators, and the public emphasis placed on their decisions, the spotlight has fallen on Addis for the move.
He admitted the early gybe was made in part because he and the decision makers onboard got "jumpy" about Ericsson 4's gains. Other Blue crew members, and those of Ericsson 4, highlighted that the latter had also been enjoying an "extra gear" of boat speed when the wind strength grew.
"It was a fraction early, but we were very keen to lead left," Addis said. "We wanted to be the first boat through the front because we felt the first boat could extend, just like we extended as the first into the Trade Winds. Maybe we were a little gung-ho and over sensitive to getting the shift at the first opportunity. It didn't go that well for us. The shift did come eventually but it was slow and weak and in hindsight you would gybe a little bit later.
"Who knows how that affected the overall result because there was so much compression and extending after that. Ericsson 4 jumped to a big lead but only just finished ahead of us there. We were keen to be first to gybe and the way these guys were catching us up maybe we did get a bit jumpy."
Bekking has not conceded defeat in the bigger picture, but remained realistic about his chances.
"Stranger things have happened in yacht racing," he said. "Ericsson 4 gained more points but that's how it goes. There are more points to go but of course it will be more and more hard to beat them, unless they have a breakdown but it is not nice to say that and you wouldn't want that to happen to someone."
Olsson, meanwhile, was ecstatic. The 60-year-old Swede suffered a suspected broken rib on the trip, but pain was the last thing on his mind. "We are getting some great results and I hope it can continue," he said. "Not many teams can have been on the podium more than us in the offshore legs."
In fact only Ericsson 4 can match their record of five podiums from six legs - albeit with three first places compared to Ericsson 3's one - and Olsson's team are clearly in good form after finishing first in the last leg.
This stage didn't involve any spectacular decisions like that made in the last leg, but navigator Aksel Magdahl was overjoyed with the result. He even argued it could have been better had they not lost 10 hours when their A4 sail was destroyed in the closing stages.
"It was really quite enjoyable even though we lost a position every now and then," he said. "It was frustrating yesterday losing the A4 and we lost much more distance then than there was between us at the finish line. You never know what would have happened if we hadn't. We are really happy with their result. We have helped Ericsson 4 a few times now, getting in between them and the others. It is incredible for the whole team, two first-second results (E3 led E4 into Rio de Janeiro in leg five) in a row."
Olsson was still screaming with joy in the background as he spoke. Bekking, meanwhile, was left to wonder what might have been. And what the implications might be to his dream of winning this race.