Dongfeng Race Team powered its way into an early lead on Sunday, pushing penalties on its two closest competitors, in hard-fought racing as the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 got underway.
Conditions couldn’t have been better for the start in Alicante, Spain on Sunday afternoon.
The fleet of seven of the best sailing teams in the world started Leg 1, a 1,450 nautical mile sprint to Lisbon, Portugal in bright sunshine and a 15-20 knot Easterly breeze.
The bay off the Alicante sea front was crowded with hundreds of spectator boats, ringing a short inshore race course, before the fleet was free to fly off, downwind, towards Gibraltar.
They were treated to some of the most intense racing ever seen in the opening minutes of a Volvo Ocean Race. The highlight came on the approach to the final turning mark before leaving the bay, when Dongfeng Race Team came screaming in on a collision course with Team Brunel and MAPFRE, both of whom were forced into a quick gybe to avoid the right of way Chinese boat.
Separated by less than a meter at times, as they went through their manoeuvres, the on water Umpires judged neither Brunel nor MAPFRE had kept sufficiently clear and penalised both, pushing them back down the fleet.
“This is going to be such a close race, every meter counts,” Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier had said before the start. “We know we will be fighting all the way to the finish.”
After winning round one of the fight, Dongfeng then sped off with the lead, with Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Turn the Tide on Plastic in close pursuit. All three would thread their way through the spectator fleet, at times within an arm’s length of the astonished guests, before finding a clear passage out to sea.
Before racing started, the intensity and drama played out dockside, with team AkzoNobel submitting its final crew list just ahead of the dockout time.
The team has been in flux since it was announced one week ago that original skipper Simeon Tienpont had left the team and had been replaced by watch captain Brad Jackson.
But on Friday evening, Tienpont won an arbitration judgement allowing him to return to the team and just hours before start time, the team submitted an updated crew list with Tienpont leading a newly constituted squad. Jackson, as well as previous navigator Jules Salter, are not on the boat.
“I am relieved to be back with my team and excited to be getting our Volvo Ocean Race campaign underway,” Tienpont said in a statement thanking Jackson as well as Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, who agreed to let António Fontes race with the AkzoNobel crew for Leg 1.
With the start behind them, the teams will settle into the routine of life at sea, as they begin the first leg of what will be a 45,000 nautical mile race around the planet. The intensity shown during the first hour of the first leg, when the fight was for every meter, demonstrates just how competitive this Volvo Ocean Race will be.
The ultimate test of these teams has started.