anonsally asked “I, for one, would be interested to hear at least a little more about…”By…

“I, for one, would be interested to hear at least a little more about…”

By request. :-) But after a cut so those uninterested in my personal take on Leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race can sail on by.

This is the leg from Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island. They should be finishing early in the morning on Thursday, after a leg that’s been a pretty straightforward affair. No major injuries, no big storms.

Here’s 16 days of racing condensed into 30 seconds:

The size of the little boats gives you a sense of the scale of the tracker; big boats mean they’re all close together (within a few miles of each other). At maximum separation the trailing boat (SCA) was about 70 miles behind the leader, though they’ve since closed the gap to about 40 miles as the fleet sails into lighter winds off the East Coast.

SCA hung close to the leaders for a long time, and were actually the first boat across the equator. They had a bad couple of days as the fleet entered the floating weed of the Sargasso Sea, though; my guess is that their weed-clearing procedures (doing big S-curves, heeling the boat to windward, backing down, or jumping over the side to clear the weeds by hand) were less polished than those of the leading boats. And generally, they still seem to exhibit the same tendency to ease off the throttle somewhere around the end of the second week of the leg.

Discussing why this happens is a favorite topic among the obsessives at Sailing Anarchy. For the team’s biggest fans it’s an article of faith that they’ve been cruelly shafted by the International Jury that denied them the right to replace their Fractional Code Zero (one of their more important downwind sails) after destroying it on Leg 5. My take on that is yeah, it’s probably hurt them some, but 1) not as much as their most-ardent supporters believe; the repaired FR0 doesn’t appear to be that slow, and 2) taking care of the sails was always going to be a key factor the teams would compete on, given the limited-spares rule used for this edition of the race in order to hold costs down for the sponsors.

More significant, I think, is the team’s general lack of experience at this sort of racing. They’ve closed that gap a lot relative to the other teams, but there’s still a gap.

Ultimately, I think responsibility for the team’s failure to do better must be laid at the feet of skipper Sam Davies. Just as I felt skipper Chris Nicholson of Vestas Wind got off without being held properly accountable for the error that put that team on the reef, SCA’s skipper bears ultimate responsibility. She has to. That’s just how it works. She’s the final backstop, with a non-delegable duty to manage the overall operation of the boat. If they slow down relative to the other boats sometime around their third week at sea (which has happened on every leg), it’s up to Sam to figure out why and fix it. That it keeps happening makes it her fault, by definition.

I think what’s going on is that under the pressure of being at sea for that long, there’s an inevitable tendency to ease up and go into “cruising mode”. The skipper needs to counteract that by keeping up the pressure on the crew. But for Sam that’s doubly hard to do, because 1) her own previous racing experience has mostly been single-handed, where the emphasis is on conserving energy and not pushing too hard, and 2) her personality makes her an upbeat consensus-builder who tries to put a positive spin on every setback.

There have been hints of others on board who have chafed at her tendency to slip into this mode. But they’re not in charge.

Anyway, with the remaining three legs (especially the last two) being the shortest of the race, I think there’s a good chance for the team to get some better finishes before the end. I’m looking forward to seeing if they can do that.

At the front of the fleet, Dongfeng has continued to show their speed. ADOR is right behind them, though. At this point, given the point deficit they picked up when their mast broke on Leg 5, Dongfeng needs ADOR to give them some help by screwing up or having a gear failure in order to put some boats between them. There’s a lot of racing left, but with every mile it looks more and more like ADOR’s race to lose.

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