Over 6200 miles and 20 days of sailing across the Pacific between Hong Kong and Auckland, leg six was one of the toughest so far. Particularly unstable conditions and an intense match race between MAPFRE and Dongfeng, meant Xabi Fernández and his crew were kept on their toes from the start and throughout the entire leg. This new podium finish for the Spanish VO65 ensures their leadership of the Volvo Ocean Race general scoreboard so far. We spoke to MAPFRE skipper Xabi Fernández 48 hours after crossing the finish line in the City of Sails.
What an end to the leg! The whole fleet finished within two hours of each other. Had you expected that?
We didn’t expect such a large compression at the end. We knew there would be very light winds on the coast, but we thought that the clouds would break and those ahead would get into the breeze earlier. When we saw the last position report in the morning we saw that there were just 18 miles difference, that they were far from the coast, and at a complete standstill. So it was an opportunity for us. We were fighting with Dongfeng to finish ahead of each other, but at one point we had AkZoNobel, six and a half miles ahead, and they were barely moving. Then just off Rangitoto we overtook TTOP 35 miles from the finish line. We finally got our opportunity on the very last day, and we didn’t waste it.
Seeing your position for many days during the leg, did you ever think you would finish on the podium?
No. We might have considered it two weeks earlier, because we had the Doldrums ahead of us, and were quite positive that we could reduce the distance, but 3-4 days before arrival, our only goal was to finish ahead of Dongfeng rather than aiming for a podium finish.
We have heard both you and Dongfeng on more than one occasion, saying how important it is to sail your own race. How did it turn out that both of you ended up being at the back of the fleet, and so close for so long?
We are obviously trying to sail our own race, but you also have to stay alert, and in this case it means with Dongfeng. I suppose a lot of questions are being asked about why two boats were match-racing throughout the entire leg, or why we were so close the whole time, but at the time I could only think about the possibility that if we let them go, they might win the leg, and we could finish third or fourth. Then people would be asking, “why on earth did they let them get away?!” So, in this leg in particular, we did the right thing, even when at times it looked like it was a mistake for example, to head east, or north-east on the first transition through the Doldrums, when we knew we needed to go south. It was quite stressful because I think at one point we overtook each other about 15 times, without any particularly reason. There were a lot of clouds, shifts, squalls…it was very tough sailing.
What is it like living with that kind of stress, for 20 odd days and 489 hours? And the slightest mistake can make such a huge difference…
And it is often just because of a cloud! In the beginning it was very, very stressful! We then realised that it had nothing to do with the speed of the boat, which is very, very similar, and so that is a good thing. If one of the boats is faster, that isn’t such good news. It is really stressful, but you get used to the routine of going up on deck, and seeing if they are still there. We separated a couple of times because of the cloud activity, and if I am honest, it was quite a relief not to see them on the AIS and to try and sail our boat a little more. However just a few hours later, we were back together again. We spoke on the radio a couple of times to try and make it all a little more light-hearted…
Charles Caudrelier asked you for a birthday present…
Yes, he wrote me an email. I think we gave him what he asked for, but then he returned it to us (laughing).
How about the fact that Vestas wasn’t sailing, but are coming back in the next leg?
There is still such a long way to go. We have sailed half the distance, but there is so much more at stake, in points. Winning the next leg is really important because it means a lot of points, but this leg is dangerous, and there are many things that are out of our hands. It is important to keep an eye on Dongfeng and try to stay ahead. The fact that Vestas weren’t present obviously made life a little easier, because they were also close to us on the scoreboard, and with three boats it is different. We might have even sailed better had Vestas been involved, I don’t know. But they weren’t there so we had to act.
So, all in all, it has been a perfect result for MAPFRE?
Yes, perfect for us for many reasons. Firstly because there were many moments in the leg where I didn’t believe we would get a podium finish. Secondly, because the two boats who finished ahead of us, are still at a distance from us on the scoreboard, even if they are catching up fast. And thirdly, Dongfeng finished behind us! What more can we ask for?