January 18 2018
Volvo Ocean Race fans around the world were on the edges of their seats on Thursday as Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag’s emergence from “Stealth Mode” corresponded with two of their closest rivals ‘disappearing’ from the tracker.
Scallywag had a jump of just 40 miles on second-placed Vestas 11th Hour Racing when they went into Stealth Mode just before 1700 UTC on Wednesday, cloaking their position from their rivals and from fans for three consecutive six-hourly position reports.
At 1300 UTC they reappeared on the tracker back in the number one spot with only 500 miles left – but just when it seemed the action couldn’t get any more tense, podium challengers Vestas 11th Hour Racing and team AkzoNobel deployed Stealth Mode.
Team Brunel, locked in their own battle with MAPFRE and Turn the Tide on Plastic for fifth, also chose to go ‘undercover’, leaving only four teams on the tracker with 24 hours to go.
At 1300 UTC Scallywag were 37 miles ahead of Dongfeng, but both teams – and race fans – were left guessing as to where Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Akzonobel were. If we assume the Vestas team remains ahead of Dongfeng, the race to finish in Hong Kong is getting closer and closer.
Prior to emerging from Stealth Mode, Scallywag skipper Dave Witt hinted at just how tight it is at the top – and revealed that the race to the finish line could go down to the wire.
“I think it’s a good for some of our fans that we’ve been in Stealth Mode because there’s a few people who’d be having heart attacks if they knew how close it was,” Witt said. “We are in front, we are leading, but it’s really close. The others don’t realise how close it is.
“We haven’t trusted our weather routing software at all on this leg but now we want to because it says we’re going to beat Vestas in by an hour and a half. To all the Scallywag supporters in Hong Kong: say a prayer for us tonight.”
Despite their proximity to the finish, the teams have several hurdles still to contend with.
First they must pick the right moment to gybe in order to thread their way through the islands of the Luzon Strait.
This must be done without getting caught in the huge wind shadow created by Taiwan, or the smaller islands of the northern Philippines.
Once they reach Hong Kong they may face a stretch of light winds as they navigate the final miles to the finish line.
These uncertainties mean that even at this late stage of the leg, anything can happen.
“It’s getting interesting now,” said Simon Fisher, navigator on Vestas 11th Hour Racing. “Everyone’s looking for their opportunities. The path past the Philippines and into the South China Sea is open to a number of options and some important choices will have to be made.
“We can easily see the fleet splitting which will no doubt lead to more tension as we close on the finish.”
The most up-to-date ETAs see the leaders arriving between 1600 to 2000 UTC Friday afternoon, with the back trio due in between 0200 and 0630 UTC on Saturday morning.