LISBON, POR – Not long after Vestas 11th Hour Racing sailed up the Tagus River to cross the finish line of the opening leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, a press release trumpeted the fact that it’s the first time in history that a USA-flagged boat is leading the overall standings of the bluewater classic. Yes, it’s quite an achievement for Vestas 11th Hour Racing, which is led by Ivy Leaguers Charlie Enright and Mark Towill, and stands for the right things.
Of course, for perspective, there are 10 more legs and more than 43,000 nautical miles to go. And technically, Vestas 11th Hour sails under the American and Danish flags.
But seriously, good for the U.S. guys, who led their team to a victory margin of some 20 nautical miles over pre-race favorite MAPFRE. They’ve worked hard to mount a second VOR campaign. In fact, they’ve won consecutive legs, including the final segment of the last edition of the race, when they finished fifth overall when they were known as Team Alvimedica (technically, they tied with MAPFRE on points but the Spanish team was awarded fourth place based on overall results of the in-port race series).
“Can’t argue with the results,” said Enright, the skipper. “For us, it has always been the process and improving every day. We prioritized getting the right people and this provides us with a lot of confidence. I can’t say enough about the squad on the boat and the ones on the shore.”
Enright and Towill follow in the footsteps of two other American sailors who won the opening leg of the world's premier around-the-world race.
Paul Cayard captured the first leg in the 1997-98 race, when it was called the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, and went on to win with Swedish-flagged EF Language. John Kostecki skippered the German-flagged illbruck Challenge to a Leg 1 victory in the 2001-02 race and went on to victory.
Could this leg victory be a sign? Well, Enright and Towill, the team director who also races on the yacht, wouldn’t have put in all the hard work to secure sponsorships and pick a team if they didn’t think they could win it all.
“To kick it off this way is a strong sentiment to the team,’’ Towill said. “We have a long way to go for sure, and this is a great way to start the event.”
Nick Dana of Newport, RI is the third American crew member on board Vestas 11th Hour Racing.
Dongfeng Race Team was third, followed by Team AkzoNobel, Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, Team Brunel and Turn The Tide On Plastic.
Team Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking wasn’t happy with the sixth-place finish. “The synergy within the team is good. But the result is very frustrating,’’ he said. “We really missed speed, especially in the second part of the leg. At the moment we don't know what the problem is. But the race is still long, the team is good and we're focused on getting the boat back in shape."
Some observers might be surprised with the fourth-place finish of team AkzoNobel, which was embroiled in turmoil in the days before the race’s start. Skipper Simeon Tienpont (NED) was sacked by AkzoNobel for what the sponsor alleged was breach of contract, then won back his job after an arbitration hearing. This led to some crew upheaval in the week before the start of Leg 1.
The Dutch-flagged boat sailed with one fewer crew than the rest of the fleet.
“We were pleased to be out there racing and after the start we just all did our thing,’’ Tienpont said. “We trusted in the way we had set the boat up and we proved we could pass people. Rosco [Ross Monson] did an amazing job of getting us out of the Mediterranean with a bit of a head start, which helped given we were one short.
“Once we got to the third night, we just kept pushing hard and everyone had to step up with longer driving and longer trimming. But now we are very happy with our fourth place – it’s a very good
Meanwhile, New Zealand sailing stars Peter Burling of Team Brunel and Blair Tuke of MAPFRE completed their first VOR leg. One of them could become the first to win sailing’s Triple Crown of the America’s Cup, an Olympic gold medal and the VOR.
“It was a tough one,’’ said Burling, who in June became the youngest helmsman to win the America’s Cup when he led Emirates Team New Zealand to a stunning victory against Oracle Team USA. “It was good fun. We did a lot of things really well. It was a struggle to find the speed. That’s a bit of a shame.’’
Leg 2 from Lisbon to Cape Town starts next Sunday, November 5th.
Vestas 11th Hour Racing celebrates victory in the first leg of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race after finishing Saturday afternoon off Lisbon.