Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing stand on the verge of a notable first for the Gulf region in offshore sailing with victory in the epic Ocean Race tantalisingly within their grasp.
The Emirati boat trailed in fifth in the previous edition of the sport’s most prestigious competition in 2011-2012 but, undaunted, made a second attempt in the current race which started last October and will end in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27.
They are bidding to become the first boat from the region to win the 41-year-old event that was first launched as the Round the World Race.
Their pre-race strategy was simply to secure a top-three podium finish in each of the nine legs and, after seven, they have achieved that ambition in all but one stage.
That opened up a five-point lead at the head of the fleet and their prospects were given a further boost on Wednesday when an independent jury, appointed by the sport’s governing body ISAF, penalised their closest rivals a penalty point.
The infringement, sailing against the marine ‘traffic’ during Leg 7 through the Atlantic from Newport, Rhode Island to Lisbon, puts Chinese challengers, Dongfeng Race Team, six points behind Abu Dhabi and back into third place.
The Dutch-backed Team Brunel are now level on points with Dongfeng but place second, courtesy of a superior record in the in-port race series which is the race’s overall tie-breaker.
It leaves the mathematics fairly simple for Abu Dhabi’s British skipper, Ian Walker, in the final two legs from Lisbon to Lorient (France) and thence, to Gothenburg.
“We just have to finish third or fourth, twice, or beat them (Brunel and Dongfeng) in the final two legs,” he said.
But the Briton, 45, knows the sport is nothing but unpredictable. He twice missed out on Olympic gold medals by a whisker –- in 1996 and 2000 –- and victory in the nine-month, 38,739-nautical mile Ocean Race would be the icing on a stellar career.
Meanwhile, his counterpart on board Dongfeng, Frenchman Charles Caudrelier, has certainly not given up the chase yet.
He was quick to see the silver lining in Wednesday’s jury decision.
“We have to look forward, whats done is done,” he told reporters. “We won leg six, and we led for a good part of this last one.
“Anything can still happen to Abu Dhabi on these next two legs, so we haven’t lost sight of the chance of beating them.
“Of course, now Team Brunel are also in the picture, which perhaps makes it just as complicated for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing as it does for us. Who will cover whom?”
Sunday’s absorbing finale, part one, will be prefaced on Saturday (1400 local time/1300 UTC) by the Lisbon in-port race, the eighth act of a 10-part series that could yet still split teams in Gothenburg as the final tie-breaker.
The seven teams, including Team Vestas Wind who return after their boat was rebuilt following a grounding on a reef on the second leg, then set out for the ‘mere’ 647nm which divide Lisbon and Lorient in Brittany.
The trip should take just three or four days to sail, but the Atlantic sprint promises to be totally absorbing.
Wednesday’s jury verdict has not changed that one iota, and as Team Brunel’s highly experienced navigator, Andrew Cape (Australia), summed up: “One mistake, one broken jib sheet, and you could be last in the leg.”
Current latest standings
(low points wins, In-Port Race Series splits ties):
1) Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 16 pts, 2) Team Brunel (Netherlands) 22, 3) Dongfeng Race Team (China) 22, 4) Team Alvimedica (Turkey/U.S.) 27, 5) MAPFRE (Spain) 27, 6) Team SCA (Sweden) 43, 7) Team Vestas (Denmark) 52.