The opening salvos in what promises to be a tense tactical battle to the finish of Leg 6 were fired this morning in the North Atlantic. Telefonica Blue was first to blink, going into StealthPlay at the 07:00 GMT Position Report.
The gap between Telefonica Blue and Ericsson 4 had closed to six miles at the time. Under the amended sailing instructions for Stealth this leg, Bouwe Bekking and his men will come out of hiding at 19:00 GMT.
Bekking hinted yesterday that there would be a flurry of Stealth cards before Boston Harbour comes into view, and he was right. Ericsson 4 followed suit at 10:00 GMT. Torben Grael's crew will exit cloak and dagger at 22:00.
The tactical conundrum for the fleet today was when to gybe to port for the final approach. Since Stealth is a factor, we can only reveal that Ericsson 3, PUMA, Telefonica Black and Delta Lloyd have gybed and Green Dragon may do so soon. The position of the other two remain shrouded in mystery for now.
And since tactics is a dangerous road for us afternoon reporters to be going down, I’ll defer to my learned colleague Mark Chisnell for a fuller explanation.
Having been mixing it with the Ericsson duo over the past 48 days, PUMA have now been dropped. “A few days back I was ‘complaining’ about being next to the two Ericsson boats all the time. Well, I should have known better,” skipper Ken Read wrote.
“Be careful what you wish for, as they utilised their western position and buzzed off and put a pretty good licking on us over the last 48 hours.”
Suffice to say, with Boston less than 900 miles away for the leaders, the whiff of clam chowder, referred to by Read earlier in this leg, has filled the nostrils.
As for the backmarker’s view of Telefonica Blue’s ploy, Roger Nilson, on stablemate, Telefonica Black, was as forthright as ever. "They are in trouble on boat speed,” he said. “She’s had as much wind as Ericsson 4 but she’s not as fast. It’s a desperate move to play games with Ericsson 4 on raw boat speed and try to hide somehow.”
Telefonica Black has problems of its own, as Nilson freely admitted. Having been rubbing shoulders with the leaders four days’ ago, the Black boat is labouring – some 75 miles adrift before the leaders disappeared from view.
The Spaniards’ cause has not been helped by an eventful night on the 19th April which was full of incidents and accidents. She was lying third on the leaderboard at the time but has been conceding ground ever since. Partly due to her westerly position on the race track and partly a boat speed deficit, an affliction common to Volvo Open 70s not named Ericsson 4.
"We are disappointed not to be higher up the fleet,” Nilson said. “We lost a lot of miles on the 19th and we have found the leaders very hard to catch. We did so in the Azores High when the fleet was compressed but the leaders now have more wind and they are pulling away.
"Right now we are waiting for some stability. Maybe tonight when the ridge of high pressure hits, will be our next chance. After that there doesn’t appear to be many passing lanes.”
Sailing a man down, after the evacuation of Mike Pammenter with a foot injury soon after the start in Rio, has also been a drain on resources. "There was a lot of hard work around Fernando de Noronha with many sail changes and the crew got tired,” Nilsson added. “You could tell we were missing one guy.”
By the 16:00 GMT Position Report, the leaderboard had an eerie feel about it. With Telefonica Blue and Ericsson 4 in hiding, Ericsson 3 topped the table with an 11-mile gap to PUMA. Telefonica Black (+77) and Delta Lloyd (+82) were still locking horns, with Green Dragon a distant +133.
With the fleet well inside 1,000 miles of the end zone, wagers are being placed on ETAs, according to Delta Lloyd navigator Wouter Verbraak. "Today is already the day for the thousand mile bet,” he said. “The bet signifies that the finish now is but a few days sailing away, and that good food, a nice soft bed and chilled drinks are within reach. So what is this bet about?
"It is a winner takes all, no compromise bet with US$550 at stake. Guess our ETA in Boston right and you are the man. To ensure fair play, Ben Castello has made an official ETA board with both the rules and boxes for entering the date and time.
"As these bets are prone to cheating, the entries are done with permanent marker pen, and the board is placed in the central area where late minute illegal adjustments will be noticed immediately.
"Traditionally the navigator is out, as he is too close to the fire and could be seen as an inside trader. On Team Delta Lloyd I have been fortunate enough to be allowed to enter, so I am in and determined to win.”
The outbreak of gambling has meant that the navigation station has become the most popular place to hang out on board. Coffee breaks are taken down below and there has been a stampede to the keyboards. It has also led to some espionage.
"The guys are asking to use the laptop to check their email, I catch them going through the weather routing details in our navigation programmes. My entry was watched very closely, and immediately the hours around it were taken.”
Green Dragon may be living on scraps in terms of their position on the leaderboard but, when it comes to food intake, they are definitely not skimping. In this video clip watch captain Damian Foxall gives a run-down.
"We have got salami every day, gummy bears, chocolate bars, granola bars. It’s not possible to get through them all. Three meals a day as well including brekkie, then there’s a bag of spare meals as well, if you don’t like what’s on the main menu, you can get in there and make your own. No excuse not to eat well.”
To matters football, and there was some unpleasant news for Southampton fans today, Ericsson 4’s Salter brothers et al. There are reports doing the rounds that the Saints will be relegated from the Championship after being docked 10 points by the Football League.
The penalty comes after the club's parent company went into administration at the start of April. An independent investigation found that the club and the holding company were inextricably linked.
Speaking of Saints, today it is St George’s Day, the patron saint of England. Hagiography has it that he is also patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece; and of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice. Gets around does George.
Finally, from the Comments section, Ruth Baumert wondererd why most crew on the boats are not wearing gloves. Well, Ruth, we put your question to the guys on board and they have responded ...
Telefonica Blue’s Gabri Olivo says: “Nobody uses gloves because unlike in other classes, such as America's Cup, Farr 40, TP52, where you tack and gybe a lot, on these boats you can stay hours without adjusting the jib sheet.
"The main and the kite don't have the same load as the jib, so there is no need for gloves. I hope this is enough to answer your question.”
Guy Salter replies: "On Ericsson 4 we rarely wear gloves as our hands have become tough, if however we were not sailing everyday then we may need gloves for some activities. I guess as our hands are our tools then they are conditioned to the job whereas people who don’t sail full time may need the protection sailing gloves give.”
Meanwhile, PUMA veteran Erle Williams offers this ... “How can you harden your hands up when you're wearing woosy gloves?”
In the battle to Boston, the gloves are off. Credit to race press officer Lizzie Green-Ward for that punch line.