Tony CastaneiraAnalyst IFebruary 14, 2009

Drama was the order of the day during the opening to leg five of the Volvo Ocean Race at Qingdao, China.  Green Dragon skippered by Ian Walker of Great Britain, was first over the line in a slow-motion start in front of her home town crowd, only to relinquish to the lead to PUMA captained by American Ken Read, as the condensed fleet began their epic voyage of 12,300 nautical miles around the notorious Cape Horn and into Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. 

In the dramatic opening, minutes before the five-minute warning signal, Captain Bouwe Bekking of Telefónica Blue, currently second in the overall standings and winner of the last two offshore legs, ordered his crew to drop their mainsail and turned his boat back towards Qingdao.  He had radioed the Race Committee that his team were suspending racing, which under the rules, must be for no less than two hours.  This leaves a fleet reduced to three boats to contest the start in Qingdao. 

They immediately hauled their boat out of the water and assessed the damage caused when the boat went aground momentarily, at a speed of six or seven knots.  They sent crewman without delay into the water, but he was unable see clearly the extent of the trouble and Bekking made the verdict to suspend racing.  Telefónica Blue could possibly need a full structural check, something which could take up to 24 hours.  

"The biggest concern is a crack just above the bulb," said Bouwe Bekking after a short look at the keel. "All the paint has disappeared.  Something has moved from over there. We are going to take the bulb off and have a look. That crack shouldn’t have been there. We want to make 100% sure because we aren’t going to the quietest place. We have to do it the proper way."

Out on the race course,  Sails were set and PUMA overhauled Green Dragon to take the lead as the three boats edged their way up the first two-mile stretch of the route in the very light and variable breeze towards the initial rounding mark.

PUMA gained control at first mark and rounded 53 seconds ahead of Green Dragon.  Ericsson 4, captained by Brazilian Torben Grael, sailing with the same crew that he had at the Volvo Ocean Race start in Alicante, was in third place, just seven seconds behind.   

By the second mark, it was PUMA still in the lead with Ericsson 4 now ahead of Green Dragon as the skyline of Qingdao disappeared into the distance.  The crews then settled down to face up to 40 days at sea as they race around the bottom of the world and across one of the most desolate oceans on earth.

The fifth contender for leg five, Ericsson 3 has   yet to complete leg four from Singapore.  The team has just 21nm to run to Qingdao, the forth leg finish line, in order to collect four more points.  The team resumed racing in leg four on Wednesday having been forced to stop in Taiwan to repair damage to their boat in a leg which saw two other boats failing to finish. 

For Telefónica Blue, the race is now on to assess and fix their problem and for Ericsson 3 to re-supply the boat and begin the fifth leg as soon as possible.   Ericsson 3 is expected to cross the finish line in Qingdao in approximately two hours time.

Overall Leaderboard

1. Ericsson 4 (Torben Grael/BRA): 49 points
2. Telefónica Blue (Bouwe Bekking/NED): 42 points (3 points deducted for change of rudders)
3. PUMA (Ken Read/USA): 41 points
4. Green Dragon (Ian Walker/GBR): 30 points
5. Ericsson 3 (Magnus Olsson/SWE): 24 points (pending finish of leg four)
6. Telefónica Black (Fernando Echávarri/ESP): 21 points
7. Delta Lloyd (Roberto Bermudez/ESP): 12 points
8. Team Russia (Andreas Hanakamp/AUT): 10.5 points