Anyone who thought the Volvo Ocean Race had become too sanitised has been proved to be way off mark.

This edition of the race has thrown up continuous storylines, some of them tragic, to remind us that it's still as rough and tumble as it used to be and demands our utmost respect, both as competitors and as fans.

This was no better illustrated than on the last leg through the Southern Ocean, which only built on the legend of the race.

The death of John Fisher was heartbreaking and one thing that struck me was how much it shook the sailing community, not only those racing but also many of those who have gone offshore for any length of time. Many could imagine themselves being in a similar situation and it chills you to the bone anytime you hear of a man overboard.


It brought back memories for me of when I was swept overboard last year in the Southern Ocean during the Vendee Globe solo round the world yacht race. I was tethered on but incredibly lucky to survive after a wave deposited me next to my boat and allowed me to scramble back on. It's not something I ever want to experience again.

Fisher's disappearance was obviously the big talking point of the last leg but there were so many other things going on. Three really stood out for me and illustrated the incredible ingenuity and physical and emotional depths you need to be a top offshore sailor.

Spectators on North Head as the Volvo Ocean Race yachts leave Auckland for Brazil. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Spectators on North Head as the Volvo Ocean Race yachts leave Auckland for Brazil. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Mapfre had the foresight to have a shore crew at the ready at Cape Horn just in case they needed help after crossing the Southern Ocean. This would have felt like a godsend to those onboard after their mainsail ripped in half just 6 miles before rounding the famous mark, and while the repair dropped them to the back of the fleet, it allowed them to keep racing and pick up crucial points.

This scenario was something they identified 12 months previously when planning the strategic demands of the race and could be something that helps them win the overall title.

Turn the Tide on Plastic amazingly found a solution to realign their spreader and save their mast. Normally this is something done on land, not racing.

Volvo Ocean Race yachts leave Auckland for Itajai, Brazil. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Volvo Ocean Race yachts leave Auckland for Itajai, Brazil. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The third example was Vestas 11th Hour Racing, who dismasted near the Falkland Islands. This is the same team who were involved in a serious incident near Hong Kong, also forcing them out of the next leg to Auckland. Having rebounded with a great leg through the South Pacific and a second place at Cape Horn, they were battling for honours in the slog to Itajai when their mast came tumbling down.

It must have felt like a kick in the guts but they immediately sent back a message that they were determined to finish the race and are demonstrating what teamwork looks like in extreme circumstances.

If that wasn't enough, this race has thrown up some incredibly tight finishes, with two minutes separating the first two boats into Auckland and only 15 minutes between the leaders into Itajai.

It's appropriate, then, that there's only one point between Dongfeng Race Team and Mapfre at the top of the leaderboard, even after having sailed two-thirds of the way around the world.

The fleet leave Itajai on Monday morning (NZ time) bound for Newport and this leg has often been pivotal in the past.

Mapfre might have lost their overall lead to Dongfeng but there is fire in their eyes and energy in their voices, despite their recent adversity. This is not a team easily broken and that's critical when racing around the world. Now is the time to tune into this amazing race, because after thousands of miles at sea it's just getting started.

- Conrad Colman was the first Kiwi to sail in the Vendee Globe solo, non-stop round the world race.