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Defining True Grit

John Kostecki and the illbruck crew slice through the ocean en route to another win in the Volvo Ocean Race. Almost halfway through the race, they lead by a fair margin.
The ocean tests sailors in countless ways, and those participating in the current Volvo Ocean Race have endured a diverse array of challenges. If a 3,000-mile sleigh ride at breakneck speeds across the Southern Ocean wasn’t enough to completely sap the crew aboard illbruck of its moxie, skipper John Kostecki and his determined mates had to face frustrating light-air conditions for the final miles into Rio de Janeiro before winning yet another stage of this global contest.

illbruck, which finished Leg Four early Tuesday morning after 23 days and five hours of racing, had shown its seven rivals in the VOR fleet the way to the Rio finish since the second day of February when the German-based team grabbed the lead.

The team maintained its lead despite having to sail backwards in 30 knots of wind to remove a shark that had impaled itself on the boat’s deep keel. The crew demonstrated the virtues of grit—firmness of mind and spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship and danger—in opening a one-time lead of 100 miles over their closest pursuer. That may not sound like a huge margin, but it remains a testament to the crew’s resolve and preparation in this fleet that’s so evenly matched in terms of boat speed.

All of that effort, however, was nearly thrown to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean off Rio. Some 24 hours from the finish, as the wind faded to nothing under the cover of darkness, Kostecki and his mates aboard illbruck watched helplessly as Grant Dalton’s Amer Sports One, with defending race champion Paul Cayard aboard in a cameo appearance, whittled their sizable advantage to a mere 10 miles.

With a disappointing fifth-place finish on Leg Four, Grant Dalton's Amer Sports One crew will endure some soul searching and exacting practices before the start of Leg Five on March 9.
"It’s tough to watch boats gain on you for 48 hours," said Kostecki in a phone interview after finishing. "You do everything you can to keep the boat going fast and the competition is still gaining on you. It’s really frustrating."

Kostecki said he became so full of angst that he changed his modus operandi, if only slightly. Though he hadn’t had to deliver any pep talks to the crew to keep them motivated up to that point, in the closing stages of Leg Four he became a virtual chatterbox.

"Mainly because I was stressed and worried about our position," he explained. "I was worried that every wave and puff had to be maximized. I spent a fair amount of time on deck watching things and making comments where I could. I don’t know if helped, but it made me feel better."

But that was 100 miles from the finish. And with victory near at hand, the illbruck sailors weren’t about to relinquish their chokehold on the 6,700-mile leg, the fourth of nine that comprise this globe-girdling contest. "We did a nice job of hanging tough in those conditions," said Kostecki. "I was quite nervous."

Cayard agreed. In an e-mail he wrote while he and his team sat slatting listlessly near the finish, he said: "illbruck has survived the last 24 hours of senseless winds and won the leg. Good for them. They deserved it after leading for so many days."

"If illbruck keeps up its dominant performance, the 37-year-old Kostecki may well develop nerves of steel before this race ends."
If illbruck keeps up its dominant performance, the 37-year-old Kostecki may well develop nerves of steel before this race ends. After posting its third victory in the first four legs of the race, the illbruck team leads the fleet with the high score of 29 points, seven points ahead of Amer Sports One, which logged a disappointing fifth on this most recent leg. Had Dalton and Cayard placed second, their team would trail by just four points in the overall standings.

"For illbruck, this is the perfect result," said Dalton in a dockside interview, who felt his team posed the only real threat to the leaders. "It’s a double whammy really. It’s disappointing for us being in second for so long and now to be pushed into a bad leg position."

But credit the winners with more than just good fortune. From the moment the illbruck Challenge was launched in the fall of 1998 it has worn the label of favorite. The tangible ingredients for success were all in place: a well-heeled $15-million budget, a skipper with a winning pedigree, a core group of veterans with experience in over a dozen circumnavigating races, and a jump on the competition by being the first team to announce its challenge.

In a unique move, further crew selections were carried out by core team members, and not solely by Kostecki. The final crew includes a mix of veterans and novices, but even those sailors are highly experienced as some include Olympic medals on their resumes.

"We have winners onboard," said Kostecki in the interview. "Everyone is a winner one way or another. Everyone’s determined to win."

Practice pays off: illbruck leaves the Southern Ocean behind as it speeds past Cape Horn with a 60-mile lead over its nearest rival.
The intangibles–how to shape the boat’s design, how to shape the sails, and how to make the crew gell–would come in testing. After announcing its entry the illbruck team wisely scooped up the assets of previous winner Team EF. "These were the only two equal boats from the last round the world race and we bought them because we felt it was important to have equal boats to develop sails and other equipment," Kostecki said last year.

Then illbruck set off on an aggressive research and development program that took the team from the waters of Western Australia and New Zealand, to Bass Strait, the Tasman Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean off the US East Coast.

"We had two basic sessions, each with different focus," Kostecki recalled. "The first session primarily focused on boat design and the second on sails. I don’t feel we have any huge breakthrough on sails, but we have developed a crossover sheet and we live by it. [A crossover chart stipulates what sails to use in what wind conditions.] We have confidence that when we put a sail up it’s the right one for the conditions."

While Kostecki has a plan for which sail is used at any given moment, he can’t plan the weather, which in the VOR can alternately be considered a dear friend or abysmal foe. For Kostecki and most of the contestants, it was more of the latter throughout Leg Four.

As if the finish of this leg wasn’t exasperating enough, for some 3,000 miles, the illbruck crew dodged icebergs while fending off frostbite and interminable exhaustion. And they learned the valuable lesson of why it’s imperative to pass to windward of these floating monoliths of death when they sailed to leeward and into a minefield of growlers.

"That was really tough," Kostecki said. "It was cold, wet, and shitty, and on top of that incredibly scary."

A victim of the Southern Ocean's fury, Team SEB had to limp to shore under jury rig after losing its rig in a colossal knockdown 1,200 miles from Cape Horn.
With the Southern Ocean conquered, illbruck rounded Cape Horn on Feb. 11, Day 16, with a significant, 62-mile lead over Amer Sports One. Then Dalton, the veteran competing in his sixth race around the world, and Cayard, the race’s defending champion, took up the chase, mercilessly hunting Kostecki on the approach to Rio by making drastic moves.

After passing the Horn, Dalton and Cayard split to the east of the Falkland Islands searching for favorable winds and current. The move wasn’t without precedent. In the last Whitbread Race, Dutch entry Brunel/Sunergy rounded Cape Horn long after the bulk of the fleet blasted past the rocky tip of South America. But, as those boats sat becalmed between the Falklands and the mainland, Brunel headed east and reaped huge benefits. The crew pulled a worst-to-almost-first, finishing second due to their bold move.

Dalton and Cayard were looking for similar rewards, and though their gains weren’t as substantial as Brunel/Sunergy’s, they managed to keep illbruck honest. Amer Sports One continued its charge until the boat got within 10 miles of illbruck, but then the vagaries of the wind south of Rio ended their hopes for a fantastic finish.

"It [the leg] was tough, a lot tougher than last time," said Cayard, who guided EF Language to a three-day victory margin on this leg in the last race. "It was close all the way from the Horn. There was never more than 40 miles between the boats."

"On Leg Two, the team nearly sank the boat shortly after the start."
It’s safe to say that the Illbruck team’s resolve has been more than tested thus far in this race. In Cape Town, after winning Leg One, illbruck successfully defended itself in the protest room over accusations that it had circumvented the rules by fitting a razor blade to the leading edge of its keel strut, without permission from the VOR measurers.

On Leg Two, the team nearly sank the boat shortly after the start when an inspection port near the bow wasn’t properly sealed. For a day the crew slogged upwind in 35-knot winds wondering why the speed was so poor. Then the water was discovered. After drying the compartment, the crew trailed by 60 miles. They would eventually win the leg by a two-hour margin.

Bad luck got the better of the team on Leg Three, from Sydney to Auckland via Hobart. Leading the fleet into Hobart after a rough 600-mile ride, illbruck fell becalmed and watched the fleet pass to the outside. With a mandatory three-hour pit stop in Hobart before heading to Auckland, those who arrived first held an advantage and set out across the Tasman Sea well before illbruck.

Now, almost halfway through the race, with more than half the total points still to be decided, illbruck’s overall lead is far from secure. Complicating matters, Kostecki intimated that his principal fears lie with rivals other than Amer Sports One, specifically Neil MacDonald’s ASSA ABLOY and Kevin Shoebridge’s Team Tyco. "They’re the two teams I’ve been most worried about," he said. "They’ve each had some tough breaks in the series. Time will tell."

Don't bet against these guys. Skipper John Kostecki and his illbruck crew spent almost two years preparing for the VOR. Here, they scream through the waters off Western Australia while acclimating themselves to the conditions for Legs Two and Four of the race.
Nonetheless, it would be foolhardy to believe that illbruck will suffer some kind of meltdown. Kostecki says that his team isn’t even operating at 100 percent yet. And, he adds, they’re not so content to think that there isn’t still room for improvement. After no more than two days rest in Rio, Kostecki said he expected to hit the water again to resume illbruck's sail testing and preparation for the remainder of the race.

"We know we can improve and we’re always trying to improve. For instance, we’re going to look at some new sails that could potentially be a huge improvement for our program on the next leg."

The annals of this race are filled with stories of true grit, each with its own meaning. Winston sailed upwind in a virtual hurricane to aid a stricken Brooksfield in the 1993-94 Whitbread Race. Peter Blake’s Steinlager 2 surfed off the quarter-wave of fellow maxi Fisher & Paykel in the middle of the South Indian Ocean in the 1989-90 edition of the event. On the most recent leg of the current race, Jez Fanstone’s News Corp team had to use its emergency rudder for the final 1,200 miles into Rio. And Gunnar Krantz’s Team SEB suffered an extreme wipeout that cleared its rig away just above the gooseneck, while the team was still 1,250 miles west of Cape Horn.

For illbruck, however, true grit carries a singular definition—professional sailors reaping the rewards of meticulous planning and superb execution.

Suggested Reading:

Life in the Danger Zone by SailNet

Tracking the Volvo Ocean Race by Dan Dickison

Weather for Round the World Racing by Michael Carr

Suggested Store Section: GPS Receivers

Sean McNeill is offline  
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