After seven months and 30,000 miles at sea, the Velux 5 Oceans skippers are headed for the finish line.
Today they cross the starting line outside Charleston Harbor at 3 p.m., embarking on a 4,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to La Rochelle, France, and the end of a very long journey.
Although the standings suggest the race is all but over, there are still plenty of unanswered questions:
--Will local skipper Brad Van Liew make a clean sweep of all five legs on his way to becoming race champion -- the first American to ever win the 30-year-old race?
--How will the rivalry between Polish skipper Zbigniew Gutkowski and Canadian skipper Derek Hatfield -- currently tied in points -- end? Which will take second place or, if Van Liew does not finish, win outright?
--And will British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major, who has sailed his proven race boat faster each leg, play spoiler in the home stretch?
Race officials expect a good bit of drama to unfold on the Atlantic in the next two weeks from a fleet that has proven to be most competitive.
"You're looking at a quality fleet," said Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail nonstop around the globe and, through his Clipper Ventures, the owner of the race. "Four of the five who started are here, and aside from Gutek (Gutkowski's nickname) breaking his rib, nothing too dangerous has occurred."
Since the race began in October, the fleet has sailed 30,000 miles from La Rochelle, France, stopping in Cape Town, South Africa; Wellington, New Zealand; and Punta del Este, Uruguay. This final ocean sprint will complete their solo circumnavigation of the globe, a feat accomplished by only 176 people.
After two legs into the heart of the treacherous Southern Ocean, a trip across the Atlantic might seem easy. But David Adams, the race director and a veteran of the race, said anyone who takes the final sprint lightly does so at their own peril.
"These guys have already taken on the Southern Ocean, which is regarded as the most dangerous, but the North Atlantic can be as brutal," Adams said. "Different to the Southern Ocean legs, where there are prevailing winds, on ocean sprint five, the skippers will have to deal with whatever the North Atlantic throws at them. It could be huge storms, or it could be a massive high pressure system that becalms them for days."
The fleet of 60-foot yachts will ride the Gulf Stream north, a current that could take them all the way to Europe. But within a few days of setting out, Adams said they will encounter northerly winds that will make for rough seas and could tempt skippers to get off the Gulf Stream conveyor belt for calmer waters. But that also could slow them down.
And none of the sailors are thinking about anything on this final leg but speed.
Hatfield, currently in second place, took third place in the first two legs. In the third leg, he finished an hour behind the second-place boat for a disappointing fourth place. But on the leg from Uruguay to Charleston, he stepped it up, finishing second only 15 hours behind Van Liew. He predicts that neither he nor Gutkowski will hold back in their quest to take the second podium position.
"I think everybody will be letting it hang loose in the last leg," Hatfield said.
Van Liew said he hopes to avoid the fight between Hatfield and Gutkowski, to get himself and his boat safely to France. But he has to balance that with his very real chance to make a clean sweep of all five legs in the race.
"People may think this is the easiest leg in the sense that it's the shortest," Van Liew said. "But we're going very far north. People don't realize how far north France and England actually are. We sail up to iceberg territory, right through that 'Perfect Storm' area. That's real water."
And that water is all that stands between the four remaining Velux 5 Oceans skippers and a trip around the world alone.