Leg Four of the Volvo Ocean Race got under way Jan. 18, and overall points leader Ericsson 4 was in her familiar place: the front of the pack.
Ericsson 4, under Brazilian skipper Torben Grael, is one of two Swedish boats in the grueling 37,000-nautical-mile race. The sister boat, under Swedish skipper Magnus Olsson, was in third place as the boats remained tightly grouped at the start of Leg Four. The leg takes the fleet from Singapore to Qindao, China.
It is the first time the Volvo race is entering the South China Sea, and Grael said the unknown is a huge factor.
“We have to get info from locals and people that have sailed over there just to know the course,” Grael said. “We have weather studies and weather analyzers but even with all of the information we have, we know there’s going to be some bad areas of the sailing. We still have very little knowledge. It’s a place which has very little racing or sailing.”
Ericsson 4 won the first two legs of the race before placing fourth in Leg Three. Grael said the key to winning Leg Four wasn’t so much finishing first as it was finishing.
“We have to work out how to get from here to China,” he said. “Things can go bad very quickly. One year, we had a very good leg with ABN Amro (in 2007) and we broke the mast. All of sudden, it’s very easy for things to go wrong. It takes a long time to get them right and we have to be very careful.”
Team Ericsson and Team Telefonica of Spain each have two entries in the race. Ericsson 4, under Grael, is the “international crew.” Grael’s crew boasts sailors from Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Ericsson 3 in the “Nordic crew,” with most of the sailors coming from Sweden as well as Norway and Denmark.
The boats share information and train together and have a friendly rivalry among the crews and skippers.
“I could just as easily have been in the Nordic crew,” Grael said. “My heritage is 25 percent Danish.”
Grael is the latest sports star from Brazil to call Sweden home. The Swedish football league is already a proving ground for future Brazilian soccer players; the success former Malmo player Afonso Alves found in the Elitserien is now a model for many young Latin American stars.
And, it’s not just male athletes who see Sweden as a gateway to stardom.
Marta, the top female soccer player in the world, also gained fame in Sweden. The 21-year-old Brazilian is a three-time FIFA Player of the Year and now on her way to the United States with a $1.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Sol in the new Women’s Professional Soccer league.
Grael said he wasn’t aware of how many Brazilians saw Sweden as a stepping stone.
“It’s something I hadn’t heard about, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Sweden is a nice country and I am happy to represent Sweden in the Volvo race.”
Unlike many of the young Brazilians who seek fame and head to Sweden, Grael was already a star when he became the skipper of Ericsson 4. He won gold medals in the Star class at the 2004 and 1998 Olympics, a silver medal in 1994 and bronze medals in 1988 and 2000. Grael is also a veteran of Volvo and Whitbread racing, which features much larger boats and global races.
He said making the switch from small boats with one- or two-man crews to the 11-man crew of the Volvo class wasn’t that difficult.
“I myself find it quite easy to be on a big boat,” he said. “The sailing is all the same theory. I have the sensibility for a very competitive environment, which is the Olympic Games. I try to magnify that for a big boat. It’s a lot easier than traveling the other way, coming from big boat to a little one.”
Leg Four of the Volvo Ocean Race could be one of the toughest as the fleet moves from warm water and temperatures into the cold of a Chinese winter. When the race began last October, the weather was still mild in Europe, while the southern hemisphere is now enjoying its summer. Leg Four takes the fleet to Qindao, China, which is in the northern hemisphere and where cold winds, cold water and unknown sailing conditions could pose huge problems to captains.
“I think the Nordics will feel much more comfortable,” Grael said. “I think what makes it the most dangerous is the chill factor. It’s going to be huge where we’re going. When we sail up wind, we have to be careful not to get frostbite and other cold-related problems.”
Ever the tactician, Grael stopped short of making predictions for the outcome of Leg Four.
“Yes, right now we are in the lead in points, but anything can happen,” he said. “The only prediction is that we will go all out and that the wind at some stage will blow in our face. That and it’s going to be cold.”

By Chipp Reid