Ask Francesca Clapcich what it’s going to take to seal victory in The Ocean Race for the 11th Hour Racing Team and she doesn’t hesitate.

Despite being two points ahead of rivals Holcim-PRB, the Italian sailor from Trieste, who will have crewed on four of the seven legs of this race, says her team need to keep sailing aggressively and not make the mistake of trying to protect their lead over the last couple of thousand miles from The Hague to Genoa.

Honestly, I think we need to keep sailing aggressive as we have been,” Clapcich, 35, told the IMOCA Class. “Now we are two points ahead and winning on the (inshore race) tie-breaker too, so potentially we could sail a little more conservatively, but that is not our goal.

“I think we need to be aggressive and keep sailing our own race – it’s going to be a hard leg with tricky conditions again in the Med and there could be a massive park-up outside Genoa,” she continued. “The race is not won yet, so we need to keep putting our heads down and work really hard until the end. Then the celebrations can be really big, or the disappointment can be really big, but we will know that we will have given everything.”

For Clapcich it will be a special finish to her second The Ocean Race – she sailed the last Volvo Ocean Race as part of athe crew on Turn the Tide on Plastic – because this one finishes in her home country and her family and friends will be waiting to welcome her on the dockside in Genoa.

Yes, that’s really cool,” said the two-time Olympian and former Senior Airman in the Italian Air Force. “All my family and my mum and a few friends will come and say hi. Honestly, I am really looking forward to it because it doesn’t happen every day that a race around the world ends in your home country you know…

On the nail-biting Leg 6 from Aarhus to The Hague, Clapcich found herself crewing alongside one of the most famous and successful sailors on the planet Franck Cammas. So what was it like racing alongside the Frenchman – a serial winner with a reputation as a ruthless perfectionist driven by a single-minded obsession with winning?

© Pierre Bouras / 11th Hour Racing Team / The Ocean Race

Clapcich offered a vivid picture of life on board with the Charal 2 co-skipper. “It was absolutely amazing, you know, like I had never sailed with Franck before,” she said. “Of course, he is bringing such a crazy amount of experience – no matter that he hadn’t sailed the boat much before. He can see the wind and he has such a big knowledge. He would keep telling us ‘you guys are so quick in the manoeuvres, I can’t do anything.’ That’s because we sailed the boat a lot. But at the end, he was able to bring something and that was pretty nice.

She says she saw the “fire” from Cammas when the pressure was on too, but he played his walk-on part in just the right way. “I think he came into the leg and the team with being, like, humble. He had only been with us for three days and you can’t really just jump into it and change everything. I think he totally embraced that and he was just able to bring his experience into what we were doing.

“For sure,” she added, “Franck has a big intensity and every time there was a boat around, the fire was coming out. But at the end it was all so cool to see, because it means that the person who is on board with you is caring a lot about the race and the result, even if he was spending just a little time with the team.

© Georgia Schofield / polaRYSE / Team Holcim-PRB

Over at Holcim-PRB, 11th Hour Racing Team’s biggest rivals, new skipper Benjamin Schwartz has been thinking about the final leg and what he and his team need to do to stop the American boat claiming overall victory. But he knows the final result will depend on how other crews perform in the Med, not just his own.

We are still going to try to finish in front of 11th Hour Racing Team on the last leg and then it is all about having a bit of help from the other teams," said 36-year-old Schwartz, originally from Lyon. “Yes there is everything to play for and, if I were them, I wouldn’t be thinking of the win yet because we all know what can happen in the Med and finishing in Genoa can be something as well. It can be very light wind – you can arrive four hours before the others and then wait the entire night to get in…

Talking to Schwartz, you realise just how fine the margins are between the top-three boats in this race – his own boat, the American IMOCA and Boris Herrmann’s third-placed Team Malizia. For him, Leg 6 was all about small gains and losses. Critical details, like kelp on the keel slowing his boat at one point, or sailing a longer course to avoid a cargo ship, made all the difference. “I think the boats are very similar,” said Schwartz. “At times we were faster than them and managed to catch up, so basically the entire race was about coming back at them and then going through the transitions, and them extending again, and us coming back again.

© Georgia Schofield / polaRYSE / Team Holcim-PRB

Schwartz says he has no doubt this small but select fleet is getting faster and faster as the race progresses and that The Ocean Race will come to be seen as the best preparation for single-handed campaigning in the IMOCA Class. “I think The Ocean Race is probably the best way to optimize a boat in terms of reliability for the Vendée Globe and in terms of understanding a boat – finding all performance. The best way to do that is racing fully-crewed and The Ocean Race is the perfect opportunity for that because every hour you spend on these boats is so valuable, it is kind of priceless before going solo on the Vendée Globe.

Schwartz admits that taking on the skipper’s role for the last two legs at the last minute has been a big challenge. “Of course I wasn’t prepared for it at all,” he said. “But I have a good crew around me, we have a super shore team and they are super-kind and helpful and the boat is in perfect shape, so I think it is quite easy in the end. It’s just about trying to bring a bit of fresh energy to the team and my only goal here is to try to give them back by sailing well on the water and achieving the best result for the team.”

Ed Gorman