Sailing: Disney's pirate ship sets sail into the unknown

Cap'n Paul Cayard is aiming for a second Volvo Ocean Race win. Stuart Alexander reports from Vigo
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For the next seven months, racing more than 31,000 nautical miles, the 46-year-old Cayard will be at the helm of £10m of blue-water racing yacht, which Disney is using to promote the sequel to its 2003 Hollywood blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean, to be released next summer.

"I like the pirate theme," said Cayard, who lives near San Francisco and in 1998 became the first American skipper to win what was then called the Whitbread Round the World Race. "I think it will be huge with the non-sailing public. I haven't gotten into the corny aspects of it, but even my wife thinks I should get a Black Pearl earring."

The Black Pearl has Dead Man's Chest graphics on the sails and the hull is painted to give a hint of a monster that will be revealed in the film. Dead Man's Chest is scheduled to be released on 7 July, so the sail number is 7706.

In some cases, common sense won out over publicity. Original plans called for black sails, but the crew pointed out that if they hoisted a black spinnaker in the middle of the night they would not be able to see if it was set properly.

"We're fully into it, but we're not changing who we are. We're still professional sailors," Cayard said.

Disney is the only American entry in the seven boat, nine-leg round-the-world race in which only the hardiest and most experienced yatchsmen participate. The skippers and their nine-man crews will be wet, cold, tired and living on freeze-dried food for weeks. Then there is the Southern Ocean, with its ferocious storms and fearsome icebergs.

The danger this year is increased because the race is introducing the first generation of a largely untested but powerful breed of 70ft yachts, which will be tested to the limit. The fleet set off on the opening 6,400 mile leg to Cape Town tomorrow, but few would bet on all seven going through the finish line in Gothenburg in June. On the way they visit Melbourne, Wellington, Rio de Janeiro, Baltimore, New York, Portsmouth and Rotterdam.

If forecasts come true, the weather at the start should see them catapulted out of the blocks so fast that the world record, set by the Spanish entry Movistar, of 530 miles in 24 hours could be broken in the first days.

Life at the extreme is how the event, which has been staged every four years since 1973, has chosen to describe itself. Driving these million pound boats in gale-force winds may be less physical than their predecessors, but maximum concentration is required when huge, 40-foot waves pick them up for surf ride after surf ride.

The boats, half the weight but carrying as much sailpower as America's Cup yachts which are 10 feet longer, are breathtakingly quicker and, while the Cup yachts have a crew of 17, the Volvo yachts have cut the crew from 12 last time to 10.

While there has been little focus on the potential for masts breaking, even though they use man-made fibre rather than steel rigging to hold them up, the introduction of swinging keel mechanisms, which can move the whole keel structure from side to side to help sit the boats up, has had everyone frowning.

Movistar alone has spent nearly £300,000 on development and testing of the hydraulic rams. But the management insists that, while failure might be race-threatening, it should not be life-threatening.

There are other ways of threatening life. Crews need to be carefully managed if they are not to burn out. Major operations require all hands on deck. Sleep patterns will be disrupted. Tiredness leads to mistakes. Injury puts the rest under huge extra pressure. Then there is the matter of eating and drinking and coping with the consequences. At a recommended 6,000 calories a day, the crews are taking on fuel at greater rates than Tour de France cyclists. The pedallists have the luxury of sitting down to eat in a room; these yacht racers are often being violently tossed around.

The entry list may be lighter than hoped but all the players in this Volvo are genuine heavyweights and all eyes are on the man now known as Black Paul.

The official Volvo Ocean Race site: The Black Pearl team site:

Swashbucklers, cliffhangers and the King of Spain's choice: The seven boats racing round the globe

Choosing Argentinian designer Juan Kouyoumdjian guaranteed an individual approach and having two boats meant that all his original ideas could be tested. Skipper Mike Sanderson has gathered a crew that are experienced, talented and bullet-proof. Heavy airs performance looks guaranteed, keel problems should have been resolved. Need to hold their own in the light and medium conditions.

A worldwide trawl for young hopefuls, ending with a game-show final selection of eight, has produced what is optimistically termed "a crew of high potentials". Skippered by French singlehander Sebastien Josse, aided by three other seasoned professionals, they hope to squeeze everything out of what was the first boat to be built in the ABN Amro campaign. Not expected to win, but steady as she goes.

Torben Grael has five Olympic medals to his name, so there was no surprise when he was put in charge of Brazil's first entry in the race. The crew have a mix of both inshore and offshore experience and the boat is a straightforward Bruce Farr design. Doubtless Grael's men will be strong inshore, but will need to hone offshore skills quickly if they are to be a genuine threat.

A win in the opening inshore race confirmed the impression that the British skipper of this Swedish entry, Neal McDonald, is up to speed in terms of preparation. Second last time to the man he recruited as tactician, John Kostecki, McDonald has a group of people around him that he knows and respects and who respect him. One of the favourites.

Spain's place in the yachting firmament is riding high, but syndicate director Pedro Campos chose New Zealander Bruce Farr, accounting for four of the entries, to design and Dutchman Bouwe Bekking to skipper a fully international crew. But, then, the king of Spain also chooses Bekking who set a new 24-hour world record of 530 miles on his way back from Australia. Is considered the boat to beat.

All the glamour of Hollywood in a boat which is there to promote the launch next July of a swashbuckling film. Skipper Paul Cayard has won before, in 1997-98, and will be determined to win again even if he acknowledges that a late run will leave him playing catch-up. "The Olympics are close, but round-the-world racing is exceptional in that you're doing it 24/7. It's full immersion," he said.

If it is still called that this morning. "Will they, won't they?" cliffhanger has kept everyone waiting to see if this financially strapped entry - it receives a boost today - from Melbourne would make the first start or complete the first leg. But some top crew have returned to race the only boat in the fleet designed by Don Jones for the flamboyant Grant Wharington.