Sailing - Volvo Ocean Race: Sunergy joins the party as McDonald leads fleet to sea

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The Independent Online

Not just full foul-weather gear but masks of the kind used by luge tobogannists were ready yesterday for the crews of 10 on the seven yachts facing the first night of this round the world race.

The ride to the equator is going to be a quick one with winds of 30 to 40 knots predicted for the first night. That means high boat speeds and high-speed spray as they surf over cresting waves and plough into the troughs below.

Just six of the seven boats sat on the specially constructed pontoons in front of the Estacion Maritima, viewed by thousands of spectators, waiting for the first cannonball run of nine legs and seven inshore races that will take them 31,250 miles round the planet before finishing in Gothenberg next June.

The seventh was joining from the resort of Sanxenxo, where all the final preparations were made. The Australian entry, renamed after its Dutch sponsor, Brunel Sunergy, just 24 hours earlier, was not given its certificate of race-worthiness until less than 12 hours before the start, 02.30am to be precise.

Given the stunning performance of these new Open 70 yachts, there is a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness. Taking a boat that has been ripped apart and rebuilt in the last few days without a new crew, including two last-minute replacements for British-based Guy Salter and Mark Thomas, having any chance of checking everything, will see that line fully tested.

Skipper Grant Wharington may find discretion is only part of valour, though from certain aspects it appeared about as sticky as a brick in treacle.

While the bookies have as their joint-favourites the New Zealander Mike Sanderson, on ABN Amro 1, and the Dutchman Bouwe Bekking, at the helm of home-town favourites movistar, the real form is unknown.

Sanderson was again struggling in light wind, which only began to strengthen further out of the bay towards the Atlantic.

It was Britain's Neal McDonald, skippering Ericsson, who led the standings having already banked 3.5 points as winner of an inshore race last weekend. It gave him bragging rights for a week and he lined up a second dose, rounding the top mark first and leading out to sea.

With widespread expectations that the current world record, held by movistar, of 530 miles in 24 hours will be threatened as soon as fleet moves far enough offshore to hook into a strong airflow swinging from the north-west into the north-east, some lessons will be learned about who has developed the fastest sails and can best handle their boats.

Ellen MacArthur picked up 10 miles to close the gap between her and the leader, Jean le Cam, to just 20 miles at the half-way point of the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre from Le Havre to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Mike Golding in fourth with a damaged starboard rudder has slipped to 150 miles behind, 20 behind third-placed Jean le Cam.