Competitors prepare for difficult start to Volvo round the world race


Bring out the foul weather gear, prepare to reduce sail, be ready for 24/7 crashing and banging. The Volvo round the world race will be barely an hour old on Saturday before the fleet of six charges south into what will become an increasingly upwind slog as it heads for the Straits of Gibraltar.

“We are expecting the crap to be kicked out of the boats in the first 24 hours,” said Kenny Read, skipper of the American-flagged Puma.

The first 24 to 48 hours may also be enough to show who has a speed edge but breakage always lurks, compromises and trade-offs have been made. It will also be a time for prudence. Two races ago a rugged first night in the Bay of Biscay saw hard men running for cover. You cannot allow the others to steal a march, but you have a crew and boat to protect. 

Six is not very many when compared with the big fleets which gathered every four years for the adventure of a lifetime in the latter decades of the last century.

But, as five of the six are probably spending €25m apiece on new boats – and north of that if there is a big hospitality programme bolted on - three years into the confusion of financial chaos afflicting the world that the race can survive at all is remarkable. That funding for the next one in 2014 has already been confirmed ensures that there at least a platform for continuity.

It was an American football coach who said that sportsmen compete but professionals deliver and he would surely understand the complexity and attention to detail that goes into driving, with a crew of just 10, these hugely powerful 70-foot racing machines through brutal conditions on one leg, frustratingly fickle on another.

The boats are different in design but largely similar. What they have to cope with this time is a reduction in the number of sails they are allowed. Finding the right combinations may drive not just sped advantage but navigation tactics as boats chase the optimum weather conditions for the power plants they have chosen.

An added wrinkle this time is that the United Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi has entered a team and will the second leg stopover. The additional hazard of kidnap and ransom by Somali pirates has been negated by changing the route from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi.

They will race up the Indian Ocean to a staging port which has been chosen as a safe haven. The boats will then be craned onto cradles welded to the deck of a transport ship, armed guards will be put aboard, and they will then be refloated – and restarted – out of the piracy zone to sprint into Abu Dhabi.

The prospect of a racing crew and yacht being held hostage was just too big a risk to take and the same deal will apply on the third leg, which takes the boats to Sanya on China’s big holiday resort island of Hainan.

Sanya, like Abu Dhabi, is expected to take part again in 2014 but this time has bought and slightly modified a boat from the last race in 2008-09.

Skipper will be the 2005-06 Kiwi winner Mike Sanderson, who blitzed everyone else in ABN-Amro. He knows that prospects for winning are slim to zero, but he has a canny crew – “characters and hard grafters” - good performance in some conditions, and is keen to cause as much discomfort as possible by “knocking the big guys off.”

The big guys are Puma, second last time, the wily and cerebral Franck Cammas, putting the French flag back on the start line, and one of the Spanish boats, Telefonica, skippered by Olympic gold medallist Iker Martinez. All of those three have been designed by the man who has drawn the lines of the last two winners, Juan Kouyoumdjian.

There is another Spanish entry, out of Mallorca but managed by Emirates Team New Zealand. Camper is the most radical boat, the conception of Spanish designer Marcelino Botin and a pre-race tip for the top.

The fifth new boat has been designed in America by the Farr office, built in Italy by Persico, based in Abu Dhabi as part of its tourism and sports initiative, and skippered by British double Olympic medallist Ian Walker. Its falcon logo is not quite a dark Arabian but it could spring a few surprises.

As can the weather. As Read points out, on the fifth leg from Auckland to Italjai in Brazil you cannot choose your weather when rounding Cape Horn. You cannot go north and you cannot go south.  

The magic and mystery of Cape Horn, land of fire, storm-tossed gateway to the Pacific has, for centuries, spawned a brotherhood and sisterhood that wears not just the outward symbol of a gold ear ring but the inner shared sense of achievement that mountaineers also understand.

There are more of them than you can shake a stick at in Alicante and they have seen the race acquire more emphasis on commercialism. But the old heritage of what started in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race has been seeping through. Life at the extreme is what it is called now. Adventure is what is used to be called.

People have married, procreated, tragically died as it has run its course. Sailing is always a dangerous game. As Read said, less than 24 hours before the start: “That is what we signed up for. We take what mother nature can throw at us.” The cannon are loaded.

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