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Neal McDonald expects intense Route des Princes European tour


Neal McDonald, crewing on Oman-Air Musandam in the Route des Princes European tour, talks to Stuart Alexander...

This is going to be a tiring race, more tiring than even parts of the Volvo round the world race, because the legs are too short to settle into normal on and off watch patterns and being close to the shore for much more of the time means more manoeuvres. It will be intense.

We have been training for five months now, though a couple of the crew have joined the boat only recently as part of the overall programme of using sport, and particularly sailing, to broaden the opportunities for young Omanis and, that includes women who have their own programme.

One of the things we have been trying to find is the middle road between doing things so safely and slowly that you lose valuable time, and trying to do things so quickly that you increase the risk of breakage and danger. If you are changing direction and lose an extra 30 seconds, and you do that 30 times then you are 15 minutes behind and that can be enough to put you in a different wind pattern.

So, we have all been training hard. You need to be fit to race a MOD70, which have been designed by taking the best of two decades of multihull experience to be both strong and fast. And they have raced across the Atlantic.

Surprisingly, their handling characteristics most remind me of the 18-foot skiffs I used to race in Sydney Harbour; you have to be thinking ahead all the time and smooth handling delivers huge benefits. There is also some comfort in knowing that all the boats are the same, same size, weight and even equipment so we can concentrate just on technique instead of trying to create advantage with custom kit.

We race with just six on board, and I think there will be a lot of time when all six are on deck, so sleep will be at a premium, and we have a shore crew of only three or four, which is another factor in keeping the costs down.

So, the first leg to Lisbon will be full on. I don’t expect ever to go for more than a couple of hours without a major manoeuvre. The Mediterranean provides a big tactical challenge at this time of year –plus there are more hours of daylight – we could be fighting light air, the Strait of Gibraltar is always tricky, and then there is a run up the Atlantic coast to Portugal.

We have had up to 55 knots during training but the bigger fear is that we become parked. You can lose 10 miles in 20 minutes and that would be a bit of a disaster, so managing the sails and picking the right tactics could be what will make the difference in such an even fleet.