Pirate warning as world race nears start

Fewer icebergs but more pirates will keep hazard levels as high as ever as the eight-boat Volvo fleet leaves Alicante on Saturday for its first, 6,500-mile ocean leg of a round the world race that covers 37,000 miles and ends over eight months later in glittering St Petersburg.

A new course, which traditionally sent the fleet barrelling through the icy wastes of the southern ocean to blessed relief in Auckland, and then sent back for a second dose rounding Cape Horn now takes in India, Singapore and China, hence the threat of attack from pirates.



The course from Cape Town up to Kochi in south-west India will keep the boats as much as possible away from the east coast of Africa, especially Somalia. The amount worth stealing on a Volvo racing yacht is small, but 11 top racing yachtsmen could make a juicy hostage target.



The Indian Ocean has further perils of its own and the superfast 70-foot racing yachts - some of which are hoping to break the 600 miles in a day barrier - are themselves a threat to the myriad of small fishing boats as they thread their way through the Straits of Malacca.



A specialist security company will be on call 24 hours a day and there will be a hotline from every boat to various naval authorities along the route.



The course still takes in Cape Horn on the longest leg ever programmed, 12,300 miles, as they leave the freezing winter of the Olympic sailing city of Qingdao and head for the tropical kaleidoscope which is Rio de Janeiro. The leg to Qingdao from Singapore could be a real people as well as boat breaker.





Stuart Alexander speaks to Kenny Read, skipper of Puma, ahead of The Volvo Ocean Race

An event which started life as the Whitbread Adventure in 1973 is now fully professional and twice as tough. The boats race flat out for 24 hours a day with a crew of 10, augmented, for the first time, by a specialist media communications man pumping out stories and pictures, freeze dried food - and the sanitary systems.



It forms one of the top four events in the world of sailing - the other three being the Olympics, the America's Cup and the Vendee Globe singlehanded round the world race, which starts next month from les Sables d'Olonne. Just to emphasise, it is here to stay - the next edition in 2011 has already been confirmed.



There are many races within the one umbrella. Saturday last saw huge crowds watch a winning performance in two inshore races by the Spanish home team, Telefonica. There are scoring gates along the way and overall leg points.

That Telefonica win also highlighted a design race. Both the Spanish boats were designed by the New Zealander Bruce Farr's office in Annapolis, where there is a feverish determination to regain the top slot after being comprehensively outplayed by the designer now working for Britain's America's Cup challenge, Juan Kouyoumdjian. That was in Mike Sanderson's ABN Amro 1. This time he is responsible for the two Ericsson boats and the Swedish-backed team.

After being fifth in 2005-06, Brazil's Torben Grael, five times Olympic medal winner, skippers a lavishly funded assault. But the most radical boats, this time, could be the Telefonicas.



While the winning boat in that race, now carrying the colours of Delta Lloyd, was originally slated as a late Irish entry, it is looking more and more Dutch and has already said that crewmen will have to keep on earning their places. There are no women on any of the racing crews.



With the potential to upset the big budget apple carts are the American entry Puma from Boston and what is almost a transatlantic cousin from Galway in the part Chinese-funded Green Dragon. And the Russians are back after an absence of 15 years with a boat unlike any of the others and a cosmopolitan crew funded by a fitness-obsessed supermarket-owning enthusiast, Oleg Zherebtsov.



THE BOATS



Delta Lloyd: A last-minute attempt by Irishman Ger O'Rourke to squeeze performance out of the boat which, as ABN Amro 1, won the race in 2005-06.



Ericsson 3: The first of two new boats designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian with a 'Nordic' crew made up of new talent and venerable experience - Magnus Olsson is, at 59, doing his sixth race. Under the cloud of a points penalty for a keel fin deemed illegal.



Ericsson 4: This is the boat charged with atoning for coming fifth last time, starts the race as joint favourite with Telefonica Blue, skippered by five-times Olympic medallist Torben Grael.



Green Dragon: An Irish entry, with financial support from China, skippered by an Englishman, Ian Walker, who was Britain's last America's Cup skipper in 2003 and has two Olympic silver medals. May take time to find its stride, but appears to have one.



Puma: Biting at the heels of the two favourites, the American entry is skippered by Kenny Read, America's Cup helmsman for Dennis Conner, and a vice-president of the world-leading North Sails.



Team Russia: Oleg Zherebtsov has the bonus of looking forward to a race finish in his home city of St Petersburg. The boat carries a strong environmental message in support of the world's whale population.



Telefonica Black: The black boat is identical in design to its blue sister but with a largely Spanish crew, plus two Argentinians, a South African, and a Swedish navigator. Skipper is 2008 Olympic gold medallist Fernando Echavarri.



Telefonica Blue: The joint favourite with Ericsson 4, Telefonica's blue boat has Dutch veteran skipper Bouwe Bekking running the show with double Olympic medallist Iker Martinez at his right hand as principal helmsman.



THE COURSE



Leg 1; Alicante to Cape Town, 6,500 nautical miles, start 11 October



Leg 2; Cape Town to Kochi, 4,450nm, start 15 November



Leg 3; Kochi to Singapore, 1,950nm, start 13 December



Leg 4; Singapore to Qingdao, 2,500nm, start 18 January



Leg 5; Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro, 12,300nm, start 14 February



Leg 6; Rio de Janeiro to Boston, 4,900nm, start 11 April



Leg 7; Boston to Galway, 2,550nm, start 16 May



Leg 8; Galway to Gothenberg, 950nm, start 6 June



Leg 9; Gothenberg to Stockholm, 525nm, start 14 June



Leg 10; Stockholm to St. Petersburg, 400nm, start 25 June

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