A slow old business racing 50 miles around the Isle of Wight for the Artemis challenge is set to turn into a far more fast and furious business of racing 1,800 miles around Great Britain and Ireland as the Sevenstar four-yearly event takes over the Solent startline on Sunday.
The clockwise, non-stop course could be hit by fresh to frightening winds in the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha as a fleet of 27 featuring everything from doublehanded 30-footers to 70-foot grand prix boats will also include a clutch of new 65-foot Volvo round the world boats lining up against each other for the first and last time before the start from Alicante in October. “They won’t like it,” said the veteran Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.
The Volvo boats will not be racing for the main prize, which is staged under a different handicap system but, says double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker: “Everyone wants to know where they are so the objective is to win but if we don’t win we will want to know why.”
Walker is skipper of Abu Dhabi’s Azzam, the second time he has led this team which also has a home port stopover, and this is his third lap of the Volvo planet, having made his debut in the Irish entry, Green Dragon. Both those attempts were hamstrung by a lack of winning performance from his 70-footers; now all the boats are identical so it is up to skill and tactics to make the difference as well as pushing the boat as hard as possible for as much of the time as possible – “until safety becomes and issue.”
The new format has meant a reduction in team personnel from 40 to 25 – within that the crew drops to eight plus an on-board media reporter – and overall budgets down by about 40 per cent.
“We did three months solid training and testing and were still learning lots as we came across the Atlantic,” he said looking over a Solent bathed in sunshine. “I have never felt as calm about everything. We have a good plan.”
Abu Dhabi, which has signed a six-event deal to host the final of the International Sailing Federation’s World Cup, hopes that the Volvo fleet will be able to sail the second leg from Cape Town direct to Abu Dhabi, instead of the boats having to be lifted out of the water to be shipped through the Straits of Hormuz, as in 2011.
Using the race round Britain and Ireland to put the final touches to his Dongfeng crew, which includes three Chinese crew debutants, is Charles Caudrelier, a winner last time with Franck Cammas on Groupama. “We know we are not the favourites,” he says, “but we have to perform.” He hopes a Chinese public not used to offshore racing will be inspired by the adventure of the whole project so “our goal in the Sevenstar is to judge where we are in race mode. I have already picked my A team, but we are still not ready to race at the moment.
“At least this time we know that the Volvo race will not all be over by the first stop in Cape Town because one boat will be faster than the rest. We will all be on an improvement curve,” added Caudrelier.
“It’s a great racetrack, one of the best in the world, and, from a navigator’s perspective, it’s very, very busy,” says navigator Will Oxley of the Turkish/American entry Alvimedica. “It will also give (skipper) Charlie (Enright) and me more time to work together to tackle decisions and go through the decision-making process so that is as smooth as it can be come race time in the Volvo.”
With a quite different objective is are Sidney Gavignet and Damian Foxall, going round on the 70-foot trimaran OmanSail Musandam, where the goal is a new record. The current record was set by Steve Fossett with a time of 4 days, 16hrs, 9min, 36 secs on his giant catamaran Lokata in 2002. There should be enough wind. The problem could be too much.
Around the Island, as the Artemis course was shortened at Bembridge because of a lack of wind and most of the Aberdeen Asset Management fleet races in Cowes Week were abandoned, OmanSail Musandam was pipped by the even longer trimaran Prince de Bretagne while Walker’s Azzam was first of the Volvo boats.