Champing at the bit, the seven teams contesting the latest, restyled Volvo round the world race are a hot-bed of optimism in the late summer heat of Alicante on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. There are some new faces and some old salts, there will be tears before bedtime, but they know they all start on the grid on Saturday in equal equipment so, when the 38,739-mile course finishes in Gothenburg next June, it will be a winning crew, rather than a winning boat, that takes the trophy.
Luck will play a part, guile will play a part, and fitness will be paramount, but it would be a brave bookmaker who would name a clear favourite. Among the top three, is double British Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker, at the helm of the Abu Dhabi challenge for the second time. He knows he will not be frustrated this time because of a slower boat and he has been able concentrate all the on-the-water training on learning the subtleties of improved performance across a variety of conditions.
It has been the same for his rivals and even the later entries know they can catch up quickly. “There will still be key parts to the race, some of them weather-determined or being first into a new system, but where the race has changed, fundamentally changed, is that, by reducing the crew to eight, the skipper and the navigator will have to be in the watch system, not spending hours concentrating on weather files,” says Walker.
At times, the Swedish all-woman crew on SCA, with an allowance of three extra crew, could make that pay when it comes to allocating people to concentrate solely on weather and tactics. Not that skipper Sam Davies and the other 10 – so far not including Dee Caffari for the first leg - do not know how to drive the boat fast and they have had the longest time, the most coaching, done the most miles in a packed programme of build-up. And, if the race were to be decided just on the number of hospitality guests the Swedish paper and hygiene products company has brought to the Mediterranean, they would win at a trot.
The first hurdle is to clear the Straits of Gibraltar and pick up the trade winds. After that, the first, about 25-day, leg to Cape Town will be full of the usual potholes but it will also be the first opportunity to compare and contrast, assuming they can see the opposition, and check out the way the boats are set up.
Even then, it will be difficult to know how rivals are managing the water ballast on a new 65-foot design which can be very sensitive to weight distribution and prone to heeling over. But the switch to a boat which is the same for everyone has made for a much more relaxed race village and the paranoia of maintaining development secrets has been blown away.
“The big change for us has undoubtedly been the move to a one-design boat. It’s not just the cost-savings to the boat, the Volvo Ocean 65, which we reckon are about 30 per cent, it's the savings on the maintenance which has made just a huge difference - 50 per cent or more,” says race boss Knut Frostad. “Instead of needing a large shore crew and very expensive spares, they can rely on our own central maintenance centre, The Boatyard. Teams are entering with a handful of shore crew this time, rather than 30/40 people.
“In the past, teams would need €20m. plus to enter our race; now it’s around half that in many cases. In the economic crisis we faced two years ago, I believe that, had it not been for this innovation, we would not have anywhere near the size of fleet we have. The event was under threat unless we changed. We have levelled the playing field.” And that goes for the 2017 race, the aim being that this year’s boats will remain competitive. So confident in the plan are the administrators of the Welsh capital, Cardiff, that they have already signed up as a stopover port.
Gone are the days of up to 19 boats in widely varied states of preparation and financial backing, disappearing over the horizon in a race based on accumulated elapsed time. Now they are tracked every mile of the way and each leg is scored on points. In addition there is a frenzy of written and video photographed blogging.
In one way, however, this race will be slower than the last; the 65-footers are just not as quick as the 70-footers they are replacing. In another way it has speeded things up, not justin communications but particularly in all the decision-making processes.
Walker says his team has been working on all the “ologies” including psychology and physiology. The freeze-dried food hasn’t changed much but the attitude to treats and supplements is a lot more generous. The old days of having a dedicated cook are just a distant memory but there is now a dedicated media crew person to send stories to a world plugged in to a plethora of social media systems. And, more importantly, the Inmarsat network still offers the opportunity to link up with a hospital and, using video, to hold a conference with an expert who can diagnose and advise.
And the race course has changed from the old days of racing up and down the Atlantic and then charging round Antarctica on that gale-torn conveyor belt called the Southern Ocean. There is a lot more heat when going up to the Middle East and then to China and there is a lot more upwind work. Eating to keep up weight is important and drinking enough to restore hydration is essential. “If you don’t eat and drink properly, you are letting the team down,” says Walker.
Also, the new boats are not as wet as the 70s, less torrents of water trying to wash everyone off the deck. But they are more difficult below and there has been an increase in bumps and bruises, not good when anti-inflammatories gum up the digestive system. “Impact injuries are a big problem,” says Walker.
There is still a need to have a depth of talented helmsmen to ensure that the boat is sailing to its optimum performance as much as possible. The computer below deck knows what the boat’s speed should be in every wind strength and sail combination. Woe betide the helmsman who keeps going into the red.
Those that are ahead of the game at the start know the others will soon catch up and there could be any one of the seven winning legs as the race develops. And if you can’t do it yourself, there is always the live computer game of the race, which attracts six figures of players and has people waking up in the night to adjust their tactics. Not good for careers or domestic bliss but with just as passionate a following. Both will be tight.
Runners and riders:
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing; skippered by Ian Walker with some very experienced crew.
Alvimedica: carrying the flags of both Turkey, home country of its sponsor, and the United States, home of skipper and project organiser Charlie Enright. Make much of having the youngest average age, but all are low 30s.
Brunel; The Dutch company is back with Bouwe Bekking at the helm and Andrew Cape as navigator.
Dongfeng: The Chinese truck manufacturer sponsor has French skipper Charles Caudrelier, who won on Groupama last time, and Mark Turner in the management team.
Mapfre; The home entry has lots of experience but skipper Iker Martinez will also spend some legs away on his Olympic games programme. Replacement skipper is not yet announced but Xabi Fernandez and French legend Michel Desjoyeaux are both capable.
SCA; The Swedish-backed all-woman boat has Sam Davies as skipper and bags of talent from one to 11.
Vestas Wind: The second Dutch entry started late and has much catching up to do but Australian skipper Chris Nicholson has two superb lieutenants in Kiwis Tony Rae and Rob Salthouse.