Sea the enemy for bucking monsters

Eight boats and 97 crew ready for arduous nine-month, 33,000-mile journey on rough waters
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The Independent Online

In the end it will be muscle, sinew and sheer resolve which will decide the overall winner of the 2001 Volvo Ocean Race. But that is 33,000 miles away and may not be known for nearly nine months. By then bodies will be battered, gleaming multi-million dollar yachts will be battle scarred, and about $100m (£68m) will have been spent.

On Sunday, just eight yachts ­ costs are up by a third and the rival America's Cup has sucked up a lot of money and talent ­ will line up in the Solent and point their bows west and south, headed for Cape Town, 7,350 miles away. Each will carry 12 crew, seven of them all-male. The all-female crew numbers 13 to make up for weight and muscle power. All 97 of them will arrive exhausted.

The latest generation of 64-foot VO60s, costing nearly $4m each to build, equip and maintain, are expected to be a little faster than their 1997/98 predecessors, but they will still average less than 10 nautical miles (about 11.25 road miles) an hour and will need pushing day and night to achieve even that.

Every four hours a new watch will take over from the old one, sleep is in long cots bolted to the stripped out insides of the Kevlar hulls. Food is freeze dried and reconstituted by fresh water made from the sea in a desalination plant and cooked up on a single burner gas bottle stove.

Just as the human body will sacrifice all other functions and limbs to preserve the brain, so a Volvo Ocean Race yacht is dedicated to speed through the water. Human comfort, or even aesthetic beauty, to judge from the wild colour schemes adopted on the exteriors of some of the hulls, are not just a non-issue... it would be namby-pamby even to consider them.

The only other consideration is safety. Everyone said that, sooner or later, there would be a major catastrophe as highly competitive crews pushed these yachts to the limit of control, and sometimes beyond it, down the backs of 30-foot waves in a gale and more of wind. Sooner has gone.

These are third generation boats. They have increased buoyancy safety built in. But they are bucking monsters, under tremendous load, with heavy, hard equipment ready to trap and injure. In the dead of night, freezing cold, constantly sodden by spray, and after 350 hours of tension and strain, mistakes can happen.

The crews, paid anything from $6,500 a month upwards to as much as $750,000 to a skipper for the whole of a two-year build-up and race, have greater experience than previous races. Their CVs are littered with Olympic medals and America's Cup mentions, plus previous round-the-world races, when the event was known as the Whitbread.

"The winner of the first leg has always won the whole race," said Grant Dalton this week. Fortunately for him, as he is well behind on being race prepared and has a crew that looks so tired it could be finishing a leg not starting it, this is not true. Nor would it have been this time.

There is no doubt that, just as racing cars develop during a season, these boats will be changing both relative to themselves and others. Of particular interest will be to observe how two designers making their Volvo debuts, German Frers Jr for Dalton and Laurie Davidson for Knut Frostad's Djuice Dragons, fare against the man who has designed the other six, and most of the other 60s ever built, Bruce Farr.

In fact the differences will probably be small and the greatest opportunities lie in the development of new sails, which are both the engine and the gearbox of a yacht. Said Ian Stewart, the shore manager of Tyco, " We expect the number of e-mails on the first leg to do with sails to equal all the other boat mods put together, especially on the first leg."

Dalton has huge opportunities to catch up and the last leg of 250 miles from Gothenburg to Kiel counts for exactly the same number of points as the 7,350 of the first leg to Cape Town. But the others will not be standing still, and there are always the boat and body breaking conditions dealt out by a vicious opponent called the sea, sometimes larded with rogue factors such as icebergs and lost overboard containers.

The race favourite is the American, John Kostecki, skippering the German entry illbruck, with a Spanish navigator, six Kiwis, a Canadian, a Dutchman and Irishman and, yes, a German. He expects the race to be tight. "It all boils down to the team," he said, "having the right people to keep driving the campaign forward. Yes, the rig and sails are perhaps the most important equipment factors in this race, and we are very happy with our boat. But, in the end, it is the people who count."

Volvo Ocean Race Teams

Amer Sports One

Back for his sixth Ocean Race, skipper Grant Dalton had hardly completed The Race in his 110-foot catamaran Club Med before throwing himself into a late Nautor Challenge which built two boats. He chose the German Frers Jnr design, believing it to be quicker than the Farr alternative. But he is a long way behind the others in the tuning process.

Amer Sport Too

With the core of the all-women crew that completed the last race on EF Education, Lisa McDonald has had to work hard to assemble another all-woman entry. A late request to increase to 13 crew was granted. They have a Bruce Farr-designed boat which shares some of the same engineering as Assa Abloy and have benefited from a sail development programme under the Nautor Challenge umbrella.

Assa Abloy

Roy Heiner's Bruce Farr-designed yacht is one of the most pleasingly finished craft, built light as part of a two-boat development programme, but failed to beat her rivals in the Rolex Fastnet Race. Good depth of experience, including Neal McDonald, who has left Britain's America's Cup campaign to take part against his wife, Lisa, skipper of Amer Sports Too.

Djuice Dragons

Laurie Davidson's designs took New Zealand to victory in the America's Cup as challenger in 1995 and defender in 2000. Knut Frostad's boat is easily the most striking colour scheme of pink and black. Two identical boats were built, but the big question is: Can they can match the pace of the Farr boats?

Illbruck

Have taken longer than any of the others in preparation, and having bought the winning yacht and its sister ship from the last race. John Kostecki's Illbruck is the bookies' favourite. There are no discernible weaknesses in either the Bruce Farr-designed boat, its sails, or its crew, but they have the distraction of also preparing an America's Cup challenge.

Team News Corp

Sporting Bart Simpson as its mascot on the side of a well-prepared Bruce Farr boat, the News Corp entry has also been guided by its syndicate head Ross Field, a winner of the race in 1993/94. Has great depth of experience in a crew containing a hard core of New Zealanders, Australians and Americans. Jez Fanstone is the only British skipper in the race.

Seb

One of the best-funded challenges has spent con-siderable time training and testing both at home in Sweden and in Portugal. Still smarting after being robbed of a couple of good results in the last race and bringing both experience and ingenuity to the structure of his latest challenge, skipper Gunnar Krantz is in a fiercely determined mood on this Bruce Farr yacht.

Team Tyco

With four top British sailors, including helmsman Tim Powell and navigator Steve Hayles, Kevin Shoebridge has made a smooth transition from being a long-time second in command to running his own impressive show. Among the pre-race top three, they are able to compete with the best on a Bruce Farr-designed craft.

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