Racing the world's fastest ocean yachts inshore may sound like a breeze. But if the strong currents and heavy seas don't scuttle you, says Robin Barton, the bendy winds just might

At some time around 5pm GMT today under the gaze of Rio de Janeiro's Statue of Christ the Redeemer, the six yachts competing in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race will embark from the Marina de Gloria on the fifth leg of this round-the-world race. It is the halfway point of the epic quadrennial race, and the sailors will not set foot on land again until they arrive in Baltimore on America's Eastern Seaboard in about 16 days' time.

The race is being led by not one but two yachts sponsored by the Dutch bank ABN Amro. It is a quirk of the race's new rulebook, which states that if sponsors build two or more boats they must race all of them.

Compelled to enter both boats, ABN Amro crewed their first boat, ABN Amro 1, with knowledgeable seadogs handpicked by the 35-year old skipper Mike Sanderson, an enormously experienced Kiwi who has won one round-the-world race, come second in another and set the transatlantic speed record on the 140ft yacht Mari Cha IV. But for ABN Amro 2, places on board were decided by worldwide competition.

The criteria? Applicants had to be aged under 31 and not mind spending eight months living in a stripped-down cabin the size of a family car with nine other men, while risking their lives sailing one of the fastest ocean-going yachts in the world. They could expect to sleep for just four hours a day, consume 5,000 calories daily and have just one set of clothes to wear and no means to wash. No wonder Volvo call the Ocean Race "life at the extreme".

That has not been the only change to the race (previously known as the Whitbread) this year. A whole new class of yacht, the Volvo Open 70, was designed for the event. And for the first time spectators can see these 70-footers close-quarter combat in a series of inshore races, held in harbours and bays and intended to show off these remarkable machines. After all, unless you're an albatross, you are not going to see much of the live action in the Southern Ocean.

The race in arrived in Rio on 11 March after crews had completed the toughest leg, the crossing of the Southern Ocean, 6,700 nautical miles in which temperatures can fall to -12C and waves rise to 30ft in height.

"The Southern Ocean is a place with no horizon between the grey water and the sky," says Rob Greenhalgh, the British "pitman" on ABN Amro 1. "It's cold and wet and you're hitting waves at 25 to 35 knots all the time."

The yachts will be sailing flat out for the whole journey, with between three and five men on deck night and day. A pitman's job is to provide the muscle to turn the grinders - three hip-height winches in the central-deck cockpit that trim the sails. "I make sure the right ropes get pulled at the right time," explains Greenhalgh.

Other than the stocky pitmen, a Volvo Open 70 has a bowman, who stands at the front of the boat to gather in sails and spot changes in weather, a tactician, a navigator and a skipper. The pitmen have a particularly hard time during the inshore races, when the frequent changes in direction mean that they are grinding almost non-stop. Rio's inshore race took place on 25 March, and I joined training sessions with both crews to get a taste of sailing these state-of-the-art, £2 million machines.

"We will start slowly, but I want 100 per cent. We only have two hours of sea breeze so we try this today, we talk about it tonight and we see what will work tomorrow and Saturday." Sébastien Josse, the quietly spoken 31-year-old French skipper of ABN Amro 2, is delivering his pre-training briefing with all the brevity you would expect of someone who is best known for his solo sailing accomplishments; he came 5th in the 2005 Vendée Globe, despite hitting an iceberg.

Inshore sailing requires a completely different approach to open-ocean sailing, and Rio's Guanabara Bay is a challenging venue. "It's a triangular course with upwind and downwind reaches; we will know in advance the layout but not where in the bay it will be," says Simon Fisher, ABN Amro 2's British navigator. "It's a complicated place to sail, because there is a lot of current and the high mountains around the bay, such as Sugarloaf , cause the wind to bend."

Fisher is one of four professional sailors on the No 2 boat, and the youngsters are more than holding their own against the weathered veterans aboard the fleet's other yachts: Brasil 1, skippered by the Brazilian Olympic gold medallist Torben Graël; the Swedish entry Ericsson Racing Team; movistar, from Spain; and Pirates of the Caribbean, an American entry skippered by Paul Cayard with four previous round-the-world winners on board.

Out on the water, it quickly becomes apparent that despite the light winds, ABN Amro 2's massive sail area - the biggest of the sails, the spinnaker, would cover two tennis courts - and the light weight of its carbon-fibre hull and 100ft mast, mean that it is no slouch.

"OK, ready to tack," says Josse, sotto voce. "Tacking!" he shouts as he turns the wheel away from him, the crew duck as the boom swings across and suddenly the deck tilts 45 degrees and I'm staring into the murky waters of Guanabara Bay. So I clamber up the deck to the high side and clutch the guardrail, well, wire, in a white-knuckled death grip.

All the while the winches creak and groan as sails are trimmed to catch as much wind as possible, and the boat shudders and pulls like a dog straining to be let off its leash. This is power sailing at its purest.

Neither of the ABN Amro boats is expected to do well in the inshore race, having been designed for the world's heavier seas, and the teams confirmed this by occupying the last two places in November's inshore race in Sanxenxo, Spain. So they have a point to prove in Rio.

On ABN Amro 1, training is taken seriously. The start is the most important part of the race, since boats that cross the line just a second early have to turn around and cross the line again. It is a penalty that could cost them the race. So the next day, aboard Mike Sanderson's boat, the skipper drills his crew again and again: timing is everything. "The key to the start is not stitching up the other boats, as you would in the America's Cup," says Fisher, "but hitting the line at maximum speed in clear air."

Next, we practise going around marks. To sail upwind, sailors must tack into the wind, zigzagging left and right (port and starboard), but downwind they can unfurl the massive spinnaker, or "kite". Sanderson turns early so that he can get his sails in and trimmed on time. "It's conservative, but look at the Pirates," he says, pointing at Caynard's boat as it comes around the mark behind us. "They're still trying to get trimmed while we're ready to go by that point."

Race day dawns cloudy and humid, with thunderstorms forecast. But at 10 to 14 knots, there is a bit more wind than usual. All that practice pays off, and ABN Amro 1 gets a perfect start and leads the race until the finish.

ABN Amro 2 does not get such a good start. "We were up and down the placings and were third going round the mark near the bridge, where the spinnaker sheet [rope] touched the mark," reports Fisher afterwards. "We had to do a penalty turn, and then it became a dogfight with the second half of the fleet." But the team of first-timers come in fifth, satisfyingly beating Cayard's Pirates into sixth.

When the champagne stops flowing, both ABN Amro crews get into offshore mode. "On the next leg we'll be going through the Doldrums, an area south of the equator where the two jet streams from the northern and southern hemispheres meet," says Fisher. "Then hopefully we'll pick up the trade winds. There's potential for lots of snakes and ladders, so every six-hour update is analysed for the speed and position of the other boats."

They might not be able to overhaul ABN Amro 1, but the upstarts have got one over on the old-timers: ABN Amro 2 broke the world speed record on leg two, covering 563 miles in 24 hours. "It was simply fantastic sailing," recalls Fisher. "I would drive for an hour and the adrenalin would be rushing and the hairs on the back of my neck standing up."

To follow the progress of ABN Amro 1 and 2:,

World stage directions


Vigo-Cape Town: inshore race 5 November 2005; departed 12 November.

Cape Town-Melbourne: departed 2 January.

Melbourne to Wellington: inshore race 4 February; departed 12 February.

Wellington to Rio de Janeiro: departed 19 February.



Rio de Janeiro-Baltimore: inshore race 25 March; departs today.

Baltimore-New York: inshore race 29 April; departs 7 May.

New York-Portsmouth: departs 11 May

Portsmouth-Rotterdam: inshore race 29 May; departs 2 June.

Rotterdam-Gothenburg: inshore race 11 June; departs 15 June.