Andy Rice reports on a breezy start to the Volvo Ocean Race in which E4 made the best of the headsail lottery

It’s very easy to jump to false conclusions watching the first 30 windswept minutes of a 37,000 mile race around the world. Rocking around on board the spectator boat, one of Ericsson Racing Team’s fans punched the air “Yes!” as he saw Ericsson 4 round the turning mark off Alicante with a narrow lead over Puma. A bit early for celebration, you’d think. Even so, two of the pre-race favourites already showing the 8-boat fleet the way round, with the wind gusting up to 28 knots. With another of the favourites, Telefonica Black, in third place, were we witnessing a microcosm of the longer race?

Such predictions are a mug’s game.

It was Ericsson that had won the In Port Race three years ago and then led the fleet out to sea from Vigo before that first fateful night in the Bay of Biscay. From what little we saw then, Ericsson looked a potent force but turned out to be one of the also-rans. That said, it would be a shock if the same were to prove true of Ericsson 4 this time around. The 2005-vintage Ericsson campaign was late to the game. This time, Torben Grael is skipper of the best prepared team in the race, the leader of a very solid two-boat campaign. Anything less than victory will be a disappointment for the five-time Olympic medallist and his team of fellow Brazilians and Antipodeans.

Grael made a beeline for the pin end of the start line, while Telefonica Blue came in from the starboard end, with Puma coming off the line just to windward of Ericsson 4. Ian Walker on Green Dragons started on port tack, having waited for the fleet to cross on starboard before punching out to sea on a long port tack. Despite one-tacking the beat, the seaward side of the course did the Irish/Chinese boat no favours, with Walker rounding the first mark in last place.

There were a few place changes on the short run back down through the start line, with a surprising variety of headsails and gennakers being flown. Ericsson 4 hoisted a gennaker to the hounds, looking a little underpowered compared with Puma who opted for a masthead chute that dragged the American team lower and faster than the Swedish boat. Third around were Ericsson 3, who were doing very high angles back and forth across the bay with a headsail that looked puny and underpowered compared with the two leaders. Bouwe Bekking’s crew on Telefonica Blue used a fuller gennaker to overhaul Anders Lewander’s team on the Nordic Ericsson boat. Green Dragons made amends for their poor windward work with a great choice of masthead Code 0 which looked very potent, and saw them sweep past Delta Lloyd and Team Russia in very efficient manner. They had soon overhauled Telefonica Black as well.

Puma meanwhile was making inroads into Ericsson’s lead until the time came to gybe for the passage back through the start line gate. Read’s crew gybe dropped their masthead chute to the deck and then unfurled a more manageable headsail, and in the process instantly yielded all their gains back to Ericsson 4, who extended their lead once more. The wide choice of sails and sailing styles suggests that many of these teams are still learning about their boats as they go along, or maybe it was just that their attitude to risk was different, what with a big spectator fleet to negotiate before breaking out into open water.

Alicante was a great send-off the fleet, with thousands of spectators packing the shore, many of them who would have come to see their king, Juan Carlos, dock out of Alicante on the back of Telefonica Blue. With the speed the boats were travelling, and the poor visibility in very un-Mediterranean conditions, the Volvo fleet was not in sight for long. It will be interesting to see if that 30-minute snapshot of the race offers any insight into the longer race to Cape Town. If it does, then it’s good news for Ericsson 4.