Could racing a supersized beach cat be the way to sharpen skills for a solo race round the world? Conrad Humphreys thinks so. He explains why to Elaine Bunting

It’s an usual way to go train for going solo, but Conrad Humphreys’s plans to race a Volvo Extreme 40 catamaran are part of a long build up for the 2008 Vendée Globe round the world race. The VX40, as the class has been abbreviated, will comprise four or five boats to be shipped to stopover ports during the Volvo Ocean Race, where they will compete in an inshore racing Grand Prix. And it’s in the midst of this fast-paced action that Humphreys hopes to foster the racing skills he’ll need when he competes alone offshore.

Humphreys’s reasoning is simple: “I didn’t think I’d be successful in this by doing thousands more miles in an Open 60,” he says. “Like sailors such as Michel Desjoyeaux and Jean Le Cam, I need to compete at a high level on a constant basis. The VX40 came up as a concept and we were able to divert Motorola’s attention to it.”

The VX40, created by Olympic Tornado sailors Mitch Booth and Yves Loday, is made of carbon fibre and Nomex and weighs only 1,200kg, but it sports a 62ft mast on which a prodigious 1,700ft2 (160m2) of sail can be set downwind. This overgrown beach cat needs only four crew and is capable of flying a hull in as little as 8 knots of wind, guaranteeing a spectacle in almost any conditions.

Humphreys’s boat is funded partly by sponsorship from Motorola and by an injection of cash from fellow Plymouth-based sailor Hamish Oliphant, who was recently navigator on winning Global Challenge yacht BG Spirit. Oliphant will make up part of the crew, along with Leigh McMillan and Will Howden, both Olympic sailing candidates for 2008.

Conrad Humphreys makes no bones about the fact that continuing to tickle sponsorship money from Motorola, which backed him in the Vendée Globe last year, has been difficult and is one of the reasons the Open 60 has been taken to France and put to bed until next year. But the VX40 project does allow him to move laterally, redirecting a smaller sponsorship budget while expanding the size and scope of his racing stable.

“With the Open 60 circuit you can only do a limited amount of sponsor-related activities. We can run both as a two-boat programme. We’ll use the network of the Volvo race to bring in new sponsors and opportunities, and potentially for the price of one campaign they’ll have two boats.

“We assume the Grand Prix will be a continuing thing in the calendar – that would be the dream ticket. But if not we’ll do the Round the Island Race, Cowes Week, and use events like that, or we’ll create events through an owners’ association. So there’s two ends to the spectrum. It’s about flexibility.”