Breezy conditions but how important is it to get out of the Mediterranean first asks Matthew Sheahan

It wouldn’t be fair to tell you who’s forecast it was and how I came to be looking at a team’s data for the start of the race, but it is fair to say that the information is from a sound, trusted source and suggests that the start of the 2008/9 Volvo Ocean Race will be an exciting one.

‘Wind speeds at the start will be moderate, up to 15 or possibly 20 knots, although it will be lighter in the bay with a breeze of 10-15 knots likely,” read the forecast. “Out of the bay, conditions look set to improve through the afternoon with increasing winds further away from Alicante increasing 20-30 knots in the late evening. Seas will be very rough at 2-3 metres.”

The report went on to describe how the breeze would reduce quickly on the following day to provide much lighter conditions along with a big swing in direction from the east to the southwest. Clearly there would be plenty of action in the opening hours of the race, with ample potential to get a jump on the fleet.

Little surprise then that in the various press conferences that took place during the days leading up to the start, skippers and teams were playing down what they knew about the conditions that lay ahead. They were on the other hand happy to discuss just how important the exit from the Mediterranean could be.

“It’s entirely possible that this leg will be decided on the basis of who gets out through the Gibraltar Straits first,” explained Team Puma’s Jonathan McKee, and he should know. A year ago he was threading his way along a similar route in the opening hours of the two handed Barcelona race. A race that was eventually won by the first boat to pass through this notorious gap. “The first few days could prove to be pivotal,” McKee continued.

Indeed, if previous performance in the Volvo Ocean Race is anything to go by, in the last five events the boat that won the first leg has gone on to win the event. No pressure then!

Having said that, few are expecting this event to be a one horse race. Sure, Ericsson may be many people’s favourites on the basis of their resources and the time the team has spent on the water, but the fleet as a whole is far more experienced this time around. Designers and builders have been able to learn from the lessons of the last race while the crews have a far better idea of how far the throttle extends and when to wind back.

“The start of the last race was madness,” explained Ericsson 4 skipper Torben Grael. “Aboard Brasil 1, although we’d covered a lot of miles before the start, most of them had been delivery miles. We’d never pushed the boat downwind in more than 20 knots of wind. On the first night of the race though we were careering along in 40 knots with no idea where the limits were.”

The variety of designs is another aspect of this race that has seen many dockside experts scratching their heads. With the fleet moored stern to in Alicante’s impressive, vibrant and hugely popular race village, first impressions suggest an eight boat fleet of similar boats. Yet a closer look at just their transoms revealed a wide variety of hull shapes. From the boxy, beamy, square sectioned Humphreys designed Russian boat, to the more radiused after sections of the Juan Kouyoumdjian designed Ericsson boats along with several variations in between these extremes, there appears to be little consensus as to what the perfect shape really is. It is ironic perhaps that it was Kouyomdijan’s ABN AMRO boats that favoured the extreme beams and flat runs aft in the last race. This time his boats seem more modest.

Dagger boards are another detail that help illustrate the wide variety of ideas that are being tried this time around, particularly the angle at which they are set in the hulls. Here, the Spanish Telefonica boats with their vertical foils suggest that these boats are designed to be sailed far more upright than their competitors.

The same team has gone extreme in the mast department too with the only masts that have no jumper stays to support the topmasts, a detail that reduces windage, but might also imply more weight carried aloft. Less drag downwind, but less stability uphill in a big sea.

If getting out of the Med quickly holds the key to long term success, perhaps the Spanish could upset the form guide from the off.

Leg 1 to Cape Town starts at 1400 local (1300 GMT)


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