A fleet of seven Volvo 60s fleet cracked off the start line in Kiel today at speeds of 15 knots in gusty winds during the Volvo Baltic Race

A fleet of seven Volvo 60s fleet cracked off the start line in Kiel today at speeds of 15 knots in gusty winds during the Volvo Baltic Race.

The 58 nm Eckernforde Race is the first in the Volvo Baltic Race series and early on, Challenge (formerly News Corp) with Matt Humphries and RS (formerly SEB) with Erle Williams set the pace.

Fully ballasted and flying big reaching headsails and staysails, they led the fleet on a close reach out of the Kieler Forde in a fresh NNE breeze of 18 – 22 knots, gusting 23. A fraction behind was the second generation Atea (formerly Innovation Kvaerner) with Sweden’s Jan Martensson in charge.

Leading the next group was the Swedish Youth Team sailing Nilorn (formerly Winston) with Glenn Bourke calling the shots and the team showing great promise.

At the first mark, at the mouth of the Kieler Forde, only seven seconds separated Challenge and RS, which indicates the closeness of racing we can expect to enjoy throughout this event.

Soon after leaving the Kieler Forde, the Danish Youth Team sailing Pontona (formerly Yamaha) had problems with their mainsail, and, with no vang on, the battens on the mainsail inverted and the young team struggled, dropping back through the fleet to bring up the rear.

There are three generations of VO60s competing in the Volvo Baltic Race. Challenge, Sony Ericsson and RS are all third generation boats, which were built for the Volvo Ocean Race 2001-02. Atea and Elanders are second generation boats and raced during the 1997-98 Whitbread, while Pontona and Nilorn, the two youth teams, are first generation boats which took part in the 1993-94 Whitbread where they were introduced for the first time.

Reaching speeds of up to 17 knots downwind, flying masthead spinnakers on the first of the downwind legs, Challenge was still able to hold off RS, rounding the windward mark of the windward/leeward loop of the course just 1 minute 20 seconds ahead. These two experienced crews accomplished a gybe set easily, with Sony Ericsson rounding 7 minutes 30 seconds behind Challenge, but taking nearly 7 minutes to set their spinnaker.

Conditions worsened as Atea and Elanders approached the windward mark, with a gusty rainsquall blowing through just as they were about to gybe. Atea rounded the mark 12 minutes 30 seconds behind Challenge and struggled to gybe, whilst Elanders, rounding 13 minutes 45 seconds behind Challenge bore the brunt of the squall. The crew tried to tack round the mark, got caught head to wind in the sudden increase in breeze, and eventually opted to gybe which they successfully completed and set their spinnaker.

Pontona Youth, the Danish Youth Team, made massive gains, and rounded the mark 19 minutes 45 behind Challenge, narrowing the gap further as Atea and Elanders struggled with their boat handling.

Weather conditions forced the race committee to shorten the course by 7 nm, but, in a closely-fought contest, it was Matt Humphries with Challenge of Netsurvey who finally took line honours, from Erle Williams’ and TeamRS. “Experience always beats youth and under the conditions today, experience was the key thing,” commented skipper Matt Humphries . “It was a very physical race today and we had to work very hard from the start to the finish and the crew were exhausted when we crossed the line. The rest of the event will be a hard race between RS and ourselves. I am satisfied that we were able to beat them. They were close, but not that close.”

Only four boats from the fleet of eight finished the course. Elanders overcame their shaky gybe set to finish in third position, but a full 40 minutes behind Challenge. Atea finished fourth, five minutes behind Elanders.

Nilorn, the Swedish Youth Team, after making such an excellent start, were forced to retire after their mainsail ripped irreparably into two pieces. Half way up the first beat, the mainsail ripped from leach to luff, six feet down from the head. Johan Wigforss, the bowman had to go aloft to release the mainsail from the headboard lock in wind speeds of up to 32 knots.

The Danish Youth Team sailing Pontona, which was showing great upwind speed, performed an excellent gybe set, but on the second beat they came to grief. “The wind increased, the sea was getting bigger and the outhaul and jib sheet blew at the same time,” explained skipper Thomas Dahl. “I thought the rig was coming down, but we’ll be able to fix it [the damage] by tomorrow. It’s just a shackle and some rope. We’ve just got just got several new sails and we’re very pleased with them. It was the combination of the big wave and the increase in breeze just finished us.”

Sony Ericsson retired due to a broken fitting on their starboard runner. “I am very disappointed,” said skipper Thomas Blixt. “Our runners are in Gothenburg and will be driven down overnight tonight so that we can race tomorrow. We were particularly disappointed because we had increased our boat speed and were gaining on the top boats when the runner broke.”

Tomorrow’s racing will consist of up to three windward/leeward races and it is now a race against time to mend all the damage from today’s racing in order to be on the starting line tomorrow.

Results (Eckernforde Race)

Challenge of Netsurvey – Matthew Humphries – UK 3.5 points

TeamRS – Erle Williams – NZ – 3 points

Team Elanders Ten Celcius – Hans Wallen – SWE – 2.5 points

Atea – Jan Martensson – SWE – 2 points

DNF – .5 points each team

Nilorn – Fredrik Frejme – SWE

Pontona – Thomas Dahl – DK

Sony Ericsson – Thomas Blixt