A look at the first week of the first leg of the 2001/2 Volvo Ocean Race

After a classic VOR start in the Solent on Sunday (23 September, 2001) in the fresh, building northerly breeze, it was great to see Grant Dalton powering in to the lead on his much-talked about Frers-design, Amer Sports One. Dalton, who’d only decided which boat to sail a week prior to the start, was possibly the happiest man in the Solent as he led the fleet past the Needles on a southerly track across the English Channel. Having decided to take the Frers design as opposed to the Farr, all eyes were on Dalton who, even just before the race admitted, he didn’t know what to expect from the boat against the performance of the Farrs. While there was plenty of jubilation on Dalton’s boat at the start, thing were slightly different for their team mates, the all-female team, aboard Amer Sports Too who ripped their spinnaker just minutes in to the race. A bit of snappy team work, however, under the leadership of Lisa McDonald, soon saw the determined girls team back on track.

Having enjoyed a fresh northerly breeze out of the Solent under spinnaker, crews made the most of the downwind sprint south before hitting the forecast lighter breeze early the next morning. In the tricky tactical situation Amer Sports One lost her initial lead to SEB with Tyco and illbruck snapping at their heels. The wind continued to play havoc with the fleet throughout the day making every move on the this nautical chess board a bit of a lottery. SEB, illbruck and Tyco headed south while the rest of the fleet took a more westerly direction.

At last the wind arrived late afternoon on Tuesday giving crews plenty of opportunity to test out heavy weather skills across the Bay of Biscay. By this time illbruck, who had snatched the lead, took advantage of the new southerly breeze and together with Tyco and Amer Sports One, showed some new speed as they headed on a 12-hour, one-tack beat down to the Canary Islands. Crews were tested to the limit as these out and out racing machines which are more suited to downwind sailing, crashed in to the Biscay chop. “Luckily,” said Wouter aboard Djuice Dragon, “the human brain is tuned to remember only the good things in life!”

By the early hours of Wednesday morning (26 September, 2001) the wind had eased off and illbruck had secured a one-mile lead followed by Tyco and Amer Sports One but things were hotting up as the leading boat hugged the Galicia coastline of north-west Spain.

Continuing to head south, illbruck positioned on the far east of the fleet, retained the lead but the crew were well aware that if the wind swung round to the west as predicted, Team News Corp skippered by Jez Fanstone to the west, could come out smelling of roses.

The much awaited westerly windshift finally arrived just before midnight on Thursday. Team SEB was first take advantage and tacked, followed in quick succession by News Corp and Amer Sports Too. With the wind continuing to shift to the west, these three took advantage of off wind sprint and managed to claw back some of the time they’d lost earlier in the race. Unfortunately for SEB a broken headboard car on Friday destroyed any advantage gained tactically as well as losing them even more on top. Earlier in the week Djuice Dragon had suffered a similar fate in the testing upwind conditions. With the boats so closely matched in their design and layout, could this be a pattern among the rest of the fleet?

While it’s interesting to see the fleet slotting in to its predicted ranks with the Farr designs occupying the first four places in the early days of the race, there is no doubt that Dalton’s Frers design, Amer Sports One and the Davidson-designed Djuice Dragon, are a force to be reckoned. It will be interesting to see how the situation changes as the breeze starts to crank round behind them and the kites go up.