The 24-hour record could tumble in the first few days, and ABN AMRO skipper Mike Sanderson answers some questions about his Juan Kouyoumdjian design

Strong northerlies of 35-40 knots will get the Volvo Ocean Race off to lightning start this weekend and could even see a new monohull 24-hour record, according to Mike Sanderson, skipper of ABN Amro One. With a negligible band of Doldums to follow, the pace south to the first gate off the coast of Brazil may not slacken, but either way the first sharp picture of the VO70 fleet’s speed, reliability and the merits of the different designs is going to emerge.

“Right now all our weather routeing software has the fleet breaking the 24-hour record, starting from 5pm the first evening. That would be an amazing kick-off,” Sanderson says. “The forecast is scarily good. If it’s three-quarters right we’re going to have a very quick trip: they’re talking about six-and-a-half or seven days to Fernando da Noronha. Obviously the weather routers have us with our hair on fire in 35 knots of wind, but whether the fleet’s capable of that in a short Atlantic sea, we’ll see. But the first few days are going to be really hard core.”

Heavy downwind conditions in the first few days will be test for the less well prepared teams, he believes. “It’s going to be interesting to see, especially for the guys who haven’t spend quite as much time on the boats. And it will also be very interesting to see how hard the fleet pushes.”

The first week will be no less a proving ground for Sanderson’s team and the two-boat ABN Amro camp as a whole. Hard reaching conditions may suit their Juan Kouyoumdjian designs and give a better clue as to the wisdom of this choice of designer rather than the Farr office, which has been the gold standard of all the Volvo and Whitbread races all the way back to Steinlager 2 in 1990. For race followers this is one of this race’s great debates, a question fuelled by the poor performance of ABN Amro in the in-port racing in Sanxenxo last weekend.

“From a naval architecture point of view we weren’t able to win that race,” Sanderson agrees. “We’re wider, we’ve got the transom pushed into the water, we’ve got twin rudders and big daggerboards further out on the boat and we’ve gone to a huge effort to get what we believe is the biggest bulb in the fleet on the boat, all of which was a negative on Saturday,” comments Sanderson. “But give us more than 8 knots and we’ll be competitive. Give us more than 15 reaching and it’s full on.”

ABN Amro are bitterly disappointed at their first showing and acutely conscious that the in-port races count for more 20 per cent of the total points, but it’s far from passive acceptance. Sanderson comments. “We’re not taking all the blame for the start,” he comments. “We had a plan and we couldn’t execute the plan because of the crowd.

“The in-port races could end up being expensive unless we get good quality races. The fact is that they [the race organisation] were under what now appears to be a huge amount of pressure to bang that race off and if it’s going to be a half-hearted effort from a management point of view they’re either going to have to reduce the amount of points or take it more seriously.

“Their crowd control was atrocious. We couldn’t get to the starboard layline in the pre-start. We didn’t have nearly enough room to set up. If they’re going to have an America’s Cup type inshore race, then they’ve got to lift the game to the America’s Cup type race control.”

Weighing up the competition, Sanderson’s says: “Movistar will be fast. They’ve a good bunch of guys, very experienced and the latest generation thinking Farr boat. We see them for sure as our strongest threat.

“Ericsson will be fast, but I don’t think they’ve done enough miles in the boat and I think even they themselves are worried about their reliability. The way I see it is Ericsson has got two sisterships in this race and for Ericsson to have a bigger bulb than the other two, which I’m pretty confident they have, then they’ve given up structure and canting keel weight. Those are your choices. Finicky little details on these boats doesn’t make enough of a difference. It’s not like the Volvo 60s where we were looking for 40 or 50 kg of bulb weight difference. Here you’re looking for bigger numbers, so it’s either canting keel systems or engineering. If they manage to get away with it from a reliability standpoint, I’m sure they’ll be good guys.

“And how do you discount Torben Grael and his crew with all those medals on board, and how do you discount the Pirates? So it’s hard to read.”

As for his own boat, he comments: “If our boat’s right I don’t think it’s going to be a little bit right. If it does what we think it does it could be hard to beat on the ocean legs – that’s if the concept of our boat is right and we keep it one piece.

“But I don’t think there’s ever been a Volvo race where we haven’t really didn’t know four days before the start. No-one really has any idea.”