The fleet is off but what did the blistering start reveal about individual prospects over the next three weeks? Matthew Sheahan reports

“We’re in for a very wet night”, said Abu Dhabi’s skipper Ian Walker, dressed in his rubber necked dry suit as he talked live to the on board camera just minutes before the start of the Volvo Ocean Race. With a forecast of 25-30 knot winds for the first 24 hours and heavy seas, you could sense the anxiety among the fleet.

But before crews barrelled headlong into the first night on the 6,500 nautical mile leg from Alicante to Cape Town, there were a number of short legs around the cans in front of the local audience to negotiate.

“We’re in for a mini blood bath around this inshore course,” chuckled Puma’s skipper Kenny Read.

“The trouble is that you don’t want to drop off the fleet and be left behind, but you also don’t want to push too hard and break anything,” said Team Sanya’s skipper Mike Sanderson.

Twenty minutes later his words came back to haunt him as his boat shot past one of the leeward marks, unable to recover their A4 gennaker as a big gust swept through.

There was action aplenty from the start with a very close call between Groupama and Abu Dhabi just seconds before the gun was fired that not only put the French team on the back foot and ruined their approach to the start line, but appeared to result in them having to carry out penalty turns later in the race.

Thirty minutes later, Puma was seen to be plying a protest flag.

Then there was Mike Sanderson’s blast past the mark after a late call for the kite drop, something for which he took full responsibility during an on board interview minutes later.

“It is a long way to go so fortunately we didn’t suffer any damage apart from to our egos,” he said.

Throughout the first 30 minutes of racing the gusty offshore breeze made life hard for the crews as they wrestled with their boats’ sail plans. There were plenty of mistakes and problems, albeit mainly minor issues. But there was one boat that appeared to cruise around the course, extending its lead leg by leg, Camper.

Once again Chris Nicholson’s team proved how proficient they are at handling the boat under pressure and on a tight course. They did the same in the test event (Leg Zero) albeit in lighter conditions. And while there isn’t much around the cans action for the bulk of the next 6,500 miles, there will be plenty of sail and boat handling. In a fleet of experienced professionals and similar performance boats, knowing how and when to change gear and do it efficiently will be one of the key elements of success.

The other is in the sails that each team has chosen to take. With such a limited wardrobe, just 7 sails (excluding storm sails) are allowed for a leg, the sail wardrobe has been one of the most discussed topics in the build up to the event among observers and the subject of the most secrecy among the teams. The start provided a hint as to what some teams have decided to go for.

For the opening inshore elements of the leg, Camper set a large furling headsail, smaller than their older code zero and with two clew positions. Others teams have similar set ups on the clew but there is bound to be speculation as to whether this aspect of sail design has something to do with the controversial hydraulic ram on the forestay of the Kiwi boat. Could raking the rig back and forth and transferring the sheet to different positions on the clew provide a few extra gears?

The difference in fractional jib sizes was also an interesting issue as was the fractional furling sail that telephonic chose to use on the downwind legs. Compared to the Kiwis masthead sail the Spanish team seemed short of power.

Yet, while teams showed some of their cards it will still take more time to see who has the most efficient wardrobe. And even then, having seen how much you can lose in a momentary slip up when the fleet is sailing at 20 plus knots, the lesson from the start was that handling will count.

As the fleet headed off towards Gibraltar, 31 mins after the start with a lively night in store, the leader board was as follows:

1 – Camper
2 – Puma – +2:20 min
3 – Telefonica – +2:54
4 – Abu Dhabi – +3:13
5 – Groupama – +4:43
6 – Team Sanya –

Yachting World Exclusive – December issue – Out 10 Nov

Two weeks before the start of the race I sailed aboard Camper on Leg Zero, the 350 mile, 48 hours test event. Read my full feature on this enlightening and at times bone jarring account of what life is really like offshore, in the dark, with a winter flood running through the cockpit.