Matthew Sheahan considers the pressure afloat and ashore as he waits for the first Volvo boats to arrive in Melbourne at the end of the second leg 20/1/06

It’s hot down here, yet the stiff breeze that has made walking upwind tricky during the last 24 hours has been masking the true temperatures, until now. As the trough passes through, the breeze has dropped and the temperature risen to confirm beyond all doubt that it really is 36 degrees when you step outside.

A few hundred miles off the Victorian coast neither of these meteorological changes will be good news for the current race leaders ABN One who’s ETA at the dockside here in Melbourne is changing in sync with the drop in windspeed.

For skipper Mike ‘Moose’ Sanderson, the changes mark a serious threat to a commanding performance that has taken its toll over the last 18 days since the leg began. Sanderson knows his boat is sticky in the light, so does everyone else. He also knows from experience how quickly distances evaporate in the VO70 class, such are the blistering speeds that these boats can keep up in modest conditions. ABN One saw a 350 mile advantage over their second placed team mates aboard ABN Two, turn into a 7 mile disadvantage in just a few days. Since then the ‘kids’ aboard ABN Two have been less than 50 miles behind. At 12 knots that’s just over four hours if Sanderson parked up.

Little wonder then that the ABN One skipper is desperate for this leg to end while his team still holds the lead.

“To have gone from 390 ahead to 7 miles behind, slowly and painfully had been one of my toughest times in a Volvo race,” he said earlier in the week.

A day later things hadn’t got any better. “If I can get through this race without a stomach ulcer from the constant worry I will be amazed.”

With the prospect of a decaying breeze, a potential tidal gate at the entrance to Port Phillip bay from where the vagaries of the land locked water will provide even more challenging sailing, the chances of us seeing a relaxed Sanderson step ashore on Saturday (local time) seem slim.

Yet the pressure’s been ashore too. Despite maintaining a cool demeanour on the outside, leg 2 must surely rate as the most stressful of his career for Glenn Bourke, the event’s CEO.

As the world has watched the catalogue of breakdowns that have left one boat aboard a ship, another without a mast and two with serious canting keel problems,(even after pit stops), there has been an understandable level of concern as to whether the boats are really suitable for the event.

“I think that our problems are being exaggerated a little. We’ve always seen in the first three legs of this event before, damage, breakdowns and repairs,” he said. “These stopovers are longer than we expected as the boats are quicker than before so I think that there’s plenty of time.”

Nevertheless, the Melbourne stopover will now include a meeting of all the teams and interested parties on Tuesday 24 to discuss many of the major issues.

“We are going to pull in the teams and all the smart people and open up a forum,” he continued. “We will listen to that discussion and consider whether it’s necessary to change anything.”

But in the meantime, what does he think has been the biggest contributory factor in the number of breakdowns to date?

“Whatever computer models are out there, haven’t correctly predicted the loads. Perhaps the boats twist more than people expected presenting loads in different directions than people anticipated.”

Amid the debate that surrounds those watching the event from ashore, some have been asking whether the rule has been too ambitious in its eagerness to develop a new generation of higher performance boats. How does Bourke consider this?

“I don’t believe the rule has been too ambitious,” he said. “My guess would be that in 12 years time we’ll look back and consider the VO70s a conservative design. Look at what people were saying about the Volvo 60s when they first appeared and started looking like they’d smoke past a maxi.”

A valid point perhaps, but before that happens there’s going to be plenty more debate, with the best information of all coming from the sailors themselves, most of whom are still sweating it out offshore.