What's in store for the opening days of the 2005/6 Volvo Ocean Race? Matthew Sheahan reports from the dockside on the eve of the start

At 1400 local (1300 GMT) on Sat 12 November, seven boats will cross the Volvo Ocean Race start line off Vigo in Spain. Each will weave their way around several marks inshore while threading themselves through hundreds of spectator craft, before heading out to sea on the leg to Cape Town.

In the last few days of the build up to the start of the race there had been plenty of talk of the conditions that lay ahead and a suggestion that the fleet would be in for a kick start in this offshore classic.

“There’s a high pressure system building which will give us some very quick downwind conditions once we head out into the Atlantic,” predicted Ericsson navigator Steve Hales. “It looks like we could carry these conditions at least all the way down to the Doldrums area, possibly even get down there without gybing. Some of the predicted runs show some very fast average times.”

Brasil 1’s navigator Adrienne Cahalan agrees.

“I think that it could well be a fast run down there, but as always the hitch could be the crossing of the Doldrums and the advantage will go to those who find the gap. There will be plenty of passing places on the first leg.”

The suggestion of strong downwind conditions was no doubt music to ABN AMRO 1’s team’s ears having been dealt a drubbing in the light weather inshore racing last weekend. Keen to look ahead from their poor showing, skipper Mike Sanderson was clearly focussing on what lay ahead.

“The forecast is exciting and it’ll be interesting to see the pace that the fleet establishes in the opening phase of the race,” he said. “It’ll be tough to keep the boats in one piece on the first night, but also it’ll be important not to drop off the back of the fleet.”

When it came to predictions, several people were hinting at the prospect of a distance record being set early in the first leg, so good were the forecasted conditions. But ABN navigator Stan Honey agreed that fast times may indeed be possible, other factors further down the line could slow things up.

“A leg time of 16 days is extreme and is at one end of the range,” he said. “We’ll probably have a quick trip down to the Doldrums and a fast track across, but it’s still a little hard to see what we might be facing in the South Atlantic. Having said that, it could be a pretty quick trip.”

Telefonica Movistar skipper Bowe Bekking felt much the same.

“I believe that the tricky part will be getting across the South Atlantic high. Like several of the previous races we might see a big gap in the fleet on the first leg. I think that tactically this will be one of the toughest legs.”

So what of the suggestion that the 24 hour distance record might be broken? As holder of the current record, set during their delivery trip from the boat’s launching place in Australia, Bekking is perhaps the best to comment on the prospects of breaking their own record.

“I think that there’s a good chance if the pressure is good for the first 24 hours, but the biggest factor will be the wind direction. If we have to gybe it will reduce the chances as the distance for the 24 hour record gets measured in a straight line.”

As the clock ticked away, the weather models continued to suggest that breeze from the North was indeed on the cards. A dream ticket for an event that at times during the build-up, has been accused of being slow to get under way.