The Volvo Ocean Race starts in tricky conditions but big breezes lay ahead

Light and fluky, shifty as you like and then squally, hardly the kind of conditions to give the best guide to the potential form of the boats during the opening moments of the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. Or so you may think. In fact, to watch the fleet of seven thread its way up the fingers of breeze and through the hundreds of spectator craft, could indeed give some early indications as to the strengths and weaknesses of the various teams.

At the start, Paul Cayard and his fellow Pirates gained the favoured, windward, end of the line, demonstrating precision timing as he did so in the sub-5 knot breeze. Alongside him, Movistar and Ericsson were both within half a boat length laterally. Further to leeward and behind, both the ABN Amro boats were next to cross leaving Brasil 1 and Brunel Sunergy way down at the leeward end and not looking good.

The first leg took the boats deeper into the Ria de Vigo and into more fickle breezes, yet the Pirates continued to eek out their lead. But as the fleet approached the top mark, Cayard ran into trouble as a left handed shift forced him to head up into the spectator fleet and perform a tricky gybe in less than ideal surroundings. The manoeuvre cost them dearly as Ericsson slipped through to round the first mark in first place.

As they did so, a black cloud rolled over the hill to weather carrying the suggestion of more breeze. McDonald made a bee-line for the darker sky, tacked, picked up the additional breeze and stretched his lead as the remainder of the fleet continued to struggle around the mark, Movistar rounding in third. Behind them ABN Amro’s ‘B’ boat rounded ahead of Mike Sanderson’s ABN 1 and while this wasn’t an ideal position for the pre-race favourites, no doubt the Kiwi skipper was pleased to have boats behind him after last weekend’s last place in the light weather inshore race.

Pulling up the rear of the fleet Torben Grael’s Brasil 1 looked dumped from the start and was only saved from total humiliation by the Australian entry, Brunel Sunergy, a boat that has had its own string of major problems and changes in the build up to the race.

Major measurement problems saw the team working a 24hour shift from the time the boat reached the Spanish port. Two days before the race started, a name change for the team meant fresh stickers on a white hull changing her title from Premier Challenge to Sunergy and Friends. During the night before the start, two of the team’s crew Guy Salter and Mark Thomas (presumably friends but not the ones referred to in the name) had stepped off the boat and the name changed once again, this time to Brunel Sunergy. No one knew where the friends had gone.

Once all the boats had rounded the first mark the weather then played games with the fleet as rain squalls took the breeze from 5 to 15 knots in as much time as it takes to open a door. The effect was to stretch open the fleet, before compressing it once again when the wind shut off.

But despite the tricky conditions, as the fleet headed out through the western end of the Ria de Vigo it was Ericsson that maintained it’s well earned lead having displayed a better ability to anticipate the wide variety of conditions. Her sail changes were slicker, manoeuvres were smoother and the crew simply looked like a team that were on top of their game. Add this to a similar performance last weekend and although there are still more than 6,000 miles to go on the first leg alone, you’d have to say that Ericsson looks like a sorted and competent team.

Movistar’s considerable on the water experience was showing too and as the fleet headed over the horizon and into the sunset the first official schedule came through to reveal that Movistar with ABN 1 in second, Ericsson third and Cayard’s Pirates fourth.

As the fleet slipped out into the Atlantic, the breeze is expected to build substantially with forecasts of up to 40 knots during the next 24 hours. Another shuffle of the pack looked certain to be on the cards.

As the breeze built steadily to 30 knots plus the fleet started to smoke off downwind.

The Volvo has started.