CLASSIC BATTLEGROUND FOR VOLVO OCEAN RACE BOATS
Three entries in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 head into the unknown on Sunday when Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Groupama Sailing Team and Team Sanya get a first chance to test themselves against each other in the Rolex Fastnet Race – the 608-nautical mile offshore classic.The three Volvo Open 70s are part of a fleet of more than 320 boats in the sprint from Cowes to Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland and there is palpable excitement in the teams at the prospect of racing the boats competitively, with less than 80 days to go before the start of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, who unveiled their new boat Azzam in July, have the local knowledge that could be crucial to the race in the form of British skipper Ian Walker and navigator Jules Salter, who was part of the ICAP Leopard crew who shattered the race record in 2007 with a time of one day 20 hours and 18 minutes.
“The question is whether we race to win the Fastnet or whether we stay close to the other boats so that we can learn more about our Volvo Ocean Race competition,” said Walker. “I know what can happen in these situations -- you start out with a plan to stay close to the competition so that you can learn and then suddenly the red mist comes down at the start gun and you can’t stop yourself from going all out to win the race.”
Groupama have had more time to prepare, having launched their new-generation racing yacht, Groupama 4 back in May.
“The Fastnet is a great race with a very good course,” said Groupama skipper Franck Cammas. “It’s good for the Volvo Ocean Race teams as well, a first rendezvous between the competitors. It’s the first time we’ll see the performance of the boats so it’s important for us to be in on the start line.”
Team Sanya only announced their participation in the Volvo Ocean Race seven weeks ago and have barely begun getting to know their boat, Sanya, the refitted version of the Telefónica Blue boat that finished third in the last edition of the race in 2008-09.
Skipper Mike Sanderson, who led ABN AMRO ONE to victory in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race, believes just making it to the start line represents a success for his new team.
“For us it’s going to be very tough to have to line up against the other Volvo boats, especially such strong teams so early in our programme,” said Sanderson. “I have no doubt that it is going to very humbling. But it has been perfect for our whole sailing team to have something to aim for. What a great race to have on our calendar. The timing is perfect.”
At a little over 600 nautical miles, the biennial Fastnet Race is a fraction of the length of a typical Volvo Ocean Race leg but history has proved it one of the most gruelling offshore yacht races.
The weather conditions could be extreme later in the race, which should last two days for the Volvo Open 70s, with light winds but quite choppy seas giving way to winds of up to 30-35 knots once the fastest boats have rounded Fastnet Rock.
The Rolex Fastnet Race, organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club, was first sailed in 1925. The race hit the headlines in 1979 when a huge storm ripped through the 306-yacht fleet leaving 15 dead and many more injured.
Further attention came in 1985 when maxi yacht Drum, built for that year´s Whitbread Round the World Race, capsized trapping six of its crew including co-owner and Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon under its upturned hull for 40 minutes before they were rescued.
The Volvo Ocean Race boats will begin the 44th edition of the Fastnet at 1200 GMT (1300 local time) on Sunday.
The Volvo Ocean Race begins in Alicante on 29 October with the first in-port race. The other teams to have entered to date are CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand, PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG Propulsion and Team Telefónica,