VOR update 33

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam held off a relentless challenge from Groupama 4 to lead home the three Volvo Ocean Race boats and set a monohull record for the Rolex Fastnet Race. Groupama 4 in second, Sanya third in race run at blistering pace. Skippered by Britain's double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker, the first Arab entry won the “race within a race” between three teams set to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 starting in Alicante in October. Rolex Fastnet Race, Day three – finish

Groupama 4 and skipper Franck Cammas finished four minutes behind Azzam in the 608-nautical mile sprint from Cowes to Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland.

Team Sanya, skippered by New Zealand's Mike Sanderson and racing in the refitted Telefónica Blue from the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09, could not quite compete with the other two teams' heavy air speed and finished just short of an hour behind.

All three times were inside the record monohull time of one day 20 hours 18 minutes set by ICAP Leopard in 2007. Leopard also competed in the current race and was in with a chance of a record time when her crew came to the assistance of Rambler 100 after she capsized. All 21 crew members were rescued in an operation co-ordinated by the Irish coastguard.

The blistering pace of all three of the Volvo Open 70s, and particularly the new boats, will have been of great interest to the other teams preparing for the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race starting in Alicante on October 29. Racing conditions were optimum for these boats -- strong winds, big seas and very wet on deck.

Three other new boats will be competing -- CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand, PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG Propulsion and Team Telefónica.

Walker, speaking as he sipped a Coca-Cola after stepping from the boat in Plymouth, savoured both the victory in the "race within a race" and the record, though he was even more satisfied to see confirmed that Azzam, designed by Farr Yacht Design, is competitive with the Groupama 4 boat from the board of Argentina’s Juan Kouyoumdjian. Juan K, as he is known in the sailing world, was responsible for the last two Volvo Ocean Race winners and also designed PUMA's Mar Mostro and Telefónica for the forthcoming race.

"It's cool because I've never done any record-type stuff before," said Walker. "it always seems to be the 100-footers getting the records.

"But overall it's a relief to know that we're competitive. We didn't blow Groupama out of the water but it's a relief to know that we're at the party."

Groupama's navigator Jean-Luc Nélias, spelled out just how close the finish had been.

"We rounded the Fastnet Rock together but at night we couldn't see Abu Dhabi any more,” he said. “The night was violent and the route was straight and when the dawn broke, they were half a mile ahead of us. We could see the colour of their weather gear on deck when we crossed the finish line so it was pretty close."

Team Sanya only announced their Volvo Ocean Race entry seven weeks ago and skipper Sanderson was pleased to have given the refitted boat a good work-out.

"We were glad the conditions were fairly extreme for this race because it has served as a reminder to all of us that on Volvo Open 70s and in the Volvo Ocean Race itself the big gains are won in the windy conditions," he said.

"These boats want to go at 16 knots all the time. To get them to go 20 knots plus you really need to wring their necks. We had some issues at various points which prevented us from really wringing our boat’s neck but overall it was a good experience that we can be pleased with it as a team.”

The battle for overall supremacy between the Volvo Ocean Race teams was closely fought throughout the race. Groupama 4 shrugged off an early problem with their keel mechanism and were vying for the lead as the boats exited the confines of the Solent. After racing in close formation all the way along the English south coast, Team Sanya took the lead at Land’s End with a crafty tactical short cut which saved them eight miles on their rivals.

As the breeze steadily increased on the long leg out towards the southeast tip of Ireland, the new boats eased inexorably into the lead, with Azzam trailing Groupama 4 by just five minutes as they rounded the Fastnet Rock. The boats set a ferocious pace on the return leg from the Fastnet Rock with 30 knot winds on the second night before Azzam and Groupama 4 blasted their way towards the finish in Plymouth at speeds of over 25 knots.