Grael in command but still plenty of racing ahead


SAILING OCEAN RACE:  WITH ANDREAS Hannakamp's Team Russia now in port, the eighth and final entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, the second stage of the race has finished and one question has started circulating in Kochi, India: has the race become a contest for second place overall?

Torben Grael's Ericsson 4 has won both legs and has a clear, seven-point lead on the scoreboard.

For Ireland's Green Dragon team, the deep disappointment of placing seventh in the leg has receded and a clearer view of the issue and of the next stages of the race have emerged. Two planned crew changes are also on the cards for the next two legs.

Team chief executive Jamie Boag is certain this race is not going to be a repeat of the last event, where the winner, ABN Amro One, was up to two knots quicker than most of the fleet and was the outright leader from the first leg on.

"I don't think we'll know the answer until Rio," Boag said. "And the next leg to Singapore could also be a roll of the dice."

The race has switched from the traditional route through the Southern Ocean direct to Australia and has arrived into unknown waters - for ocean racing - by adding three Asian ports to the course.

"Certainly they (Ericsson 4) look like the strongest at the minute, but it only takes a broken runner (rigging) and its all back on again," he said. "The race is heading into the unknown and it'll be like the 1970s all over again with the spirit of adventure."

For Boag's team, the goal of winning a leg and finishing on the podium by the end of the race remains unchanged. Boag also cites the Green Dragon's strength for all but 40 miles of the 4,500 miles in the last leg that made the difference between second or third overall and fourth overall as the team stands now.

Watch-leader Neal McDonald has four round the world races to inform his view, including skipper of Ericsson in the last race. "If I were to guess, it is a race for second place," he told The Irish Times yesterday. "The more interesting question I think will be who will place second."

But he hasn't conceded to Grael. "There's a long way to go and you only have to look at the damage to the other boats to see that," he said, pointing out the damage to Puma and both Telefonica entries.

Boatyard rumours have also suggested that other boats of a lighter build have had significant construction-related issues requiring major efforts during the stop-overs.

Green Dragon hasn't escaped unscathed. A collision with a sunfish or a mammal of some kind in the first leg cost the team third place into Cape Town, while their broken boom in the recent stage was also a set-back.

But skipper Ian Walker also pointed out that his boat is built to stronger specifications, and highlighted that Telefonica's daggerboards can be carried under an arm, while the Galway boat's solid option needs three people to lift one. That example of saving weight in one area to add weight to the keel bulb is expected to be a critical point, if not for the next leg then certainly for the following two or more.

McDonald's counterpart on the opposite watch is Damian Foxall. He likens the result to a boxer taking a knock-down in the first bout. "We've got to step back up and be stronger," he said. "I think we're even more determined to realise our goal, and if you look back it was actually a good leg for us."

Foxall also believes it will be hard to haul in Ericsson 4, but looks to the uncertainty of the course ahead for opportunities.

"The heavy airs upwind to China will put a lot of emphasis on reliability of the boats," he said. "If you consider the rest of the course, its not all that certain. Boats like Puma and Telefonica already have problems."

Foxall won't be on board for the stage from Singapore to China due to an agreed break to spend some time with his family after Christmas. Navigator Ian Moore has a similar arrangement for the next leg to Singapore which begins tomorrow week.

Stand-in replacements for both sailors will be announced in Kochi next week.

Meanwhile, the first visit of the Volvo Ocean Race to an Asian port has found massive support among the sailors. "Its definitely a good move. I've never been to India before and I'm totally enthralled by the people," commented McDonald. "People are genuinely pleased to see you - I've never experienced that warmth before."

Foxall echoes the sentiment. "It's been a fantastic decision to come to Asia as it's opened everyone's eyes," he said.

As for the critics who bemoaned the diversion away from the Great Capes route, he pointed out the race has already been into the Southern Ocean twice and will be again en route from China to Brazil.