It won't be a case of plain sailing


SAILING VOLVO OCEAN RACE:The equipment may have changed but the sea remains the same. David Branigansets the scene for the ultimate test of man and boat

VETERAN RACE navigator and medical doctor Roger Nilson could scarcely have presented a stronger contrast. From just 26 years ago, when he competed in his first Whitbread Round the World Race to now, preparing for his sixth circumnavigation on board the Spanish Telfonica Black, life back then was luxurious by comparison.

From the earliest days of sailing around the world in small craft, a feat first completed by Joshua Slocum and Spray 110 years ago, and then popularised by the first great races that drew private owners and amateur crews together in a competitive adventure in the early 1970s, the challenge of circling the planet has endured.

At its peak in 1989-'90, when Ireland's only other entry sailed in a fleet of 23 boats, the dwindled numbers of this week's fleet of eight boats in the modern edition of the race belie the massive resources and levels of performance that are certain to follow over the coming nine months from today's start.

Nilson appears nonchalant as always but his insight is clear. "The ocean is the same but the race is different," he says as he cites possibly the starkest change. "In my first race, I had my own cabin and it even had a nice carpet. And this was on a boat that was built to win the race."

The merest suggestion of a weighty piece of equipment with zero performance advantage in the modern event would likely be grounds for dismissal of a campaign's design team. No doubting the modern view of the lead-lined mahogany saloon table on Nilson's original boat.

But design and technological advances are only one aspect of a vastly complex operation for any team that must reach obsessive levels of research into every possible performance edge that the rules permit.

The evolution of the race that once featured large and heavy production-type yachts utilising traditional navigation methods has been staggering. The latest generation Volvo 70-footers routinely sail faster than the wind blows and are capable of sustained speeds well in excess of 30 knots (34.5mph).

That speed arises from key design features such as the weight-saving carbon hulls, rigging and masts plus the "canting keels" that swing six tonnes of lead against the natural heel of the yacht, in turn harnessing more speed energy from the sails and wind.

The size of boats, 70 feet, is regarded as the optimum length for such a combination, as is the crew size - 10 (plus an embedded media crew-member). The fewer crew, the less weight carried in human beings plus their equipment and food. But 10 is also considered the minimum number needed to actually sail these boats to their potential and even this is a struggle at times.

Sizes greater than 70 feet would mean larger sails but while higher speed would certainly follow in theory, sail handling would become impossible without building systems to assist the manual labourers.

Gone also are the days of standing watch, fours hours on, four hours off with certainty. On the modern boats, rest periods are almost certain to be interrupted by a sail change, a tack or a gybe (changing direction) which necessitates shifting all movable weight from one side of the boat to the other, a physically exhausting process that can take 40 minutes.

If in the old days, you could look forward to some chat, stories and even a song or too on deck at night with your mates, times have definitely changed.

For the next three weeks, the eight crews can expect a routine of solid racing, sail trimming, grinding, stacking and unstacking, freeze-dried food, minor injuries and constant, interminable water rushing across the decks. Interrupting this will be periods of exhausted sleep and the cycle of position reports from the other boats that more often as not deliver cruel news as twisted payback for the effort.

And all the while, Nilson's comment on the ocean remains true. For if indeed the ocean hasn't changed, it will take its price on the unwary and disrespectful. In that regard, some traditions will not have changed, so expect the inevitable, symbolic visit from King Neptune and Queen Codfish on board boats to meet those virgins that have never previously crossed the equator.

As evidence of the changed profile of this race, at least three of the skippers in addition to younger crew members will face this mid-ocean ceremony.

The hazing itself may be a brief, if smelly distraction but it proves the sea as the great leveller in that even the most revered inshore sailors have to earn their stripes on the ocean wave. Which proves that increasing numbers of proven Olympians are turning towards oceanic racing that offers far greater public engagement with the sport than more technical disciplines and non-spectator friendly competitions.

That fact alone has not escaped the Volvo Ocean Race organisers. Aside from their announcement this week that the next event will start in 2011, capitalising on the America's Cup disarray that has beset this pinnacle of the professional match-racing circuit, tomorrow will see a gathering of clans in Alicante comprising major event organisers and potential sponsors.

Such a meeting has been tried before and the agenda, to put order on a confusing world of trans-oceanic racing, has rarely yielded concessions or clarity. For the Volvo Ocean Race, its status as the premier crewed round the world race is undoubted. But the popularity of the course has generated a wide following and even imitations.

However, these issues will be far from the minds of the 88 sailors at sea over the next 6,500 miles of stage one to Cape Town. The ultimate test of design, preparation, fitness and tactics is finally under way.