With just two days to go until the start of the Volvo Ocean Race, the Race Village in Alicante, Spain is a hive of activity. There are only six boats in this race, but for now sixteen yachts from every edition of the race since 1973 have swelled their number. Hundreds of veterans who have taken part in the race have gathered in Alicante for a mass reunion. The Legend’s Bar has been brimming with the great and the good from over 40 years of racing: Magnus Olsson, Grant Dalton, Big Mikey Howard, Roger Nilson, Jerry Kirby, Harold Cudmore, Bouwe Bekking, Skip Novak, Dawn Riley, Tracy Edwards -- the full list would run off the page.
The Race Village has been crowded visitors, and there’s plenty to see besides high tech and historic yachts. The striking art exhibition, Skelton Sea, is right in front of the entrance. The artists have worked together over a number of years, collecting beach trash to create vivid sculptures to help share their environmental message. For me it is the best attraction of the village.
For visitors to the village who want to experience what life is like at the extreme, there’s a 3D Cinema and a Volvo 70 simulator. Both are great entertainment. Also, each of the six Volvo Ocean Race teams has a sponsor’s pavilion giving their take on the Everest of ocean sailing. Sadly, the wet area is out of bounds but it is possible to watch the teams’ sail lofts and technical areas from afar even if you don’t have the right pass.
Right now, the Legends Regatta yachts are leaving the dock for an inshore race, and the weather is fresh -- up to 20 knots of breeze from the southwest. But the real deal starts on Saturday, and fresh could quite easily turn to frightening with the potential of a furious start for the first leg from Alicante, Spain, through the Strait of Gibraltar, to Cape Town, South Africa.
Weather forecasts are predicting 30 to 40 knots from the west. A full gale will light the fuse to some explosive action, as the Volvo 70s arc up, screaming away from Alicante on a broad reach. Once they turn the southeast corner of Spain, they will be turning upwind into a vicious short sea with possibly 15-foot waves. It will be a bone-shaking experience on board and some of the teams may well back off -- but the adrenaline high, coupled with the desire to get out into the Atlantic, will be an irresistible temptation.
All of the teams know that the speed differential between an upwind slog in the Mediterranean and the fast running conditions of the Atlantic will be huge. Furthermore, the lead boats that make the Atlantic first may catch a weather system that the others will miss. In that case, the rich will get richer and those left behind will find it difficult to get back in the hunt for a podium position in Cape Town.
Statistically, every winner of the Volvo Ocean Race has won the first leg. The 2011-12 edition has been billed as likely to be the closest race in history, but the first leg has always been a true indication.
Few pundits are sticking their necks out to name a winner, but Abu Dhabi’s Azzam won the hour-long in-port race by 14 minutes in light and fluky air. The Abu Dhabi team is playing down the win, but they were quick upwind and slick crew work saw them get away from the pack and extend downwind. It was just a short race, but the boat was built with some of the same construction techniques used in the America’s Cup boat, BMW Oracle. It looks as if Abu Dhabi has produced a weapon of a boat.
Other strong contenders could well be Camper with Team New Zealand, who has the most radical design. The yacht looks like it has been more optimized for upwind performance than the competition, especially by positioning the daggerboards aft of the mast. PUMA Mar Mostro has the most experienced crew, with 20 races between them, and they will also be one of the favorites.
However, in my opinion, Abu Dhabi has won the arms race in boat design and could well have the advantage for the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race.