Think the elves at the North Pole are busy? Picture the sailors of the Volvo Ocean Race on countdown. Their second inshore race runs December 26, and the long leg through the Southern Ocean from Cape Town, South Africa to Melbourne, Australia—probably two weeks at sea—goes off on January 2. Leg one was quite a fracas, and the boats will still be largely unproven as they disappear over the horizon for waters that are probably more difficult and certainly more lonely. There's a lot to do. What you see above is Paul Cayard's Black Pearl trying its legs in smooth water.
Whether they completed leg one or not, each team faces a major test of preparedness. Black Pearl, forced out early due to leaky fairings ("bomber doors" in Cayardspeak) around the boat's canting ballast strut, was flown from Cascais to Cape Town on an Antonov 124. The boat arrived on November 27 to be put back in sailing trim for retuning of boat and crew. Cayard has clear plans to get out of protected waters and crash-test the boat in the harshest conditions he can find before setting out for Melbourne. He figures, "The truth of the next leg will be about keeping the boat and crew in one piece because nobody will be able to let the thing go full speed all the way.”
With the points structure back-loaded so that no one can run away with the event early on, even a boat that dropped out of leg one is not out of the hunt. Above is the other dropout, Bouwe Bekking's moviestar, being loaded for shipment to Cape Town. By the time you read this, the boat will be arriving in South Africa and the crew will be feverishly at work on it.
If you were paying attention you will remember that it was a controversial decision to move the Volvo Ocean Race from the familiar 60-footers to these 70-footers that proved three things on the opening leg from Vigo, Spain to Cape Town:
1) The fleet had not had an adequate shakedown.
2) The 70's are very fast.
3) It's handy to have a genius onboard.
Point one was obvious before the start; only the Spanish entry, moviestar, had done a lot of sailing, that in the form of a delivery around Cape Horn from Australia (including a then-record run of 530 miles in 24 hours). The point was reinforced when four of seven boats suffered damage early on, and two dropped out. moviestar was the first to break and withdraw, followed quickly by Black Pearl.
Point two was driven home in ABN AMRO ONE's 546-mile 24-hour monohull record.
Point three comes up because that 24-hour record would not have been possible had the crew not succeeded in putting out a resin fire that threatened to engulf the carbon structure. They won against the fire, barely, but its heat left the boat's wiring melted. Fortunately for the crew, their navigator is American Stan Honey, who not only has the ocean racing resume to make him worthy of the role, he happens to be handy in other areas as well. For one thing, he's the guy who invented the technology that paints those yellow first-down lines on the field in televised football games. He's smart. For Stan, it was no great trick to rewire the boat and get the communications going again.
Leg one did nothing to clear the cloud that has been hanging over this event for years. That is the recurring question of whether or not there will be a next one. Even with single-digit fleets, the Whitbread, as the race was originally known, had the advantage of being a fresh, bold idea. But round-the-world races are common enough nowadays that we journo types tend to write rtw when we communicate with each other, to save the typing and because it's understood. Volvo took over the Whitbread hoping to build it into something much bigger than a single-digit fleet. We've seen the difficulty of that. Developing the 70s was a gamble that higher octane would pay off with the sailors and the public. Leaving Cape Town, that story is very much a story to come. That said, this seven-boat fleet has our attention. We're writing about it, right? The future is wide open, and the ride to Melbourne will be as different from ordinary sailing as a flight to the moon.