The Volvo All Grown Up

While the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) will surely continue to evolve in future years, there is a sense of “maturity” to the upcoming 11th running of the event that is unique in its nearly four-decade history—and not just because of the “legends” mini-regatta, which is bringing together a number old boats and former competitors to celebrate the race’s past. Gone are the days of
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While the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) will surely continue to evolve in future years, there is a sense of “maturity” to the upcoming 11th running of the event that is unique in its nearly four-decade history—and not just because of the “legends” mini-regatta, which is bringing together a number old boats and former competitors to celebrate the race’s past.

Gone are the days of controversy surrounding routing or boat design: Remember when the first high-powered Volvo 70s hit the water in the run-up to the 2005-06 race, or the decision to take the fleet to India and China in 2008-09?

Even further removed are the halcyon days when the fleet was largely crewed by sailors with little or no offshore experience.

In the inaugural 1973 race, the crew aboard Peter Von Danzig paid 500 a head for the privilege of competing, while the crew aboard the winning ketch Sayula II enjoyed meals prepared by a full-time cook.

Today’s VOR, which begins October 29 in Alicante, Spain, is defined by its professionalism, like a true Formula 1 series on the water. While the America’s Cup franchise frittered away its momentum after a series of successful regattas in Auckland and Valencia, the VOR has continued honing its “product” to a point of near perfection.

As recently as the mid-1990s, the boats would disappear over the horizon after leaving a stopover port and not be heard from again until they approached the next finish. Now fans can follow a boat’s every move. Many offshore races provide similar coverage, but no one does it better than the folks at the VOR. This year’s seven-boat fleet is also crewed by professional sailors with a staggering amount of experience. Even younger crew like 21-year-old trimmer Rome Kirby of Newport, RI (one of the three sailors under 30 on the Mar Mostro crew, as required by VOR rules) have thousands of offshore miles under their belts. As for the veterans, this year’s fleet contains a who’s who of today’s leading offshore sailors.

The teams and their skippers include:

· Puma Ocean Racing Powered by Berg Propulsion –Ken Read, USA

· Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing –Ian Walker, UK

· Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand –Chris Nicholson, New Zealand

· Groupama Sailing Team –Franck Cammas, France

· Team Sanya –Mike Sanderson, New Zealand

· Team Telefonica –Iker Martinez, Spain

Mar Mostro’s U.S.-based skipper, Ken Read, for example, led the previous Puma entry, Il Mostro, to a second place finish in the 2008-09 race, but he will have his work cut out for him if he wants to repeat, let alone improve on that performance in 2011-12. Among the six other skippers in the fleet are a host of VOR veterans, including Team Abu Dhabi skipper British silver medalist Ian Walker, who also led the 2008-09 entry Green Dragon; Camper with Emirates New Zealand skipper Chris Nicholson of Australia, now on his third Volvo; and New Zealander Mike Sanderson, aboard Team Sanya, who won the 2005-06 VOR as skipper aboard ABN Amro One. Leading the effort aboard Groupama 4 is skipper Franck Cammas, a sailing icon in his native France and current holder of the nonstop around the world record.

As part of its training regimen Mar Mostro won the Transatlantic Race 2011 in July, while Groupama 4, Abu Dhabi’s Azzam and Team Sanya all used the 608-mile Fastnet race as a warm-up, breaking the monohull course record in the process. A number of teams have been training in Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, specifically to take advantage of the island group’s boisterous sailing conditions.

The teams have also been putting a lot of effort into sail selection. The rules governing hulls and keels have changed only incrementally since the last race, but the number of sails allowed has been reduced from 24 to 17, which puts a premium on developing the right wardrobe.

Another new wrinkle for 2011-12 is piracy. With stops in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and Sanya, China, the fleet finds itself passing through some of the most dangerous waters in the world. In response, the fleet will sail to an undisclosed “safe haven port,” where it will then be transported closer to Abu Dhabi to finish out the second leg, which begins in Cape Town, South Africa. The process will then be reversed, with transport to the safe haven port at the beginning of the third leg to China.

For more on the VOR, click here.

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