For Immediate Release
VOLVO OCEAN RACE: An Up Close Perspective
By Gary Jobson
It's the eight running of the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread Round the World Race). With two minutes before the starting gun, all eight boats are jockeying for advantage. As if a slight lead would not make a difference to a race covering 32,700 miles! However along the British shores of Southhampton, all 97 competitors from 16 countries were mindful that Paul Cayard on EF Language won the start in 1997 and went on to win leg one and the Whitbread Race. In fact, historically whoever wins the first leg has gone on to win the race six times.
The Volvo Ocean Race organizers did a good job opening a clear zone for the racing fleet. But immediately after the start all hell broke lose. The V.O. 60s accelerated by setting their asymmetrical spinnakers in 15 knots of wind. Within two minutes an armada of 400 plus craft ranging from dinghies to huge ferries sprinted into the best position to watch the race. Nevermind that they were all steaming at 20 knots or more in front of the racing boats. It looked like the running of the bulls in Madrid where the townspeople are all mixed in with the bulls. Everyone on the water suddenly became an ocean racer.
My view was as a guest aboard the German boat Illbruck. American skipper John Kostecki drove with a cool hand. He had a chance to win the start but elected to be conservative when Grant Dalton aboard Amer Sports One slid to leeward. Assisting Dalton was American Dee Smith noted for his hyper-aggressive style. Kostecki, understandably, did not want to risk a foul.
Once off the line, Illbruck passed three boats in minutes by accelerating on huge waves timed with the puffs. The wind quickly built to 24 knots. Sitting next to Kostecki, it was my feeling that this newest generation of V.O. 60s handled like lasers. It is no accident that every team includes champion dinghy sailors on their rooster. Kostecki's crew is impressive. Between them they have twelve previous Whitbreads, ten have been involved in the America's Cup and all grew up sailing small boats.
My mission was to shoot video, absorb the scene and study the performance of each boat. I was in a great position. Every crewmember was also watching intently. Even though there was lots of pre-race tuning such crossing oceans, racing the Fastnet and the Sydney-Hobart Race, this was the real thing. As the wind increased so did boat speed. Illbruck's speed ranged from 11.8 to 18.6 knots. Nice!
Dalton emerged as the leader even though his reacher halyard jammed for four minutes during a halyard change. Both Assa Abloy and Amer Sport Too also blew out spinnakers in the first 30 minutes. One boat, Amer Sports Too is sailing with thirteen. The all women's team is allowed one extra person to make up the difference in crew weight.
Allowing for ferry problems and crowd interference, I came away with the impression that Illbruck and Djuice had a speed edge in these conditions. SEB was good when it was lighter but slowed relative to the other boats as the wind increased. After 15 miles, Tyco, News Corp, Amer Sports Too and Assa Abloy dropped back. To give the boats added stability (and speed), the water takes aboard Illbruck were filled and emptied on every puff. It seemed to me to be a lot of work.
The 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race is not only a race between sailors but also designers. Farr Yacht Designs has ruled the round the world fleet since 1989. For the first time, Farr faces a serious challenge. Djuice is designed by New Zealand's Laurie Davidson and Amer Sports One was designed by Mani Frers. Grant Dalton had his choice of a Frers or a Farr hull. Two weeks ago Dalton elected the Frers' hull for his ride. It will be a fun sideshow to see if Davidson's or Frers' design can upset the round the world design champion. One should note that both Frers (Prada) and Davidson (New Zealand) worked on the design teams whose yachts reached the America's Cup finals in 2000.
Fans can log on to www.volvooceanrace.org for updates. For a fee, internet users will receive GPS position reports on virtual spectator. In the USA, ESPN will air coverage of every leg (for show schedule log on to www.jobsonsailing.com). ABC is going to air a one-hour documentary using video diaries from three boats and has scheduled regular reports on Good Morning America. The Weather Channel will issue weather news throughout the race and National Geographic plans a series of environmental features. Throughout the race all eight boats will be taking water samples to be analyzed by scientists.
In the two days leading up to the start, I had a chance to interview all eight skippers. I was impressed how respectful they were of each other, how thorough their preparation was and uncertain how they would perform against the others. Grant Dalton, now on his seventh round the world race, was referred to by every other skipper. Dalton has an easy going style but is very methodical. He is the Cal Ripken of sailing. He has been racing around the world since 1981. In five previous Whitbreads, Dalton has finished with 3 firsts and 2 seconds. He also won The Race in a 120-foot multihull this year.
The tragic events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania definitely had an effect on the weekend. I thought the mood around the docks was somber. On the morning of race day, Australian entry News Corp, sponsored by Ruppert Murdock, flew an American fly from their forestay. A second banner underneath read "from sea to shining sea". Illbruck's mainsail featured an inscription, "SAILING FOR FREEDOM". Just before leaving over 10,000 fans crowding Ocean Village observed two minutes of silence. Assa Abloy left the dock with eight crewmembers holding the flags of the crew's nationality. There are eight countries represented amongst the crew, six were standing on the spreaders.
After 20 miles, it was time for me to depart Illbruck. A tender picked me up and I waived as the fleet disappeared over the horizon. It was a beautiful start and it is clear it will be a fight finish.
Gary Jobson is an America's Cup Winner and ESPN Commentator on Sailing
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