For Volvo crews, world awaits

Seven teams begin global race

yachts to reach Maryland in spring



With thousands of boats as escorts and tens of thousands of spectators lining the shores and hills of the harbor, the seven sloops of the Volvo Ocean Race streaked across the starting line in Vigo, Spain, yesterday to start their eight-month, around-the world-regatta.

The skies and water blended as one as squalls and chop combined with 17-knot winds to buffet the fleet as it raced from the relative calm of the harbor toward the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Town, South Africa, the first stop 6,400 miles away.

"It's an incredible scene," said Emma Westmacott, a veteran of the 2001-02 Volvo race as she watched from a spectator boat. "These boats are a lot quicker than ours and a lot more exciting."

The Disney-backed "Pirates of the Caribbean" yacht crossed the line first with the Ericsson Racing Team underneath. But numerous holes in the wind in the early going put the boats in a surge-and-stall mode, with numerous lead changes.

"Instead of catching the wind and zipping away and over the horizon, they've hung around and provided a huge spectacle," said Lee Tawney, a member of Ocean Race Chesapeake, the host organization when the fleet arrives here in April.

With winds predicted to reach 30 knots, some of the support teams for the yachts said they believe a speed record will be set during the early stages of the first leg. At the very least, the time it takes to get to the tip of Africa will be slashed by more than a week.

Maryland had a delegation of 10 representatives in Spain to monitor race preparations and the race village that allows spectators to view the boats and mingle with the crews of this quadrennial regatta. Based on the two previous stopovers, Chesapeake organizers estimate 500,000 visitors at the race villages in the Inner Harbor and the Annapolis waterfront. Fifty thousand people are expected to watch the restart of the race on May 7 during the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Walk.

Built of carbon-fiber and carrying 60 percent more sail area than the last generation of Volvo yachts, these sailboats are racing machines -- lightning fast, twitchy and quick to punish mistakes. They are 10 feet longer than the 2001-02 boats but weigh only slightly more. They carry a crew of 10, two fewer than four years ago.

"They're overpowered, and we're undermanned," joked Neal McDonald, skipper of the Ericsson boat, who took second place in the last Volvo race.

For the first time, the boats have keels that pivot 40 degrees from side to side, eliminating the need to pump in water ballast for stability. But the massive keels are powered by hydraulic devices, which have had a spotty reliability record and are largely untested on the Volvo 70s.

Sailors are worried that a catastrophic failure in the ferocious Southern Ocean, with its icebergs and gale-force winds, could cause a fatal accident.

Paul Cayard, skipper of the Disney boat, says another concern is that the force of the water hitting the speeding boat will simply tear crew members from the deck with little chance to retrieve them.

"We're going to have to learn when to back off and play it safe," he said.

Westmacott, the watch captain on the all-woman Amer Sports Too during the last Volvo, agreed, but said the Volvo needed to provide a new challenge.

"To sail around the world isn't an adventure anymore. Ellen MacArthur did it by herself this year in 71 days," said Westmacott of the sailor who set the circumnavigation speed record. "With (the old boats), we knew who was going to do well. But we don't know who's going to win this time."

Three boats aren't given much of a chance: the underfunded and perpetually late Australian entry Brunel Sunergy (formerly known as Premier Challenge); ABN Amro 2, the boat from the Netherlands crewed by young sailors; and Brazil 1, which was launched late and has a crew with little big-water experience.

That leaves the drama to ABN Amro 1; Sweden's Ericsson boat; Movistar, the speed demon from Spain; and Disney's pirate boat with its distinctive skull-and-crossbones motif.

American skippers have won the last two Volvo races. Cayard, who won in 1998 aboard EF Language, would like to continue the streak.

"We may be a little overrated right now," he said. "We hope to keep it close in the first three legs while we assess quickly what makes these boats tick. We have a lot of hills to climb to sail as good as we look."

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