Volvo will bring changes in '08

Baltimore-Annapolis likely to remain

Dubai, Hong Kong candidates


October 04, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

Last time out, the Volvo Ocean Race went to sea in brand-new sailboats, twitchy carbon-fiber beasts capable of both record-breaking speed and just plain breaking down.

One sailor died and one boat sank in the North Atlantic on the stretch run to Europe. Few boats escaped technical meltdown at some point in the 31,000-mile challenge.

The drama was live, the Internet audience immense, and the international TV ratings as high as the waves in the Southern Ocean.

Buoyed, Volvo organizers have accelerated the race schedule, with the next event coming three years after the previous one, a full year earlier than the traditional cycle. They've chosen the same, albeit modified, 70-foot boats, but opted for some different ports of call.

"It's all part of changing with the times," said Glenn Bourke, the chief executive of the 33-year-old, around-the-world challenge.

The race will start in Spain in the fall of 2008 and travel east. Preliminary routing has the yachts making stops in the Middle East and Asia before swooping down to Australia or New Zealand. From there the race resumes its traditional route around South America to Brazil and the United States before heading back to Europe.

Baltimore and Annapolis, hosts for the past three races, are expected to bid again.

"All things being equal, we'd love to host the race again," said Gregory Barnhill, the head of Ocean Race Chesapeake. "We just have to see what kind of race this will be."

Barnhill said preliminary reports are that attendance was up at the Inner Harbor and City Dock in Annapolis, and the sponsors of the racing yachts were pleased with both the attention they got and amount of business they conducted with clients during the three-week stopover.

Bourke, while not calling the Baltimore-Annapolis stop a done deal, said: "We've always enjoyed coming there. The venue works. We don't want to re-invent the wheel. It would be an easy decision for us to come back.

"Although we try to go provincial and award the stop based on having a boat, it doesn't mean it has to come from the Chesapeake," he said. "The great thing about Baltimore and Annapolis is that the numbers of people who come out to see us seem to be growing."

The addition of the first two stops in the Middle East and Asia signals a new chapter for Volvo. Volvo veterans are betting that Dubai and Hong Kong will emerge as strong candidates.

"We've created a much bigger global audience. We're bringing big, wealthy markets into play and [that] helps build the fleet," Bourke said of the tentative route. "We had 1.8 billion television viewers this time compared with 811 million in 2001-02. We had sponsors screaming for new markets."

The Volvo CEO expects the route will come together "slowly," because of the desire to choose ports that have ties to a syndicate.

One piece of real estate -- the West Coast -- has dropped out of Volvo's plans. While it harbors large sailing communities in the San Francisco bay area and San Diego, the added distance and weather considerations pushed California beyond the race's horizon.

"We're trying to keep the race within a nine-month window," Bourke said. "It would be more upwind than downwind, and these are predominantly downwind racers."

Already two syndicates have announced their participation: Ericsson Racing Team, which finished fifth in the race that ended in June; and the Mean Machine, led by Dutchman Peter de Ridder, with onboard leaders from previous campaigns.

Bourke said he "wouldn't be at all surprised" if Movistar, the Spanish syndicate that was forced to abandon its leaking boat, returns for another race.

The price to put a syndicate in the Volvo will be in the range of $15 million to $18 million, he said.

After the race in 2001-02, when Illbruck Challenge left the competition in the dust, race organizers overhauled the format and added elements intended to put some suspense back into the finish. Scoring was weighted toward the latter legs of the race and seven in-port races created opportunities to grab additional points.

But the best-laid plans went astray, when ABN Amro One left the competition in its wake, finishing 23 points ahead of runner-up Pirates of the Caribbean.

Bourke bristled at the suggestion that scoring modification didn't go far enough.

"We had a boat -- ABN Amro -- that was on fire and a crew more pumped than the others. But the two-through-seven finishers were tight and we had different winners on the podium on each leg, so companies got their exposure," he said.

Questions raised about the race's safety -- given the numerous structural problems and the drowning death of Hans Horrevoets, the ABN Amro Two helmsman -- have been discussed and addressed in amendments to the race rules. But, Bourke said, in the end, the Volvo "is an epic battle, a struggle of man against the elements."

Volvo Race by the numbers

$40 million / / local economic impact

350,000 / / daily visitors to the Baltimore Waterfront Festival

40,000 / / spectators on the Bay Bridge for the race restart May 7

3,500 / / boats at the race restart

1,500 / / boats at the in-port race April 28

50,000 / / in-port spectators

4,000 / / students visiting the race village at Inner Harbor

Source: Ocean Race Chesapeake

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