The 11th edition of the Volvo Ocean Race begins today with an in-port race to herald the start next Saturday of an eight-month, 39,000 nautical mile (72,200km) marathon that will put the reputations — and lives — of the world’s best offshore sailors on the line.
Competition will be fiercer than ever as six fully funded teams featuring Olympic gold medalists, America’s Cup winners and world champions battle it out between Alicante, Spain, and Galway, Ireland, in a race that will not finish until July next year.
The fleet has been streamlined, but the lineup includes the first French entry since 1993-1994 in Groupama, the first sole Chinese entry in Sanya and the first Middle East entry from Abu Dhabi, with all three also supplying host ports.
Adil Khalid will become the first Emirati to compete on Abu Dhabi’s yacht Azzam, while Teng Jianghe, nicknamed Tiger, will be the first Chinese sailor to compete in the race on board Sanya Lan.
It is also tipped to be the closest contest since the race began in 1973. Five of the six teams are in new Volvo Open 70 racing yachts with only Sanya using a boat from the last edition, but with 2005-2006 winner Mike Sanderson as skipper they are confident of upsetting some of their rivals along the way.
The other teams taking part are Telefonica of Spain, US-based Puma and New Zealand’s Camper.
“The talent pool of the better teams has spread out across the board, so you can expect to see the closer racing,” Puma’s American skipper Ken Read said. “My guess is this is the most competitive Volvo Ocean Race that has ever been contested.”
The race began as the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973 and despite considerable advancements in design of the sleek, 70 foot (21.3m) boats, all the competitors know that one slip in concentration could lead to further tragedy.
Five sailors have been killed in 10 previous races, most recently Dutchman Hans Horrevoets, swept overboard in 2005-2006.
Organizers believe another major danger, that of piracy, has been reduced by a redrawing of the race route.
The exact routes of the second and third legs still remain secret, with the boats due to race to an undisclosed safe haven before arriving at Abu Dhabi, with a similar process to be followed on the way out.
The global economic crisis also prompted organizers to implement cost reductions that banned expensive two-boat testing programs favored by some teams and is expected to create a much more level playing field.