The seven-strong Volvo Ocean Race fleet is ready to race to Sweden, leaving behind a Galway stopover that has exceeded all expectations.
With visitor numbers through the race village now nearing 350,000 and climbing to well over half a million when the crowds along the sea wall for the in-port race weekend are factored in, Galway has demonstrated genuine enthusiasm and passion for the race.
But, on Saturday, the teams will leave that behind, as they get underway in leg eight, a relatively short sprint up to Sweden. The racecourse will include an opening loop around Galway Bay, before the teams sail for open water and past the iconic Fastnet Rock, en route to the English Channel.
Once up the channel, the race takes the boats towards Rotterdam, where there will be a single loop around two marks laid off the port entrance, near the Hook of Holland. Local sailors there can test their speed on the same racetrack (although not at the same time), and compare themselves with the Volvo Open 70s.
From Rotterdam, it's up into the Baltic Sea and onwards to Marstrand for a short 'pit-stop' style stopover. Teams are restricted from their normal stopover activities in Marstrand and are not allowed, for example, to have outside assistance in working on the boats, nor are they permitted to add additional sails or other supplies before the restart for leg nine to Stockholm, where normal stopover rules apply.
Looking ahead to Saturday's start, the nearly unprecedented bright sunshine and warm temperatures that Galway has provided through much of the stopover are expected to be in short supply. In their place will be good racing conditions, with winds expected in the 15-knot range for much of the afternoon, under overcast skies and a much cooler temperature of 12-degrees.
Leg eight is the first of a series of closing legs that will feature inshore or near-shore racing, which calls for a different mindset according to PUMA skipper Ken READ
"This is back towards the type of sailing that a lot of us grew up doing,"
he said at the skippers' press conference in Galway today. "It's a different mentality from the ocean race sailing we've been doing for the past few months. It's about changing your mindset a little bit. Going around corners and tidal gates, plus there's going to be a lot of variable weather. You could see a lot of lead changes and splits from the group. It should be interesting and nerve-wracking on board and quite different from what you've been watching recently and hopefully it will be entertaining."
(GBR), skipper of Green Dragon, is a man with a team that was in high demand during this stopover. As the local boat in the fleet, the Dragons were often the stars of the show in Ireland.
"We've had a fantastic stay here in Galway,"
WALKER acknowledged. "But I think everyone has had a fantastic stay, all the teams have. So it will be with a bit of a heavy heart that we leave."
His team will be working with the virtual game players again on this leg. Those registered to play the Volvo Ocean Race Game will be able to vote on tactical questions posed by WALKER and his navigator Ian MOORE (IRL). The answers come from the results of an online poll and are fed back through the entire fleet to ensure the Green Dragon team doesn't get any advantage from the information.
"What we're trying to do with 'bwin' and United Games is to connect the game more directly to the race,"
WALKER explained. "The players already use the same weather files we do, but on the boats we have different issues that the gamers don't have to deal with, be it a broken sail, tide or human issues... Every 12 hours on the last leg, we discussed with the gamers what some of our problems were on board and sent in some questions. They did an online poll and then sent the answers back to us and the rest of the fleet... I think it was a lot of fun for us and for them, so we're going to do the same thing again."
In the real race, the competition at the head of the fleet sees Ericsson 4 take to the water with an increasingly comfortable 13-point lead. Telefónica Blue is in second place, just one point ahead of PUMA Ocean Racing. The fight for second is the closest battle on the racecourse.
"We're only one point apart but there are still quite a few points to go,"
said Telefónica Blue skipper Bouwe BEKKING
(NED). "We'll try to keep a close eye on PUMA, but I think it's too early to start covering. Our main objective is to win the leg. Ericsson 4 may be very comfortable now, but there is still an outside chance that they may have a bad one and we have a real good one, so we'll just try to win the leg and we'll see then how Ericsson 4 and PUMA end up."
The race start time is 15:00 local time (14:00 UTC) and there will be full coverage of the start, including a blog and live audio commentary on www.volvoocearace.org
Volvo Ocean Race Leaderboard - Provisional
(After Galyway In-Port Race)
1. Ericsson 4, skipper Torben GRAEL
(BRA), 94.0 points
2. Telefónica Blue, skipper Bouwe BEKKING
(NED), 81.0 points
3. PUMA, skipper Ken READ
(USA), 80.0 points
4. Ericsson 3, skipper Magnus OLSSON (SWE), 62.5 points
5. Green Dragon, skipper Ian WALKER
(GBR), 53.0 points
6. Telefónica Black, skipper Fernando ECHAVARRI
(ESP), 39.0 points
7. Delta Lloyd, skipper Roberto BERMUDEZ
(ESP), 31.0 points
8. Team Russia, skipper Andreas HANAKAMP
(AUT), 10.5 points
Go here for all the news on the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09
Volvo Ocean Race - www.volvooceanrace.org