The Volvo Ocean Race fleet is set for an early battering as the six teams head straight into what could be boat-breaking conditions on the first of nine ocean legs starting tomorrow.
The weather forecast is for winds of 25 knots just hours after the starting gun fires in Alicante, Spain at 1300 UTC (1400 local). The combination of those winds with a choppy sea state will make it a tough first night on the Volvo Open 70 boats as they begin the 6,500 nautical mile first leg to Cape Town.
"The conditions at first will be ideal for these boats - fast sailing in fresh breeze,"
said Gonzalo Infante, the Volvo Ocean Race's chief meteorologist. "But within about 12 hours, as the boats race into the night, they will have to punch upwind into winds around 25 knots and confused seas. These boats will be slamming around and it will be very wet on deck."
Ken Read, skipper of PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG, put it bluntly, "It looks like we could get the crap kicked out of us getting out of the Med."
Leg 1 sees the teams take on the unpredictable Mediterranean, the tidal bottleneck of the Straits of Gibraltar and the strong northeasterly trade winds of the North Atlantic before facing the Doldrums, a constantly-moving area of high pressure found a few hundred miles either side of the Equator, notorious for being one of the toughest regions on the planet to sail through.
Once through the Doldrums the teams will search out the southeasterly trade winds close to the Brazilian shore, hoping to pick up the meteorological slingshot effect that will fire them through the South Atlantic to Cape Town.
Assuming they emerge unscathed from the rough ride early in the leg, the teams will have an eye on breaking the 24-hour distance record of 596.6 nautical miles, set by Ericsson 4 on leg one in the last race.
Ian Walker's Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing go into the first offshore leg at the top of the leaderboard with six points after victory in the Iberdrola In-Port Race. PUMA finished second, followed by CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand, Team Sanya, Groupama sailing team and Team Telefónica.
Walker, a two-time Olympic silver medallist, said the first 24 hours of the leg could prove crucial to the end result.
"The big question will be whether we can get out of the Med quick enough to connect with the trade winds,"
the Briton said. "We'll see over 20 knots upwind and that's enough to break these boats. It could be that the most decisive point of this leg is the first 24 hours."
Mike Sanderson, skipper of Chinese entry Team Sanya, knows all too well about sailing into heavy weather. He led ANB AMRO ONE to victory in the 2005-06 race when a storm ravaged the fleet hours after the start from the Spanish port of Vigo.
"There's nothing that starts quite as quickly as a Volvo Ocean Race -- you're into it straight away,"
the New Zealander said. "We're going to see some action pretty quickly. It's looking like it could be pretty churned up out there."
Despite the forecast, CAMPER's Australian skipper Chris Nicholson said his team were keen to get started on leg 1, which is expected to keep the 11-man teams, including one embedded Media Crew Member, at sea for an exhausting 21 days.
"We are all over that kind of weather,"
Nicholson said. "We have had it since day one of the launch. It's not a problem for us. We may well see 30 knots on the nose before we get to the Gibraltar Straits and that's OK. We had 45 knots on the way down to Alicante from the UK so we're up for 30 knots for sure."
Franck Cammas, charged with leading France's first entry in 18 years, said his team were in "the racing frame of mind" as the clock ticked down to the start.
"We are ready,"
the Groupama 4 skipper said. "We are looking at the weather and it's as if we are already racing. We have been preparing for a long time and we are happy to be leaving on Groupama 4 which has shown its potential and looks promising offshore."
Iker Martínez said Telefónica would be looking to show what his crew is capable of in the offshore legs, which offer five times as many points as the in-port races.
"I'm feeling good but a little bit nervous, not because I'm worried about anything in particular but because we have spent a long time preparing and we want to have a good race,"
said Martínez, who has gold and silver Olympic medals to his credit. "We didn't have a very good inshore race and that's given us even more determination to prove ourselves."
Ever since the Volvo Ocean Race became a single-class event in 1997-98 the winners of the first leg have gone on to take overall victory.
"I've heard it several times this great tradition that you have to win leg one to win the race, but I'm not so sure about that this time,"
said Read. "I think this is setting up to be too close."
Before the teams leave Alicante, fans will get a final chance to see the fleet up close, as they complete a short course along the Alicante shoreline starting near the port, heading to Albufereta then up to Cabo de Huertas and back before setting sail for the open sea.
For more information on the Volvo Ocean Race please visit www.volvocceanrace.com