This Saturday, 21 June, will see seven teams meet for the first time in Kiel, Germany, for the start of the Volvo Baltic Race 2003, organised in conjunction with Volvo and SEB.
This event marks a first in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race. Not only will it be the first time these ocean going race machines compete in an event other than the Round the World Race itself, but also, it is unique in that for the first time these boats will be racing on both long and short courses. This is a format we will see more of in the next instalment of the Volvo Ocean Race, which starts in 2005.
The event, which launches into action with a 25-35nm sprint, Kiel Week's Eckernforde Race, will be based in the central area of the Baltic, moving between Kiel, Sandhamn, and Marstrand. The event, which has been designed to combine with several of the largest long distance races in the Baltic, will also include the Accenture Gotland Runt race, 340nm, which starts in Sandhamn, Sweden, on the 29 June. The third, and final, offshore leg of the Volvo Baltic Race will start in Sandhamn and finish in Marstrand, and weighs in at 510nm. This is the longest race in the event.
Several different generations of boats will be competing in the regatta. The top three teams will all be using boats from the most recent Volvo Ocean Race. As a result, the competition among these teams will, without a doubt, be hot. Current favourite to lift the trophy in a little over two weeks time is event organiser himself, Britain's Matt HUMPHRIES, skipper of the Challenge entry.
Matt HUMPHRIES, a member of both Gurra KRANTZ' SEB and Jez FANSTONE'S News Corp in the 2001-2 Volvo Ocean Race, has been involved with this inaugural event from it's inception as a consultant. "There hasn't been any continuity in the way Volvo Ocean Race has worked early on"
says HUMPHRIES. "If we can offer a way for the sponsors to continue using the boats after the event as well, it will be easier to get them interested for the next one."
The Challenge team, racing the old News Corp, has a wealth of talent from the last Volvo Ocean Race. Ross FIELD, co-skipper of News Corp and a veteran of Volvo 60 racing, will be joined by Cameron APPELTON, Gareth COOKE, and
Scott BEAVIS. This combination is likely to be deadly and will certainly be tough to beat.
Thomas BLIXT, six times winner of the Gotland Runt, is heading up Sony Ericsson, originally the Assa Abloy B boat, while Gurra KRANTZ is to again take the reins of SEB, this time branded as teamRS. KRANTZ skippered SEB in the last Volvo Ocean Race finishing in seventh place overall. Unfortunately the team suffered from several major technical problems, including a broken mast as a result of wiping out in the Southern Ocean, and so perhaps didn't claim the finishing position they deserved.
KRANTZ has also managed to put together a formidable crew. In the position of co-skipper is New Zealander, and past djuice tactician Erle WILLIAMS. Team Tyco skipper Kevin SHOEBRIDGE will also be joining them to create a core team easily capable of beating HUMPHRIES' Challenge syndicate. Anthony MERRINGTON and Jeff SCOTT will also be joining the crew.
BLIXT is the dark horse in this regatta when it comes to Volvo 60 racing. His impressive performance in past Gotland Runt races, the fact he has the sister ship to the "rocket" as his steed, and the fearsome core crew of Volvo Ocean Race and Victory Challenge sailors he has mustered up is likely to combine to form a respectable and competitive team. No doubt local knowledge will come into play on many occasions throughout the two-week event, something which BLIXT clearly has in abundance. This team will certainly be one to watch.
Joining the three new boats will be four older generation 60s. Laurie SMITH'S Silk Cut is to be raced by Hans WALLEN'S Team Elanders/Ten Celsius. Knut FROSTAD'S Innovation Kvaerner, now named Atea, will also be on the start line on Saturday with Jan MÄRTENSSON in the role of skipper. "Our aim is to mix it with the best and go all the way, of course we're looking to win. But it'll certainly be hard, the competition is tough, with plenty of skilled, experienced sailors,"
Moving further back in race history Winston, from Dennis CONNER'S foray into ocean racing, is to be brought back into racing service under the charge of Fredrik FREJME with the Swedish Youth Team, under the name of Nilorn. Finally, Ross FIELD'S old boat Yamaha is to be raced by the Danish Youth team, Pontona Youth, skippered by Thomas DAHL JENSEN.
The fact that there are to be two youth entries in this event is great news, not just for the event organisers, but for youth sailing in general. This was the route Matt HUMPHRIES took when he first came to fame as skipper of
Dolphin & Youth. At the age of 22. He was the youngest skipper ever to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race and, to this date, still holds that record.
Glen BOURKE, the Volvo Ocean Race's very own Chief Executive, will be joining the Swedish Youth team to give both tactical input and also to pass on as much knowledge as possible to the team. "There is nothing I like better than racing with an enthusiastic team and I believe I can help out with tactical input,"
While the two youth teams will be racing two of the older boats in the fleet, Nilorn doesn't even have a carbon mast, Pontona Youth's skipper DAHL believes they should still be able to give the more established teams a run for their money. "We might not be racing the newest boat, but we have got a skilled team, youthful enthusiasm, the boat [is] still competitive and our sails are new,"
explains DAHL. While DAHL says the aim is to compete with the top teams, he admits the main goals are to score good results and beat the Nilorn, the Swedish Youth Entry. On top of this the Danish Sailing Federation is hoping that the team will inspire young sailors to take hold of offshore racing ready for future Volvo Ocean Race challenges. "The Volvo Baltic Race is a superb spring board for teams wishing to enter the Volvo Ocean Race in 2005,"
One of the most exciting parts of the Volvo Ocean Race, from the perspective of the spectators at least, was the first 20 miles of racing at the start of each leg. All eight boats would weave their way through confined waters, dodging each other and, in the case of illbruck and SEB, actually colliding. The element of close quarter, windward-leeward, short course races will certainly produce some exciting racing. It is also likely to give the less experienced teams more of a chance to challenge the professionals by introducing more of a tactical game than straight-line speed sailing.
Though the offshore legs are relatively long in terms of day-to-day yacht racing. They are nothing when compared with the majority of the legs in the Volvo Ocean Race. The three longer legs are, in fact, more similar to the Fastnet Race. When four teams competed in the Fastnet prior to the start of the Volvo Ocean Race, the competition was intense. There will be no opportunity for any team to make a considerable breakaway over such a short distance, so the teams will have to keep a close eye on everything around them. It will be a tough job for the tactician/navigator to keep track of the weather developments across the race-track.
Chris TIBBS, UK based meteorology expert, believes the next two weeks are likely to throw up a mixed bag of conditions. "This area of the Baltic tends to be a magnet for depressions. Prevailing conditions are disturbed westerlies, more extreme than the mean conditions on the British Isles. The end of the week looks likely to be particularly windy with north to north west winds," predicts TIBBS. This confirms that the offshore races could well be won and lost by the tactical decisions rather than the boat handling and boat speed.