East meets west in the Baltic this week as hostilities are renewed over 19 gruelling days of both close quarter sprints and body bruising marathons which add up to the Volvo Baltic Race.
The accent is on youth, but the crews are a well-seasoned mix of experienced ocean racers and younger dinghy sailors making their debut on the grand prix scene. Taking part in this event, which starts in Gothenburg, Sweden, this Saturday, 19 June, will be a quintet of the powerful VO60's. These yachts were bred to take on the worst that a 32,000-mile round the world race could throw at them. If last year's event is anything to go by, the 1300 miles ahead of them could dish out as much of a physical pounding to both bodies and equipment as any round the world stage.
The schedule takes the fleet from the start in Gothenburg in Sweden to Copenhagen in Denmark, on to Kiel and Warnemunde in Germany and then back to Sweden and Sandhamn. There will also be inshore/coastal races in Gothenburg, Kiel and Sandhamn. There is then time for recovery and the relaxation of a parade of sail up to Stockholm before setting off on the 364-mile Gant Gotland Runt, a slog of 40-plus hours, which attracts one of the biggest offshore fleets in the Swedish racing calendar. It is no midsummer picnic. Colouring many of the preparations is the experience of unexpectedly heavy conditions last year.
Weather expert Chris BEDFORD explains: "Last year you could classify as somewhat unusual, though not unheard of. What you have in that part of the world is the relatively late transition from spring to summer, so there is still sometimes a battle going on between the cold, northern air mass trying to penetrate south as warmer air builds up over Europe. This can end up in fairly vigorous storm systems."
He adds: "This year we have seen a few colder than normal outbreaks, so the potential is still there, but I don't expect it to be anywhere near as severe as last year."
Determined to go one better than he achieved in the inaugural event last year, Matthew HUMPHRIES faces some old rivals in the form of Sweden's Thomas BLIXT and Mikke LUNDH. But the British round the world skipper, now also based in Sweden, faces new challenges from Norway and, for the first time, the eastern European country of Croatia. The international line up extends even further as Humphries has a clutch of Kiwis in his 11-man crew, Blixt also has a New Zealander plus an Australian while Marko MURTIC of Croatia has looked north for some local Swedish knowledge and further east to Slovenia and the Ukraine for specialist skills. Jurij DOROSHENKO was aboard the Ukrainian entry in the 1993-94 Whitbread Round the World Race entry Hetman.
Their boat, now named AV Teknik, completed the 1997-1998 WTRTW for the Volvo Trophy as the Annapolis-based Chessie Racing. Matthews is enthusiastic about the revised course. "It was designed after extensive talks with the skippers last year and is more interesting,"
he says. "They are shorter legs, in general, but there are a lot more of them. That makes it more intense as well as giving more opportunities for wins and losses."
Humphries has again brought in former Team New Zealand helmsman Cameron APPLETON with fellow Kiwi Ray DAVIES as tactician while Humphries himself will combine the roles of both skipper and navigator. "We have strengthened the team and the boat,"
says Humphries. "We have been working on light airs optimisation, done our first 120-mile training race and the results looked good. The last race was fantastic and we are looking forward to doing it again."
For Lundh and his Avant-GKSS team there is a parallel agenda, which incorporates a coaching element for the crew alongside a personal development programme.
The Avant group is made up of five companies to form a management consultancy and one of the management tasks that have fallen to Henrik LINDE is running the Volvo Baltic Race project. "Everyone goes out sailing, but we use the boat to as a platform to develop people,"
he says. "If you develop people you develop companies."
This is a three-year tie-up with Lundh and the partnership with the Royal Gothenburg Yacht Club (GKSS) is part of a wish to be the breeding ground for Swedish sailors, a kind of on-the-job training, which adds to the club's extensive dinghy sailing coaching system.
Also back is the Swedish skipper Thomas BLIXT, as skipper of Sony Ericsson, with Kiwi helmsman Jeff SCOTT alongside him and the Australian sail trimming expert, Anthony MERRINGTON. Youth is again to the fore as Sweden's Jonas CLAESSON leads the Norwegian entry, JMS Next Generation. The welcome to Sandhamn will be no less warm than last year. It means a lot for the Royal Stockholm Yacht Club (KSSS) and the Gant Gotland Rund to see the Volvo Baltic Race competitors taking part again,"
says Nils Ingvar LUNDIN of the KSSS. "They bring a more international flavour and the presence of these international sailors is an attraction both to the other competitors and for the visitors to Sandhamn.
There are more of the bigger boats this year and the shape of the fleet is following the international trend of more prominence for sponsored boats of all sizes."
Full details of the race are available on the event website at the address below.