Fireworks and Tears Send off World Race Fleet

The celebrations for the start of the Barcelona World Race were sharp and loud. The choices once the 14 boats crossed the starting line were decidedly less clear.

Sailing World

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In light air, the Barcelona World Race fleet crosses the starting line. Next stop, Barcelona, or so each skipper hopes.Maria Muina/Barcelona World Race

The Fundacio Navigacio Oceanica Barcelona pulled out the stops in sending off a fleet of 14 boats Friday for the 25,000-mile nonstop Barcelona World Race. But nobody from the organization bothered to warn competitors about the fireworks they'd arranged to accompany each departure.

So when the first, dock-shaking triple report echoed overhead, 28 skippers and crews nearly fouled their oilskins. The transition from landsman to seafarer pricks a sailor’s senses, and the only sound worse to a shorthanded racer than a short, stout bang is three of ‘em.

“Wow,” said Ryan Breymaier, lone American in the fleet, clutching wife Nicola. “What was that?”

The unnerving blasts broke a spell the two were enjoying—tears, kisses and sighs, a scenario played out across the mole as soon-to-be grizzled seamen (and women) bade farewell to life partners and made an early, uneasy truce with the ones they’d be seeing night and day for the next three months.

This doublehanded race around the world’s great capes is as much a test of coping skills as sailing skills. Breymaier, 35, is paired with a young German, Boris Herrmann, 30, and the tall, strapping American already feels the strain of being, as he puts it, “the mature one.” The last day in port, he had Nicola stitch up the food bags so Herrmann couldn’t sneak in and snitch his candy.

“Won’t he just cut the stitches?” asked Nicola.

“Nope, he’ll stop when he sees them.”

His concern is not unique. It’s the only worry veteran round-the-worlder Dee Caffari expressed about her partner, Barcelona native Anna Corbella, a newcomer to big-boat sailing. “I have full confidence in her abilities,” said Caffari, “as long as she doesn’t pinch my sweets.”

It was a rainy, gray day to say goodbye, but hundreds of spectators turned out. Jean-Pierre Dick, who won the first edition of this race three years ago, had so many blue-clad supporters around his new, highly rated Guillaume Verdier design, Virbac-Paprec 3, they threatened to capsize the floating dock.

Dick’s light IMOCA Open 60 was tied alongside the biggest, heaviest boat in the fleet, the Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed Hugo Boss, and the contrast was startling. At 10,000 kilos displacement, Boss has the grace and power of a seagoing tug, while Vibrac at 7,500 kg. bobbed light on her feet.

The disparity played out on the water as the fleet set off upwind in a light northerly. Groupe Bel, another Verdier design, sped away with Vibrac in close pursuit, while the ponderous Boss fell back to next-to-last.

It was fun for the 450 boats in the spectator fleet at the lone turning mark, two miles upwind, to watch the two-man crews try to set downwind sails in a brisk, seamanlike fashion. Groupe Bel took over two minutes to roll up their Code 0 and set a kite, which gave highly rated Michel Desjoyeaux on Foncia all the time he needed to roll past under eased headsail. Next came Caffari and Corbella, who jibed away, set their kite and slowly faded from sight over a misty eastern horizon.

So it begins, the first of many tough choices. Skippers got a last-day weather briefing from two of the best prognosticators in the trade, Marcel von Trieste and Chris Bedford, but the options they presented to Gibraltar were as clear as river mud: Light and fluky winds inshore vs. light and fluky offshore.

Once in the ocean, it gets no clearer. Hug the Africa coast or head out to sea? Each has perils, each has possibilities. You roll the dice, pray for the best and hope for no more bangs—not until the one at the finish.