Handicapping the Fleet

The 2011-'12 edition is shaping up to be the most competitive Volvo Ocean Race yet.

Sailing World

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By setting a course record in the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race earlier this year, Franck Cammas and Groupama put competing Volvo Ocean Race teams on high alert.Patrick Eden/RORC

In less than a year, the starting gun will fire on the world’s premier crewed global ocean race. So far, six teams have officially entered the Volvo Ocean Race, and an equal number of teams are still dreaming of making the start. While race CEO Knut Frostad has often predicted 10 entries, the current economic climate has made it hard even for established teams to find the financing they need. So, who will make it to the starting line, and who will win?

The Official Entries (in alphabetical order)

The leaders of Abu Dhabi have long expressed interest in the Volvo, but Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing is the last of the major players to officially enter the race. Last may not be least, however, given the talents of skipper Ian Walker and his High Aspect project management company. Walker cut his teeth with the cash-strapped Green Dragon syndicate last time around, but now has budget rumored to approach 25 million Euro. He has no excuse not to be competitive this time around. The team purchased Puma Avanti (nee ABN Amro 2, the world's second fastest monohull) as a training yacht, and quietly sent it to New England Boatworks in Newport, R.I., this past spring for some work before shipping it to the Middle East.

Crew selection and trials have begun, and while the team has yet to make any official announcements, it's safe to assume that many of Walker’s lieutenants from Green Dragon will be headed to Abu Dhabi this winter. The team is also committed to finding Emirati nationals to join the sailing and shore team. "We are searching for a compatriot with steely determination, enduring physicality, strength of mind, quick intelligence, and dynamic personality to be part of our multinational crew who will aim to win honors for the Emirate. Whoever is selected will take on the considerable responsibility of working towards, and sharing, the aspirations of their homeland," said His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Applications were set to close October 24, but you can still apply through the team website, providing you meet the nationality and eligibility requirements.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing has chosen Farr Yacht Design to create its new boat, and construction is underway at Italy's PERSICO yard, under the direction of master builder Jason Carrington. This is the same yard that built Americas Cup yachts like Luna Rossa and Il Moro de Venzia; the Abu Dhabi project but will be their first Volvo Open 70. The safe choice would have been another Juan Yacht Design variant, but Walker has a longstanding relationship with Farr, and the firm is eager to return to the level of offshore design prominence achieved under the Volvo 60 rule. For the last race, Farr designed the Telefonica boats, which were light-air weapons. But Abu Dhabi will need more power to keep up with the new generation of Juan K and B&C designs in power reaching conditions. Farr's experiments with bow strakes will likely be absent in this Abu Dhabi design, as well.

The team will have to work hard this winter to make up for the sailing time and development it missed this summer. But with sailing time limited by race rules, Walker’s team should be able to catch up with the other teams by sailing in the warm Persian Gulf this winter. While currently a wild card, don’t count this team out for overall honors next year.

Grant Dalton returns to his ocean-racing roots, as Emirates Team New Zealand will manage the Camper entry in the 2011'-'12 race. According to Dalton, “The Volvo project instantly energizes our team, allows our designers and engineers to get going, and, in Camper, we have found a great partner. They are a family company with family values and a culture that fits very well with Emirates Team New Zealand and our family of sponsors.

“The team has the capacity to integrate a Volvo Ocean Race campaign to sit alongside its commitments to the Louis Vuitton Trophy regattas, the Audi MedCup, and the next America’s Cup.

“There is some certainty in the America’s Cup following BMW Oracle Racing’s defeat of Alinghi. It’s apparent that with the timing of the America’s Cup, either 2013 or 2014, Emirates Team New Zealand can comfortably integrate a Volvo campaign into its operations.

Dalton said a Volvo Ocean Race campaign was a natural fit for the team. “Our objective, once the team had re-established its credentials, was always to diversify as a means of keeping our people busy, focused, and creative.

“With Louis Vuitton, the team started the Louis Vuitton Trophy. Dean Barker and the team campaigned successfully on the Audi MedCup TP52 circuit last year. Now, we have a Volvo Ocean Race campaign to organize from scratch.”

Dalton has been busy going through his Rolodex, hiring many veterans to fill out the new ocean-racing team. Australian Chris Nicholson, watch captain on il Mostro last time around, will serve as skipper, while Roberto “Chuny” Bermudez de Castro and Stu Bannatyne have signed on as watch captains. The level of afterguard experience here is immense, and instantly makes the team a major contender. The rapidly rising match-racing star Adam Minoprio has joined the team as one of the three required under 30 crewmembers. It'll be exciting to watch this ocean-racing rookie adapt to “Life at the extreme.”

The Emirates Team New Zealand design team, headed by principal designer Marcelino Botin, is already hard at work designing the team's new yacht. Cookson Yachts, of Auckland, will build the boat, and the team plans to launch it in the first quarter of 2011. Botin's team previously designed ETNZ's all-conquering TP52 as well as Puma's il Mostro, which finished second. On the starting line next year, expect ETNZ to field a powerful boat rivaling the best of the new Juan designs.

On paper, the only drawback ETNZ seems to have is the lack of a Volvo Open 70 for training and sail design. With a reduced number of sails allowed in this race, it's imperative for teams to conduct pre-race testing of designs and their crossover points. Teams still can't rely solely on computer computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis. Dalton and company will need to work hard to catch up on sail development when their new boat hits the water in early 2011.

For the first time since 1993, the French are back in crewed monohull ocean racing. With legendary multihull specialist Franck Cammas leading the well-funded charge, Groupama has emerged as an instant favorite and already committed to the next two races.

In rounding up his crew, Cammas has ventured outside the French sailing world, hiring Damian Foxall as sailing program manager. Foxall, watch captain for Green Dragon in the last race, has already lapped the planet seven times in both monohulls and multihulls. He'll be key in getting this team up to pace in lead-assisted sailing. Crew trials began this summer. Carrying six under-30 crewmembers aboard the former Ericsson 4 in the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race, Groupama crushes the course record.

Construction of Groupama's Juan Yacht Design boat has commenced at the Multiplast yard under the direction of builder Killian Busche. Busche has a great relationship with Juan K, and he has an undefeated record in the Volvo: He previously built race-winning Volvo Open 70s for Ericsson and ABN Amro. While it would have been fascinating to see a Verdier or Van Peteghem Lauriot Prévost (VPLP) design compete in the Volvo, Groupama took the safe choice. The team is counting on the extensive database of the Juan K studio to ensure steady refinement of a wining design pedigree. With a stable sponsor, well-organized team, and immense experience, Groupama seems destined to win at least one of the next two VORs.

The boys from Newport, R.I., are back for their second crack at winning the Volvo, but only after Puma found a second sponsor to augment its financial commitment. Given the resounding success of Puma merchandise sales during the last race, the teams dual sponsorship arrangement should be a clear indication of how hard it is for any team to secure funding this time around. (Note to Puma, bring Puma City to all the ports this time around. For those unfamiliar, Puma City was a portable store/bar/nightclub that quickly became THE place to be in Alicante and Boston.)

With the financial side secured, Puma settled into a summer of training off Rhode Island, testing a new Hall Spars rig and new sail combinations on il Mostro. For anyone sailing in Newport this summer, the sight of il Mostro _blasting through Narragansett Bay was treat. The ban on two-boat testing this time around forced Puma to tune up against boats like _Rambler and Speedboat in the Newport-Bermuda Race and Ida Lewis Distance Race. These events presented excellent opportunities to try out new crew, seeing as how key members of the last team have left to pursue other opportunities. Puma has been quick to hire new talent, picking up Brad Jackson and Tony Mutter from Ericsson 4, Tom Addis from Telefonica Blue, and Andrew Lewis (under 30) from ABN Amro 2. Clearly, experience is the key, and Puma has indicated there will be no rookies on this team,. Even the team's under-30 crewmembers have at least one lap under their belts.

The next Puma yacht will be the second of three new Juan Kouyoumdjian designs in the next race, and construction is taking place at New England Boatworks. I'm eager to see the new boat with a great paintjob hit the water in the spring. In the meantime, I hear the team will be doing winter training on the Juan K 100 Speedboat, which Rambler owner George David has chartered for the season.

Undisclosed Entries

The final two confirmed entries remain officially under wraps, but word is they're both from Spain. These entries were a condition of the deal that brought Volvo Ocean Race headquarters to Alicante, Spain, in 2009. At a shed in Valencia, Construction has begun on a new Juan K design, and Telefonica Azul (Blue) has been training under the direction of Iker Martinez. The assumption is that one new boat and T-Blue will be the two Spanish entries. I'm guessing the lack of an official statement has to do with the lack of committed sponsors. Telecommunications giant Telefonica, which sponsored two boats in the last race and Movistar in 2005-'06, is reluctant to provide full funding, so syndicate head Pedro Campos has been looking for another title sponsor for the second boat.

Possible Entries

Green Dragon: Thanks to the success of the Galway stopover and the its third-place finish in the final transatlantic leg of the last Volvo, the Irish team has decided to give the race another shot. The team has already secured 2.5 million Euros in funding and hired Matt Humphries as skipper.

In a cost-saving effort, the team has sent the old Green Dragon to a shed in Galway for winter repairs. In the last race, the Reichel Pugh design had a fast hull, but it also had the lightest keel bulb in the fleet. Work this winter will involve strengthening and removing weight from the interior structure to allow for a maximum-weight bulb. Crew selection is underway, and the team hopes to have funding to begin training and building sails in early 2011. Of all the possible entries, this team has the best shot to make it to the starting line. Still, Green Dragon will need to secure enough funding to be competitive all the way around the world.

Italia 70: The Italians made a big splash in 2009 by hirind skipper Giovanni Soldini, best known for rescuing fellow Around Alone competitor Isabelle Autissier from the Southern Ocean in 1999. With financial backing from Fiat’s John Elkann, the team purchased _Ericsson 3 _and planned to race it again around the world. Since then, the team has gone rather dormant. While rumors of sponsorship from Fiat and Pirelli have been floating around, the team's absence from events like the Rolex Middle Sea Race is a foreboding sign. They do, however, own a fast boat, and a quick injection of cash could get them to the starting line.

Brazil: Lars Grael announced an all-Brazilian team in late 2008. Since then, we've heard little else. I'd be surprised to see this team make the start.

Others: I've heard rumors of teams from Sweden and Russia, but time is running out. While good boats like il Mostro and Ericsson 4 will be available in early 2011, sailing talent may not be. Meanwhile, established teams are designing and testing sails. With the window closing fast, I'm betting on on seven teams to make the starting line in Alicante. While the fleet may be small, it's shaping up to be the most competitive in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race. Life at the Extreme, you can't get here soon enough!