Volvo Race - preview of this Saturday's start

A buzzing Volvo Ocean Race village in Alicante, Spain.

After years, or in some cases weeks, of planning, the day of reckoning has almost arrived for the eight 11-man crews who will be racing their record-breaking Volvo Open 70s in the Volvo Ocean Race 6,500 nautical mile leg one to Cape Town which starts at 12:00 GMT (14:00 CET) this Saturday, 11 October.

Looking ahead to leg one, which in length is second only to the 12,300 nm leg five across the Southern Ocean, the section through the Mediterranean, shortly after the start in Alicante, will be the first Mediterranean leg in the history of this race. But, once the fleet clears the Straits of Gibraltar and heads out into the open Atlantic, things will start to look more familiar.

'The last race course was a particularly well trodden path, sailed by a lot of old hands who knew the route well,' said Telefónica Blue‘s navigator, Simon Fisher (GBR). 'This will be a good new challenge,' he added.

While the Mediterranean is often thought of as being a place of balmy nights and warm evenings, that isn’t necessarily the case in the autumn and the fleet could well face gales as they leave Alicante on Saturday, due to the autumn equinox. There is low pressure sitting to the south and north-west of Alicante, and high pressure to the north-east and south-west. That leaves the race course vulnerable to whichever system develops more strongly over the next three days.

At the moment, it is possible that the north-east to easterly wind currently battering the race village will ease going into Saturday, giving 20 knots for the start with spinnakers flying on a downwind leg, and there is a good chance the wind will ease as the fleet approaches Gibraltar.

In a perfect world, once out into the Atlantic the fleet would find the trade winds - the north-easterly breeze that runs from Portugal down the west coast of Africa - blowing strongly to take them down to the Doldrums, but much will depend on the position of the Azores High - a large high pressure area named after the island chain it typically squats on.

It determines the position of the trade winds and there is the danger that the fleet will find itself struggling in the Horse Latitudes of the Azores High. Desperate square rigger skippers, trapped in the light wind and heaving, oily seas that characterize this part of the Atlantic, would throw their horses overboard to save food and water for their crew, hence the name Horse Latitudes.

Once heading south, the fleet will have to make a decision on where and how to pass the Canary and Cape Verde Islands. If they get too close, particularly at night, they could find themselves trapped in the lee of one of these high islands with no wind. But, equally, during the day the islands can create useful sea breezes.

When the fleet reaches the Doldrums, (also known as the inter-tropical convergence zone or ITCZ), the priority will be to choose the thinnest point to cross them, which is usually to the west. The crews will need to anticipate the cloud’s behaviour, and change the trim of the boat and her sails fast to keep moving south to escape.

According to the navigator on Ericsson 4, Jules Salter (GBR), the Doldrums should be narrower by the time the fleet arrives there in two weeks time. 'We are in a transition in the weather in the northern hemisphere, changing from summer to winter. I think that in turn is reflected in the Doldrums and it should be an easier zone to cross,' he explains.

But, once into the south-east trade winds, it will be champagne sailing until the fleet meets the next hurdle - the South Atlantic High. It blocks the route to the south, but, with the first of seven scoring gates on this 37,000 nm course at Fernando de Noronha, off the Brazilian coast, the fleet will already find itself to the west and will try to look for weather systems forming off the coast of Brazil to help them on their way.

Then the fleet will head south in search of the low pressure systems that roll unremittingly from west to east around Antarctica. They may well find themselves in Southern Ocean conditions with big waves, big westerly breezes and cold air. Cape Town lies at 34S, and the Southern Ocean is usually thought to start at 40S – the Roaring Forties of legend.

The final barrier to Cape Town is the Cape itself. It is a renowned sticky spot of calms and light wind which historically dominate the final approach. There are a lot of miles to go before the fleet arrives in Cape Town, but one point worth noting is that traditionally in this race, the winner of the first leg, almost always wins the race.

Volvo Ocean Race Leaderboard

1. Telefónica Blue (Bouwe Bekking/Iker Martinez) 4 points
2. Telefónica Black (Fernando Echávarri) 3.5 points
3. Puma Il Mostro (Ken Read) 3 points
4. Ericsson 4 (Torben Grael) 2.5 points
5. Green Dragon (Ian Walker) 2 points
6. Delta Lloyd (Ger O’Rourke) 1 point
7. Ericsson 3 (Anders Lewander) 0.5 points*
8. Team Russia (Andreas Hanakamp) 0.5 points

*One point has been deducted from the Ericsson 3 score as per the jury decision number JN04 2 October.

The Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09 is the 10th running of this ocean marathon. It started in Alicante, Spain, on 4 October 2008 with an in-port race. Leg One from Alicante to Cape Town will start on 11 October and the course will, for the first time, take in Cochin, India, Singapore and Qingdao, China before finishing in St Petersburg, Russia for the first time in the history of the race. Spanning some 37,000 nautical miles, stopping at 11 ports and taking nine months to complete, the Volvo Ocean Race is the world’s premier yacht race for professional racing crews.