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Changes for next Volvo Ocean Race

The 2008-’09 race will see ‘more durable’ boats, and new stops, including legs through the Far East

The 2008-’09 race will see ‘more durable’ boats, and new stops, including legs through the Far East

Organizers of the Volvo Ocean Race will keep the Volvo 70 as the boat of the 2008-’09 race, but they plan to make the boat sturdier, race every three years instead of four and add stops in the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and China so sponsors can tap new markets.

Under scrutiny after a 2005-’06 event in which a crewman died and boats floundered at sea with busted swing keels, the round-the world race still has the enthusiastic backing of automaker and owner Volvo, says Glenn Bourke, CEO of Volvo Event Management, of Hampshire, United Kingdom, in an open letter addressing speculation and criticism about the race.

“Let’s face it, there were some times when with all the breakdown and tragedy it would have been far easier for them to try to distance themselves from what we had created,” he wrote in the Aug. 25 letter. “But they did not shy away.” In fact, the company, known for its sharp focus on safety, still sees the race — promoted as Life at the Extreme — as good for the sport of sailing and a good value for Volvo and the boat sponsors, Bourke said in a telephone interview.

The 2005-’06 race’s worldwide accumulated TV audience of 1.8 billion more than doubled the audience of 811 million reported in the previous Volvo in 2001-’02. Bourke credits the sharp increase in TV viewership to the boat, which is bigger, faster and more exciting than the old Volvo 60s; the much-improved quality of the video footage from the boats, and the race’s drama as crews wrestled with busted keels and storms, abandoned the Spanish entry movistar in the North Atlantic and dealt with the tragic loss of veteran sailor Hans Horrevoets in a man-overboard accident. Yet Bourke says almost a third of the uptick came from TV coverage of the spectacle of big 40-knot raceboats powering around buoys in the six in-port races, a first for the Volvo.

“They are unbelievable in in-port racing,” Bourke says. “You have to see the speed of these boats in-port to believe it.”

As spectacular as the Volvo 70s are to watch and race, they took some flak from the press and even weekend racers as the Bruce Farr-designed 70s Ericsson, Pirates of the Caribbean and movistar repeatedly struggled through legs with structural or hydraulic ram failures linked to the canting keels. Movistar nearly sank off Cape Horn when water burst past a faulty fairing plate — part of the canting keel — then was abandoned off England when the keel’s rear hinge failed.

Paul Cayard’s Pirates of the Caribbean straightened out its problems with its keel after two legs and went on to finish second in the race.

The Volvo Open 70 rule will be modified to make the boat — and the canting keel, in particular — “more durable,” Bourke said. Among the changes will be tighter restrictions on how much weight can go into the keel fin and bulb. This should encourage designers to use some of the weight they have to take out of the keel to beef up the hydraulic rams and structural members around the canting mechanism down low in the hull, Bourke said. He said the rule also will prohibit titanium rams and sliding hull plates around the canting mechanism — parts that failed repeatedly during the race. Insurers say engineers seem uncertain about how the titanium in the rams holds up to the enormous pressure of saltwater rushing past hull and keel at 30-35 knots, Bourke said.

Yet Bourke says the Volvo 70 design rule is basically sound. “If you speak to the sailors, they absolutely love the boats,” he said. “They believe the boats are the right tool for global ocean racing.”

And, for the in-port racing as well.

The changes won’t guarantee there will be no more swing-keel failures. “These are highly loaded boats and they are so extremely fast, even with a boat built like a tank you’re going to break it if you throw it off a six-story building at 30 knots,” Bourke said.

He says crewmembers still are learning when to open up and when to throttle back on the light, powerful 70s so the boats don’t go hurtling off big waves and break. As the race has become more competitive, crews are driving their boats harder now than they did in the 60-footers, Bourke says, and he predicts they will drive them even harder in 2008 as they get to know them better and sail them better.

He said he consulted skippers, crews, engineers, designers, sponsors, insurers and anyone else with a stake before deciding on the latest changes to a venerable race that has been running since 1973, when it was known as the Whitbread for the British brewery that sponsored it.

Bourke said Volvo has gone to an every-three-year format to maintain continuity from race to race and keep sponsors, organizers and teams always gearing up for the next one. He says three years is plenty of time for a campaign to build a boat and train on it if its gets off the blocks early. Bourke says he has one, possibly two sponsors from this race already committed to the next one — a first for the Volvo — four teams signed up and a “number of other solid leads” in the wings. “Things are looking very good, very positive,” he says.

Responding to concerns that the boats are too much for 10 crewmembers to handle, Bourke said as many skippers said they preferred 10 or fewer crewmembers as said they wanted more, so he’s sticking with 10. Mixed men-and-women and women-only teams will be allowed 12 and 14 crewmembers, respectively. He says this responds to considerable interest among women to form or join teams for the 2008 race.

The decision to detour to the Middle East and Asia in ’08 comes at the suggestion of the international companies involved in the last race.

“They said, ‘We’d do the race more often if you’d go to Asia. That’s the market that really interests us,’ ” Bourke says. The Volvo 70s are 20 percent faster than their predecessors, which shaved seven weeks off the time needed to finish the 32,000-mile race. The expanded route adds 3,000-4,000 miles and maybe four weeks to the Volvo, but it still should be three weeks shorter than the last Volvo 60 event.

Bourke says the Volvo 60s, introduced in 1993-’94 as Whitbread 60s, still are good ocean-racing boats, but they didn’t capture the imagination of either sailors or spectators anymore.

“They are dated,” he says.

The Volvo 70s’ speed and power lend credence to the Life at the Extreme tag line. Though he can’t take credit for thinking up the catch phrase, the mind that did must have had a crystal ball, Bourke says, because the new Volvo Ocean Race “is all of that.”