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Puma’s Volvo entry preps for task ahead

After christening in Boston, race training in Newport, R.I., has begun under skipper Ken Read

After christening in Boston, race training in Newport, R.I., has begun under skipper Ken Read

Probably no weather along the New England waterfront could match conditions that world-rounding sailors experience as they plunge their way down through the latitudes of the Southern Ocean.

But for a cocktail-clad crowd of party-goers on a mid-May night, the nastiest northeast weather of the spring was a reminder that the boat christening they had come to celebrate would soon turn to a bare-knuckles struggle against the worst marine elements on the planet.

With spotlights beaming out through a wind-driven rain, the 70-foot composite hull hung above Boston’s Fan Pier for a few minutes before actress Selma Hayek smashed a bottle of Tattinger’s Champagne (five tries) on the bow as Il Mostro was welcomed to the Atlantic.

Il Mostro is Team Puma’s new entry into the Volvo Ocean Race, which takes off from Alicante, Spain, in October on the first of 10 legs around the world. The Puma team, making its first entry into the intensely high-tech world of modern, grand prix ocean racing, set up a home compound in Newport in May, where skipper Ken Read and his team of 40 have been refining boat, sails and racing techniques.

Though technically this will be just the third race named for Volvo, the original Whitbread, from which it derived, began in 1973 with the first of seven globe-spinning races that virtually began the sport of these seven-month bluewater marathons.

Before 1967, fewer than 10 private yachts were known to have rounded Cape Horn before the first such race — the Golden Globe — ended in a disaster of death and destruction. Only one of eight entries finished and one sailor committed suicide.

Hard to imagine finding sponsors for a second attempt, but four years later when sailors from Britain’s Royal Navy began seriously talking about another “rounder,” the Whitbread brewing company stepped up as lead sponsor of an event that grew into one of the most coveted prizes in international sports. In terms of challenge and human endurance, the Whitbread became a kind of alter-ego to the already well-established America’s Cup.

Much like Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moths, the first Whitbread boats were, if tough and seaworthy, rather ordinary cruising boats — meaning slow. Over the next three decades of development, what has emerged is a 70-foot monohull that maximizes the crossing point of lightweight construction and raw sail power in a monohull platform capable of 40 knots.

“The box rule means you literally visualize a box with length and width specs, then build a boat to fit it,” says Ken Read, a veteran of three America’s Cups and tens of thousands of miles offshore. “These boats can pile on way too much sail area, and the more sail you have, the more stable the platform you need and the faster you go. So I’d be pretty surprised if this time around everyone didn’t go for the big, powerful end of the rule.”

Power? In spades. Just check out the specs, with an eye to the relative light weight of just over 15 tons. Designed by Botin-Carkeek and built by Goetz Custom Boats in BristolR.I., Il Mostro is 70-feet overall and 19-feet on the beam.

Her mast height is 105 feet and will carry a sail area of 7,260 feet with the gennaker and main flying, and she is crewed by 10 sailors plus an on-board media director.

Named for one of Puma’s well-known sport shoes (The Monster) with a red and black graphic resembling the brand, Il Mostro, above the waterline, is a fairly familiar looking — if very modern — sailboat. Beneath the water, all that changes with the cutting-edge technology that has resulted in drastic speed gains over the last few decades.

Since the key to sailing speed is the relationship of power to weight, as well as stability, the Volvo 70s have canting keel that allows the entire keel and lead bulb to move 40 degrees out to the windward side. This produces tremendous stability by counter-weighting the force of the sails to leeward.

Composite, rather than steel-rod, rigging and a pre-impregnated carbon fiber skin and laminate composite (3DL) sails, complete the package of power and lightness.

“These feel like 70-foot flat-out dinghies,” says Read, who emerged onto the sailing scene as a three-time collegiate All-American at BostonUniversity. “We certainly hope we got [the design] right this time. We worked every idea we had into it, and we hope we’ve been just a little bit smarter and more creative than the other guys.”

Read had to take a sabbatical from his job as vice president of North Sails and in the process became a consumer of his own product. “I walked out of the boardroom and realized I had become one of our biggest customers.”

From the time he agreed to be Puma’s skipper, Read began assembling a crew and setting up the compound in Newport Shipyard, just a few hundred yards away from where Dennis Conner assembled his Freedom campaign that won the America’s Cup in 1980.

Conner, who pioneered the concept of the corporate-style, professional approach to grand prix sailboat racing, is something of a predecessor to Read, who ended up sailing for the Stars & Stripes team.

“He was definitely there at the beginning,” says Read, “particularly with his concept of leap-frog development with two boats. A lot of how these campaigns are built and organized we owe to him.”

Puma’s crew — 40 in all, including shore crew and sailing teams to man both Il Mostro and the team’s first-generation Volvo 70, Avanti — have been training in Newport all summer, entering several bluewater races such as Newport-Bermuda.

Then, onto the big one — the nine-month, 37,000 nautical-mile marathon that begins Oct. 8 in Alicante, bound for South Africa, India, Singapore, China and Brazil before its only North American stop in Boston next May.

The race then continues to Galway, Ireland, and Sweden before finishing in St. Petersburg, Russia, in late-June. Longest run: about 40 days from China to South America.

“That’s really going to be the rough one,” says Read, who chose teammates both for their ability to get along under prolonged duress as well as for their technical skills. “When you’re out there for that long having to live together and rely on each other for 40 days, you better have it together, and you better be able to get along.”

Tony Chamberlain is a longtime sailor and writer who covers sailing for The Boston Globe.