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O'Rourke the underdog enters the race

30th May 2008

It has been confirmed that Ireland will have a second entry in the Volvo Ocean Race. Fastnet winner, twice Afloat sailor of the year, and national offshore-sprint hero Ger O’Rourke will use the title-holding boat, ABN Amro 1 (aka Black Betty) to take on the new generation of VO70s. Let speculation commence, says Markham Nolan.

It has finally been confirmed that Ireland will have a second entry in the Volvo Ocean Race. Fastnet winner and national offshore-sprint hero Ger O’Rourke will use the title-holding boat, ABN Amro 1 (aka Black Betty) to take on the new generation of VO70s. Let speculation commence, says Markham Nolan.

Ireland now has two very different teams preparing for the world’s showcase offshore event, the Volvo Ocean Race.

One, the ‘official’ Green Team, comes packaged as part of the Galway stopover towards the end of the race. Evolving from Galway property developer Eamonn Conneely’s all-conquering Patches TP52 team, it has a professional hired-gun momentum behind it. Skipper Ian Walker, a British Olympic medal winner will be at the helm, along with a carefully and quietly-selected crew of professionals on a brand new boat built in China by McConaghy boatyard, with the design by Reichel Pugh, much like the Patches boats.

The other, announced today in the Irish Times, will be headed up by team principal Ger O'Rourke, who will skipper for six of the nine legs, and will helm the inshore races. O’Rourke is a much-lauded amateur offshore skipper and again, a property developer from the west of Ireland. His boat is second-hand, and his crew will be paid a fraction of what the Green Team squad will command, but will be mostly Irish, as was the case on his other offshore ventures. It has yet to officially enter for the race, but has until July 1 to do so, with added flexibility built into the race rules for late entries.

Irish round-the-world entries, so, are like 46A buses. You wait twenty years for one, then two come along at once. Granted, comparing the 1989 Whitbread entry NCB Ireland to a modern VO70 is like comparing a bus to a Ferrari. But has the jump between the first generation of VO70s, including ABN Amro, and the latest generation, been similarly huge? Will O’Rourke spend his race watching transoms disappear into the distance?

Of all the VO70s on the ‘one careful owner’ market, buying AA1 was a very good start. The ABN Amro team’s two boats were head and shoulders ahead of the fleet of VO70s in the last race, prompting the other competitors in the race to nickname them the VO80s. Their voluminous boatspeed was forgiving, allowing the crew to sandbag at times and even make some big errors, yet still come out on top without suffering from gear failure.

AA1 was then used as a training horse and template by the two-boat Ericsson team, widely acknowledged as the best-prepared of all the Volvo teams so far. They signed winning designer Juan Kuoyomdjian for the current race before he had even been sprayed with champagne at the end of the last one, and most of the boats that have emerged from other teams’ yards have taken much of their design from his last, winning generation of VO70s.

Black Betty, as AA1 is known before it gets branded with sponsorship livery, has been re-worked to make it competitive, by the kingmaker Kuoyomidjan himself. Yes, the new boats will undoubtedly be lighter. Yes, their rigging shows less windage, their designs have been tweaked for a completely different race, with more stops, less wind, and a need to be faster in a greater variety of conditions.

But they are all, barring Ericsson’s two boats, largely untested. Humphreys (Team Russia), Botin Carkeek (Puma) and Reichel Pugh (Ireland’s Green Team) have never designed VO70s before. In the last edition of the race, untested VO70s pulled into port repeatedly with keel problems and breakages. One even sank, now a man-made reef somewhere off the UK coast. Kuoyomidjan’s designs (built by Irishman Killian Bushe) endured and topped the tables.

Until we see O’Rourke take on one of the new generation it’s hard to say how competitive his crew will be. We’ll have our first glimpse during the Round Ireland, when he’ll hopefully take on the Russian crew head-to-head. Then there’s the promised two-boat training against the Green Team off Galway, as the two teams prepare themselves for the main event and put in their 2000-mile qualifying run.

After all that, even if O’Rourke comes out covered head-to-toe in gold, he’ll still be the underdog, which is a position he will no doubt relish. Rather the hunter than the hunted.

Irish Times article here (subscription required).

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