ALICANTE, Spain — Abu Dhabi's Ocean Racing team were forced to suspend racing with a broken mast as high winds hit the opening leg of the Volvo Ocean Race on Saturday.
Six of the fastest yachts on the planet sped off from Spain earlier Saturday to embark on the first leg of the world's toughest and most dangerous sailing adventure, the Volvo Ocean Race.
Hoisting their 30-metre (100-foot) sails to catch the westerly wind, crews ran a fast circuit of the port before pulling away from the mountains of eastern Spain into the choppy Mediterranean, basting their bows with foam and spray.
New Zealand-Spanish team Camper under Australian skipper Chris Nicholson led the fleet as it left the Spanish port of Alicante bound for Cape Town, South Africa, 6,500 miles away.
Next came US team Puma, Spain's Telefonica, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Groupama of France, which fell back after performing a penalty turn for bumping the Puma boat at the start line. Chinese entry Sanya under New Zealand skipper Mike Paterson followed in sixth place.
Sunny skies turned to cloud before the off and rough winds of up to 30 knots were forecast in the Mediterranean, which skippers warned would give them a sleepless slog down to Gibraltar before they break out into the Atlantic.
And within hours Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing navigator Jules Salter reported that the team had broken a mast 30 nautical miles south of Cartagena in windy conditions with waves of 3.5 metres.
"There is no panic on board and we're planning to motor back during the night before effecting repairs," said Salter.
The 39,000-mile, nine-month epic will take them across five continents, through equatorial heat to the ice of the Southern Ocean. The 11-man crews will eat and sleep in a few square metres of space below deck.
From Cape Town, they will sail to Abu Dhabi (UAE), Sanya (China), Auckland (New Zealand), Itajai (Brazil), Miami (USA), Lisbon (Portugal) and Lorient (France) before a festive finish in Galway, Ireland, in July 2012.
The skippers on Friday had laughed off the prospect of high winds and rough seas on the first day.
Their tone hardened on Saturday morning on the windy quayside, where they kissed loved ones and embarked, seen off by Spain's Crown Prince Felipe, French football star Zinedine Zidane, and a priest who blessed the fleet in Spanish.
"Tonight could be the hardest night of the race, but I suspect we'll also have some hard times in the Southern Ocean," said Ian Walker, British skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, the first Middle East entry in the race, which started in 1973.
The Volvo Open 70 yacht, built to strict race rules, can reach more than 40 mph, with a shallow hull that skims the water while a deep keel with a five-tonne "bulb" on the end steadies it in the rolling seas.
Skippers must judge at each turn whether to take a shorter route or gamble on striking out further for a faster breeze, while hoping their hulls avoid damage from icebergs and flotsam.
The multinational crews include one Chinese sailor, "Tiger" Teng Jiang He of team Sanya, and an Emirati, Adil Khalid, with Abu Dhabi.
The Groupama team's skipper Franck Cammas, 38, is a dark horse looking to become the first Frenchman to win the race since 1986.
Puma and Camper were tipped as early favourites along with Abu Dhabi which chalked up the first points on October 29 by winning a preliminary in-port race.
"It's really going to be pretty tough the first 24 hours. I guarantee there's not going to be a whole lot of sleep," Puma's 50-year-old American skipper Ken Read told reporters.
"This is what we signed up for," he added. "We take what Mother Nature can throw at us and we deal with it as best we can."
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