Juni 05, 2009 @ 22:37:04   Foto Rick Tomlinson / Volvo Ocean Race Paul Todd / Outside Images NZ

Skippers onstage for the Leg 8 press conference in Galway.

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It might look like a short par three, but Ken Read has few doubts about where leg eight falls on the race's stroke index.

"I think it has potential to be the hardest work, tactically and physically," the PUMA skipper said. "This is a hard leg."

There seems to be a common feeling that the 1,250 miles separating Galway from Marstrand are going to throw some testing obstacles at the fleet.

"I think it is going to be enormously challenging," said Ericsson 3 skipper Magnus Olsson.

"It is one of the most challenging," concurred Bouwe Bekking, Olsson's counterpart on Telefonica Blue.

"It is hard to say beforehand, but it will probably be tricky," added Ericsson 4's Torben Grael.

They are all forewarning against the quirks and complexities of the coastal sailing waiting beyond the Celtic Sea, a mode somewhat different to the ocean crossings that have dominated until this point. Tides, topography and shipping traffic all of a sudden become very relevant.

"There are a lot of traps out there, tidal traps and weather traps," Read added. "Going around corners, tidal gates, there's going to be a lot of variable weather...You could see a lot of lead changes, splits from the group...It should be interesting and nerve wracking onboard.

"With a tidal gate you could lose six hours to someone, if they get through before you.

"I think this is a leg where you have to get a little lucky, but at the same time it seems like the most skilled boat keeps on winning. Coastal sailing is very different so we have to adapt."

That adaptation could be tough. The repeated sail changes to cater for the variable winds will be physically taxing and, added to the likelihood of close racing, it is likely that the four to six-day trip will yield little sleep to the crews.

"We could get as little as three hours a day," Olsson said. "There will be a lot of wind shifts and when the boats are close together there is a lot of intensity. You have to be careful. You cannot be completely burnt out a day before the finish."

Read added: "Short races, to me, are way harder from a sleep deprivation standpoint. There will be so many decisions to make that Capey (Andrew Cape, the PUMA navigator) and I won't get much sleep and there will be so many sail changes that the guys won't get much sleep.

"Everyone assumes heavy air is the hardest when, in fact, many times light and variable conditions are the hardest because there are so many more sail changes and you get such little sleep."

One thing that might also be keeping sailors awake at night is the leaderboard. Ericsson 4 has a 13-point lead over Telefonica Blue, but the battle for second is fierce with PUMA just one point back.

Blue have been the best team in the in-port races, thereby showing their credentials in close combat, but they have also excelled in light airs, a condition forecast to dominate the second half of the leg.

Olsson and Green Dragon's Ian Walker suggested Blue might be considered favourites, but Bekking played down any advantage.

"It will be an interesting leg and that's the kind of racing I enjoy the most," he said. "We have shown in the in-port races that we are really good boat-to-boat and some of the legs as well. We feel pretty comfortable, but there are good sailors everywhere. We know all the boats can have a good crack at this one."

His team have been hamstrung by a fire at their base earlier in the week. Initially it was reported that the syndicate's radars, tools and some computers had been destroyed in the blast, but Bekking also revealed two sails in an adjacent container were damaged by the heat. A small jib was repairable, but their bigger jib - which would have been useful in this leg - was unsalvageable. They are currently lobbying their rivals to see if anyone has objections to them registering a new sail without spending the last of their 24 sail cards.

That said, he has not given up on catching Ericsson 4.

"Ericsson is very comfortable, but there is still an outside chance so we're going to try to win this race and we'll see how PUMA does and then look at it again," he said.

Grael is in no mood to roll over. "We still try to win every leg. We are getting closer to our goal but we try to win every leg.

"There are boats that are better in light air, better in heavy air, reaching, better upwind, but overall I think all the boats are similar. The only boat that is a little bit out of pace in some conditions is the Dragons because at this stage they have a little bit older sails and their keel is lighter. But I think it is very hard to talk about a favourite for this leg."

Read, meanwhile, was content to talk golf. He shot a round of 80 during his stay in Ireland, a stay that started after his team claimed an unlikely second in leg seven and then won an in-port race for the first time.

"It's just been great to be here," he said. "Fantastic. Staying in castles and playing golf and winning boat races. The whole team is happy. It has been a dream trip. The programme is in a good place and you can see that with the results.

"It will be hard to leave."

And, by the sounds of things, it won't get a lot easier.


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