Piracy fears see Volvo Ocean Race draw up secret race route to Abu Dhabi
SINGAPORE // Fears of Indian Ocean piracy has forced Volvo Ocean Race organisers to draw up a secret route in and out of Abu Dhabi for the second and third legs of the 2011/12 round-the-world challenge.
Plans to sail through an East African corridor in the Indian Ocean on Leg Two from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, and again on Leg Three from Abu Dhabi to Sanya in China, have been scrapped after advice from marine safety experts and the sport's governing body.
Instead, competing yachts will race from Cape Town to an undisclosed "safe haven" port and be transported closer to Abu Dhabi. From there, the fleet complete the leg in a sprint to the UAE capital.
"Abu Dhabi is a very important part of our plans, a real highlight being the race's first-ever stopover in the Middle East," said the race chief executive Knut Frostad. "We will now have a really exciting sprint finish to the emirate over the New Year period as well.
"This has been an incredibly difficult decision. We have consulted leading naval and commercial intelligence experts and their advice could not have been clearer: 'Do not risk it'."
The process will be reversed for the third leg before the race continues on to Sanya, the fourth of 10 host ports in a race that will not finish until July 2012.
"The solution we have found means our boats will still be racing into Abu Dhabi and competing in the in-port race there," Frostad said.
Piracy is a well-organised and highly lucrative business and has expanded into a vast area off the coast of Somalia, with Somali pirates currently holding a number of vessels to ransom.
According to US think tank One Earth Foundation, the average ransom per ship in 2005 was US$150,000 (Dh551,000). By 2010, it had jumped to an average of US$5.4 million per ship, with large cargo vessels and oil tankers a popular prey for the seafaring gunmen.
In 2010 a record 1,181 seafarers were kidnapped by pirates, according to figures supplied by marine safety experts Dryad Maritime Intelligence. Studies estimate the cost to the global economy from Somali piracy is about US$7-12 billion a year.
Frostad emphasised that the race would still be a round-the-world challenge.
"We continue to be the only continuous sporting event to visit five continents over nine months of gruelling sailing," he said.
Jack Lloyd, the race director and also a senior International Sailing Federation (ISAF) official and respected Olympic and America's Cup umpire, described the change as a "bump in the road which has to be negotiated, albeit a very expensive bump" rather than a race-changing suspension in the action.
ISAF's position is that sailing in waters badly affected by piracy is too risky.
"The measures taken ... are very much in line with the advice that the International Sailing Federation has been giving for some time." said the ISAF Secretary General Jerome Pels.
"The ISAF strongly urges all yacht skippers intent on sailing anywhere in the area to seek an alternative, which the Volvo Ocean Race is now providing."
The race, with six teams declared so far, is to set off from Alicante to Cape Town in November, and will finish in July 2012 in Galway, Ireland.