Jeff AyliffeCape Town - The 2011/12 version of the Volvo Ocean Race is shaping up to be one of the closest ever in the history of the race, and if you listen to the words of Puma’s ‘Mar Mostro’ skipper Kenny Read, “Last Volvo it always seemed like we had another boat in sight. I really don’t know how it can get any closer ...” then you start to appreciate the fact that we are in for a tactical humdinger that has sailing fans licking their lips in anticipation.Early testing and racing has shown that no one team has been able to deliver any significant raw speed advantage straight out of the blocks. Stuart Bannatyne, watch captain on Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand, believes that the latest round of designs may have equalised the fleet’s overall performance, and Camper boat captain Michael Pammenter told me that they were very happy with some “subtle design changers” to make the boat more efficient. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker also spoke about some design issues, which are likely to be similar to what Camper are referring to. “We have tried to look at every aspect and make as many small performance gains as we can. Aerodynamically our deck layout is very clean because we have run all of the ropes beneath the deck in carbon piping. For the same reason, there is also no coach roof to disturb the airflow. Our decks forward of the cockpit slope away quite markedly and this is to try to get the weight of breaking waves off the boat as quickly as possible.”Bannatyne said: “The Volvo Open 70s have developed to a point now where they are going to be very similar boats to the last race,” he said. “It’s just been a sort of gentle evolution of designs.”According to Bannatyne’s skipper, Chris Nicholson, this levelling of the playing field may force teams to adopt more aggressive strategies. “I think things will be a little different on the tactical side this time around,” Nicholson said. “In the past, some teams were so much faster than others that tactically, they could play it quite conservatively. Actually I think this race will be about knowing your strengths and backing them, and that could be quite a change for the Volvo Ocean Race. As a result I think this will be a cool edition of the race, with lots of action and plenty of interesting stories coming out of it.”For Walker, in the push for competitive advantage, the new Volvo Ocean Race sail restriction rule has added even more importance to the teams’ sail development programmes.“I think the sails are probably going to hold the key even more so this time,” Walker said. “We are down to 17 sails and it’s not just about the shape and construction, but also the longevity of the individual sails. That’s why everyone has been putting so much time into sail testing.”The time for testing however, is drawing to a close. Puma’s ‘Mar Mostro’ have raced and won, and Abu Dabi Racing have raced and won. Camper have pushed their boat to its upper limit in red-line conditions, and they came away grinning, as have Sanya. Take any of the seven teams, and you can find a legitimate reason why they can be the first boat to come over the horizon into Cape Town at the end of November, and go on to win the 2011/12 Volvo Ocean race. If that doesn’t excite you ahead of the start, then maybe Ocean racing is just not your cup of tea.Team Camper, with South African Michael Pammenter as boat captain.