Alicante - Intrepid yachtsmen laughed in the face of storms as they braced to set sail on Saturday on the toughest and most dangerous round-the-world yachting adventure, the Volvo Ocean 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," with high winds forecast in the Mediterranean, American skipper Ken Read of US team Puma told reporters.
"This is what we signed up for. This is what we will do for the next nine months," he added. "We take what Mother Nature can throw at us and we deal with it as best we can."
Crews in six of the fastest yachts on the planet will cast off from the Spanish port of Alicante on Saturday afternoon to brave high seas and winds, icy seas and scorching sun in a slog across five continents.
The first 6 500-mile leg, due to last about three weeks, will see them racing to catch trade winds down across the Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa.
From there, they 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.
With later stages due to take them from equatorial heat to the icy Southern Ocean, the other skippers were gung-ho about the windy outlook for the start of the race.
"The guys are ready for it, they'll take it in their stride," said Chris Nicholson, the Australian skipper of the joint New Zealand-Spanish team Camper.
"But there won't be any sleep until we're out of the Med."
Mike Sanderson, the New Zealand skipper of Sanya, a Chinese team with Irish backing, added: "Our biggest fear is being slow, as opposed to being in danger.
"We've got enough offshore experience onboard to remain safe and responsible, and we've certainly enough talent onboard to sail fast."
Read's status as the oldest sailor in the race earned him a ribbing by his rival and golfing partner Ian Walker of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, at a jovial last press conference that made light of the heavy weather.
"Nobody's asked the most important question which is whether Ken Read's too old to sail this race now he's over 50," said Walker, 42.
"At least I have hair left," Read retorted to the bald Briton.
Winds of up to 30 knots are forecast in the Mediterranean on Saturday, making for a choppy ride as the 22-metre (70-foot) Volvo Open 70 boats race to get through the straits of Gibraltar.
Skippers must judge at each turn whether to take a shorter route or gamble on striking out further for a faster breeze.
The Volvo Open 70, 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.
Walker said the six boats were so evenly matched that the skills of the crew were paramount.
"There's going to be more pressure than ever on the navigators and the skippers to make the right decisions, and never more so than with how the weather's shaping up for the first half of this leg," he said.
The multinational crews include one Chinese sailor, "Tiger" Teng Jiang He of team Sanya, and an Emirati, Adil Khalid of Abu Dhabi.
The Groupama team's skipper Franck Cammas, 38, is a dark horse meanwhile, looking to become the first Frenchman to win the race since 1986.
Puma and Camper are tipped as early favourites, but Abu Dhabi chalked up the first points on October 29 by winning a preliminary in-port race, ahead of Puma in second place and Camper in third.
"It just gives everyone a little bit of a boost," Walker said of the win. "It probably won't have much of a bearing on the next 39 000 miles."
PUMA's Mar Mostro (File)