Only those who have competed in the Volvo Ocean Race know how grueling and exhausting the event can be.

Paul Cayard tested the elements of wind and sea and pushed the limits of human endurance while leading EF Language to victory in the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race.

For Cayard, whose reputation was built on round-the-buoys racing, it was a life-changing experience.

“It was the most exciting race of my life, one that has left an indelible mark on my professional career and provided me with the most on a human level,” Cayard said recently.

That statement helps explain why Cayard agreed to skipper the Disney entry in the 2005-2006 Volvo Ocean Race. The 46-year-old San Francisco native considers the around the world adventure the ultimate challenge in competitive sailboat racing.

“I think the Volvo is a unique opportunity to explore the most extreme side of our sport,” Cayard said last week in an interview with The Capital.

“Those four weeks in the southern ocean were just spectacular. It was some of the most thrilling and exhilirating sailing I’ve ever experienced.”

Cayard was immediately intrigued when initially approached about captaining the Walt Disney Company’s Volvo 70. For a sailor with a swashbuckling personality, the thought of steering a pirate ship known as the Black Pearl was appealing.

“There’s no question that Disney’s involvement with this project was the determining factor,” Cayard said. “It’s an enormous opportunity to introduce the general public to sailing and the Volvo Ocean Race. I just couldn’t say no to a proposal of this scope.”

Disney intends to use the Volvo Ocean Race as a platform for promoting “Pirates of the Caribeean II: Dead Man’s Chest.”

“Most of the sponsors I’ve worked with were looking to promote a brand name or a product,” Cayard said. “It will be interesting and different to promote a film. Disney is a very well-known international company and I’m honored to be involved with its first venture into professional sailing.”

Cayard, a seven-time world champion, five-time America’s Cup participant and two-time Olympian, was announced as skipper of the Black Pearl last Tuesday. However, the 1988 Rolex Yachtsmen of the Year has been working behind the scenes for the syndicate for months, sources said.

What’s for certain is that Cayard was completely organized by the time of last week’s announcement. He and operations manager Kimo Worthington have already selected the 10-man crew, which will be announced within the next month.

“We have put together a very good crew that includes four past winners of the event and will represent seven different countries,” said Cayard, speaking from Palma de Mallroca Spain, where he was competing in the Copa del Rey Regatta.

Worthington will not sail aboard the boat, but there will be other Americans in the crew, Cayard said.

“Make no mistake, we are representing the United States,” he said.

Cayard became the first American skipper to capture the Volvo Ocean Race through thorough preparation. EF Language was trialing on the water well ahead of the other syndicates in 1997 and thus created a tremendous advantage in sail development.

That certainly will not be the case this time around as Disney is will behind the other six syndicates, all of which have launched Volvo 70s and are on the water training. Additionally, Cayard will work with a budget of approximately $14.6 million that is far less than the competition.

“Clearly, our campaign has a lot of catching up to do. I’m not naive enough to minimize that problem and figure we might not be up to speed until we’re three-quarters of the way around the world,” Cayard said. “The good news is that only one third of the points will have been awarded by the time the race reaches Rio de Janeiro.

“Our strategy is to learn and improve as we go and reel the others in during the latter stages of the race. It will be important to minimize our losses between the start and Rio.”

Cayard is thrilled to again be working with Farr Yacht Design. The Annapolis-based firm designed EF Language and he trusts the quality of its work.

Disney’s Volvo 70 was constructed using a mold owned by Allant Racing and is being built at Green Marine in Lymington, United Kingdom. Allant Racing, comprised of Richard Brisius and Johan Salen, is organizing and managing the Swedish entry sponsored by Ericsson.

There has been much speculation as to what Allant/Ericsson would receive in return for allowing Disney to piggyback off its program. It was presumed there would be some level of cooperation between the two syndicates.

Cayard somewhat squelched that idea, saying that Allant Racing “would have no role” in the Disney program. He was unsure whether the two teams would trial against one another to test sails and boat speed.

Russ Bowler, president of Farr Yacht Design, said he’s witnessed an unprecedented level of cooperation among the Volvo Ocean Race syndicates this time around.

Cayard said that’s true to some extent. For instance, the Spanish entry Telefonica Movistar shared information with the other teams regarding a design flaw in the structural part of its Volvo 70.

“On the down side, Ericsson discovered a problem that it tried to keep from us,” Cayard said.

Cayard is excited about the Volvo 70, which replaces the 60-footer previously used in the race. Telefonica has already established a 24-hour speed record for a monohull, hinting at the potential of the class.

“These boats are extremely cool and very, very fast,” Cayard said. “They are a cross between an Open 60 and a Volvo 60. Sailing them will be incredibly demanding physically.”

Cayard is concerned about how a crew of 10 will handle the powerful machines. In 1997-98, he raced EF Language with 12 men aboard.

Cayard hopes to have the Black Pearl on the water by Sept. 1 and will conduct initial sea trials off England. The Pirates of the Caribbean boat will then embark on its 2,000-mile qualifying run before returning to Spain for further practice in preparation for the Nov. 5 start of the Volvo Ocean Race.