King Juan Carlos signaled the start of the Volvo Ocean Race yesterday, sending seven of the world's fastest sailboats speeding south from the Spanish coast on the first leg of the speedy circumnavigation. By the time they reach the Chesapeake Bay in April, the 10-man crews will have weathered the harshest marine conditions on earth.

"Dangerous?" mused Justin "Juggy" Clougher of Newport, R.I., from Sanxenxo, Spain, where he was preparing for departure last week. "Sorry, I don't use that word. I have a wife and children and don't want to alarm them, but there's certainly potential for problems. These boats are very, very fast, as fast as any monohull on the planet, and with that much speed, you're careful whose hands they're in. But I don't say dangerous."

Clougher, a transplanted Tasmanian helicopter jockey, is foredeck man on the only U.S. entry, Pirates of the Caribbean, headed by America's Cup and Olympic veteran Paul Cayard of San Francisco. The two paired up on Cayard's winning entry in the 1997-98 race, 60-foot EF Language.

This year's boats are in a new class, 10 feet longer and 15-20 percent faster than the old Volvo 60s. The new, carbon fiber 70-footers have canting keels that tip at an angle to level the boat in strong winds, bigger sails and can hit speeds of 35 knots and more, which is flying on a sailboat. Crew size has been trimmed from 12 to 10, making the workload that much harder.

The first leg takes the fleet 6,400 miles from Spain to Cape Town, South Africa, then east around the world in the frigid Southern Ocean that rings Antarctica. They will stop in Melbourne, Australia, then Wellington, New Zealand, then in Rio de Janeiro before heading north to Baltimore/Annapolis, then across the Atlantic to finish in Europe.

Pirates of the Caribbean is so named because it is sponsored by Disney, which is using the race to promote a movie series of the same name. It was a late entry into the fleet, with sponsorship only finalized last spring. The result has been a rush to prepare.

"We launched her in our sea boots and that same day were off on a 2,000-mile qualifying run halfway to Greenland and back," Clougher said. "We also made a run up to Holland and back when we had some strong winds. But mostly it's been steady, hard work getting the boat ready."

He's thrilled with the performance of the new class. "The boats are extremely exciting. They light up in a breeze. They're slow in 8 knots of wind, fast in 9 knots of wind and very fast in 10 knots. With 25 knots of wind, you're doing 25 knots of boat speed. We've already had the boat up to 32 knots, and we're not even pushing it."

Clougher reckons the toughest competition will come from Swedish entry Ericsson, skippered by round-the-world veteran Neal McDonald; the Spanish boat movistar under Bouwe Bekking; and Brasil 1, with Brazilian Olympic gold medalist Torben Grael at the helm. The twin Dutch entries ABN-AMRO I and II and the Australian Premier I round out the fleet.

The Aussies, led by ocean racer Grant Wharington, only arrived in Spain last week and have the smallest budget. "They have enough money to get to Melbourne," Clougher said. "By then they hope their performance earns them a sponsorship."