by Jason Heaton
When the hardest sporting events in the world are discussed, the usual suspects like climbing Everest or the Tour de France are mentioned, feats of superhuman endurance, strength and harsh conditions. Sailing doesn’t typically make the list. But consider this: the Volvo Ocean Race lasts nine months and covers 38,000 miles, and the competing boats, lightweight spartan vessels with crews of 8 sailors, race through every condition possible as they round the globe. With some race legs lasting up to three weeks between ports of call, crews put up with minimal sleep, freeze-dried food and exhausting work, all the while fighting oppressive heat, cold, and sea spray, all while fighting to remain aboard and dodging the constant dangers of rogue waves, icebergs, typhoons, shipping containers and pirates. In the past decade alone, the Volvo Ocean Race has seen boats dismasted and sunk, sailors break bones and lose teeth — and in one tragedy, a Dutch crew member was washed overboard and killed. It’s no wonder the race is called the “Everest of sailing”.
October 11th marks the start of another edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. This time, the race starts in Alicante, Spain and heads south, then east around the bottom of the globe before crossing the Equator again months later to finish up north in Gothenburg, Sweden next summer. Ports of call this time around include Capetown, Auckland, Sanya and Newport, each stopover playing host to an in-port race for points and a brief rest for crews and repairs to their battered vessels.
Ocean racing isn’t exactly the most spectator-friendly sport, but the VOR has made every effort to help fans follow the action once the boats disappear over the horizon. On-board embedded reporters are on every boat, with the strict instruction that they cannot aid the crew in any way but must file blog entries, photos and video clips from the boat every day of the race, via satellite. If you thought blogging from your desk was tough, imagine doing it from inside a heeled-over carbon fiber hull rounding Cape Horn. The boats are equipped with a quiver of joystick-controlled video cameras mounted in strategic positions, constantly recording, constantly erasing all the past footage to conserve storage space. Should any crew member deem a moment worthy of saving, big red buttons around the boat can be pushed to save the last two minutes. A new smartphone app tracks the race in real time, and all the teams have significant social media presence. NBC Sports Network will be showing the race in weekend capsules and the Volvo Ocean Race website is full of videos, photos and stories that are updated daily. Spectator friendly indeed.
To get you started, here’s a primer on the Volvo Ocean Race: the boats, the crews and the race route.
This year, the Volvo Ocean Race organizers decided to level the playing field by moving to a “one design” boat. This means that every crew is sailing the exact same boat built by the exact same boatyard. This takes the advantage out of the hands of the richest team owner and puts it back to where it belongs: the best crews with the best strategies and, yes, luck. Each Volvo Ocean 65 was designed by Farr Yacht Designs, a legendary firm known for its world-class racing yachts. 65-foot by 18-foot hulls with 100-foot masts, these boats are stripped down to the barest of essentials and built to go fast. Interiors are bare carbon fiber, with slings for sleeping and a head (toilet) that is little more than a hole in the deck. Going fast takes priority over privacy.
Length waterline (design): 20.00 m (65 ft)
Length overall (inc. bowsprit): 22.14 m (72ft)
Hull Beam overall (ISO 8666): 5.60 m (18.4 ft)
Max Draft (Keel on CL): 4.78 m (15.8 ft)
Boat Weight (empty): 12,500 kg (27,557 lb)
Keel arrangement: Canting keel to +/- 40 degrees with 5 degrees of incline axis
Rudders: Twin fixed rudders – composite stocks
Aft Water Ballast (Wing Tanks): Twin 800L ballast tanks under cockpit sides at transom
Forward Water Ballast (CL): Single centerline 1100L ballast tank forward of mast
Rig Height: 30.30 m (99.4 ft)
Bowsprit Length: 2.14 m (7ft)
Mainsail Area: 163 m2
Working Jib Area: 133 m2
Upwind Sail Area: 468 m2 (mainsail and masthead Code 0) 296 m2 (mainsail and working jib)
Downwind Sail Area: 578 m2 (mainsail and A3)
For the 2014 race, there are seven teams competing, including a Chinese crew and an all-female crew, the latter made possible by the easier-handling size and design of the Volvo Ocean 65. Each team consists of a skipper, and a tactician, in addition to grinders, bowmen and other on-deck roles. No one on the crew gets off easy; they rotate on and off shift in four-hour watch cycles. Here’s an overview of each team.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Race
Country: United Arab Emirates
Skipper: Ian Walker (GBR)
Home Port: Abu Dhabi, UAE
Crew Breakdown: AUS(2), GBR(2), IRL, NZL, ESP, UAE, USA
Lowdown: Abu Dhabi is the only complete team back for the second consecutive race with the same primary sponsor and skipper. Two-time Olympic silver medalist Ian Walker is looking to win it all in his third straight Volvo appearance with the backing of an experienced crew.
Dongfeng Race Team
Skipper: Charles Caudrelier (FRA)
Home Port: Georgetown, Cayman Islands
Crew Breakdown: CHN(5), FRA(5), SWE
Lowdown: Skipper Charles Caudrelier won onboard French entry Groupama in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. This year he has committed himself to molding a team half made up from Chinese sailors in order to inspire a nation still new to the sport of sailing.
Skipper: Charlie Enright (USA)
Home Port: Newport, RI
Crew Breakdown: USA(5), NZL(2), AUS, ITA
Lowdown: With seven crew members aged 30 or younger at the start line, the joint U.S.-Turkish entry with Turkish sponsor Alvimedica and a home port in the U.S. is the youngest and most inexperienced of the fleet. But navigator Will Oxley is a racing veteran and skipper Charlie Enright has dreamt of the opportunity to race in the Volvo since his early days in sailing.
Skipper: Bouwe Bekking (NED)
Home Port: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Crew Breakdown: NED(3), AUS, BEL, DEN, FRA, LTU, ESP
Lowdown: One of the most internationally diverse of crews, Bekking is a six-time veteran of the Volvo race, but has never captured the elusive title. Dutch boats have won this race three times (the most of any country), most recently with ABN-AMRO 1 in 2005-06, but have not had an entry in the race since then.
Skipper: Sam Davies
Home Port: Lanzarote, Canary Islands
Crew Breakdown: GBR(5), AUS(3), NED, SWI(2), USA(2)
Lowdown: As the first all-women’s crew in the race in over a decade and the first boat to officially enter the 2014-15 race, Team SCA has had more than 18 months of preparation time under perfect training conditions in Lanzarote, Canary Islands to prove themselves. They are hungry to succeed and the team will be allowed a crew of 11 under race rules, three more than men’s teams.
Skipper: Iker Martinez (ESP)
Home Port: Alicante, Spain
Crew Breakdown: ESP(5), ARG, BRA, FRA(3), GBR
Lowdown: Longtime partners Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez have sailed together for years and won Olympic gold together. But after winning the first three legs of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, they slowly lost their edge and were passed on the leaderboard by Groupama, the eventual winners, after Leg 7.
Team Vestas Wind
Skipper: Chris Nicholson (AUS)
Home Port: Copenhagen, Sweden
Crew Breakdown: AUS(2), DEN(2), NZL(2), ARG, NED, IRL
Lowdown: The last entry into the race only announced their participation in early August, but they are led by racing veteran Chris Nicholson — twice a runner-up — and have unique a backing sponsor in Vestas, the biggest wind energy company in the world. With just two months to prepare, Team Vestas may need some time to work out the kinks, but expect them to move quickly and finish strong.
2014’s race route covers over 38,000 miles and passes through all of the world’s oceans. The longest leg will be from Auckland, New Zealand to Itaj, Brazil, during which crews’ endurance will be tested as they maintain their four-hour watches for weeks on end amid the roughest seas they’re likely to face. Every leg of the race has its hazards beyond the obvious: the North Atlantic has active shipping lanes that pose the constant risk of collision with ships or lost containers. The Indian Ocean is rife with piracy, while the Southern Ocean is well known for its fierce storms and massive waves.
Along the way, the teams will stop over in ports, where boats will be refitted, wounds will be licked and crews will get reacquainted with their land legs back before setting out again. In-port races count for points which figure into the overall scoring along with cumulative time and finishing order. Here’s a look at the different cities that will welcome the fleet along their long journey around the planet.