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Hell & Back In 250 Days: Life In The Volvo Ocean Race

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Hell on Earth doesn’t rain fire. It rains sea water. The Volvo Ocean Race is the ultimate endurance event, the last frontier, the Everest of sailing where teams are placed at the mercy of the most relentless oceans Mother Nature’s fury can conceive.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to partake in one of the world’s most death-defying sea races, then this is your one way ticket to 250 days in the blue hell.

What Lies Ahead

The triennial round-the-world yacht race began in 1973 and is deemed one of the ‘Big Three’ events in the sport, along with the Olympics and the America’s Cup. The current round began in the Mediterranean in the Spanish town of Alicante, on October 4 last year, and over the next nine months will span 11 ports and 38,739 nautical miles, ending in June in the home of Volvo, Gottenburg Sweden.

Those 11 ports are in 11 different stunning countries, starting in Europe and spreading across Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas to make it a truly global circumnavigation.  The seven teams are composed of more than 19 nationalities: China, UK, France, the USA, Spain, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, Argentina, Brazil and Antigua.

Sounds like fun in the sun, right? Wrong. It’s not just hokey scenic cruises. The Volvo Ocean Race is where the world’s best come to test their skills and get their spirits decimated on a daily basis before pulling up to the finish line battered and bruised – and that’s only if your yacht survives its voyage.

This is a race. Crews are sailing, flat out for weeks at a time.

Among the global crews are Olympians, World Champs and Volvo Ocean Race veterans alongside sailing rookies and an onboard reporter on each boat – brave journalists and photographers who managed to get their sea legs in time for the start of the race.

So besides getting bashed around on the 30-metre yacht itself, what appeal is there for the land-based fan who’s opted to stay dry? The merger of undeterrable human intuition and cutting-edge technology to see the chequered flag of course. This ever-evolving element keeps the race allure fresh by embracing the marvels of nautical engineering and high-tech communications teamed with the unyielding spirit to win.

We’re talking carbon fibre construction, advanced design and onboard reporters documenting the minutiae of every day. Including the luxury of a hot soup after a four hour stint on deck against the bone crushing waves and gallons of seawater in the face like a fire hose.

Like any grand sport, there’s also cameras mounted on deck that constantly stream exciting images for audiences around-the-clock. Those keen enough can stay updated on course data charting via social media or a race tracking app.

But despite the high-tech connections the seven boats and their crews have with race HQ in Spain, the reality can be dire and is often heart breaking. The six teams of nine men and women inside these “tractors of the sea” – a one-design VO65 that houses their full complement of sails, nav equipment, safety gear, food and essentials – have to deal with huge changes in temperature from minus 5 to plus 40 degrees Celsius.

All the while navigating the massive sea fronts and incredibly complex weather patterns to keep the yacht moving at a competitive pace.

Let’s not leave out the mundanity of routine and claustrophobia though. Think four hour shifts at the helm or trimming, before retiring for food and hopefully, broken naps in your net bed down below while the missile you’re in lurches and heaves during your four hour “break”.

That is unless conditions require a change of sails, and then it’s all hands on deck again – once you get your protective and safety gear on which itself is a half-hour process.

This is a race. Crews are sailing, flat out for weeks at a time. Life onboard a VO65 is as extreme as it gets. Unbearable lows and highs in temperatures, hostile weather and rough sailing conditions, constant dampness, sleep deprivation, one pair of clothes, restricted communications with the outside world and sustained competitiveness accompany the sailors for up to 25 days at a time – all at rushing speeds of 30 knots.

Fitness, fortitude and above all, the skills to get on with each other are crucial.

Joining The Ultimate Race

The latest and most epic section of the race, Leg 5 from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil began with a three-day delay due to Tropical Cyclone Pam hovering on the coast of New Zealand after wreaking its destruction in Vanuatu. At the time, race officials refused to send crews into the cyclone’s maw, despite the likelihood of much worse in the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn.

“You don’t send boats into the face of a storm, they need to be able to leave the coast in safety,” explained the Race Director, Jack Lloyd.

“30-Foot Waves, Icebergs And No Land For Hundreds of Miles”

Lloyd acknowledged that at least if the boats encountered a cyclone at sea, they’d have the choice of skirting it, tackling it headlong or riding on its edges to gain an advantage.

“We must offer crews choices and safety is at the forefront of everything we do,” Lloyd continued. “Leg 5 across the Southern Ocean is where the fleet will be its most isolated and where they will encounter the most extreme conditions – 30-foot waves, icebergs and no land for hundreds of miles. We have to take precautions and we have chosen to reschedule the start of Leg 5 for that reason.”

Once Pam’s fury petered out somewhat, the diminished fleet, now down to six boats after Team Vestas Wind was stranded on a reef at Cargados Carajos Shoals in the middle of the Indian Ocean, set off on the longest stretch of the race and its half-way point. A further 19 days in the blue hell would ensue with casualties.

Only five boats rounded Cape Horn after a Southern Ocean rollercoaster where each of them crashed on its side as the Southern Ocean and then the south Atlantic threw the freezing kitchen sink at them.

Abu Dhabi Race Team, helmed by British Olympian and two-time VOR veteran, Ian Walker took line honours into the Brazilian coastal city, which had been building up to a rapturous vuvuzela and samba welcome unique to this vibrant people.

Chinese entry, Dongfeng Race Team became dismasted and dramatically pulled out of the race. Under motor, Dongfeng eventually limped to Itajaí to join in the celebrations, while the team’s shore crew faced a race against time to have the new mast refitted in time for the start of the next leg to Newport, Rhode Island.

There is no financial reward for winning the 38,739 nautical-mile race, yet no set of sailing honours can be complete without a glorious victory in the Volvo Ocean Race. And while it only involves sixty-six sailors every three years, the daunting race must surely awaken the primal beast within us all.

CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race, Knut Frostad points out that while the race itself is prestigious and exclusive, its ethos is entirely inclusive to the world.

“I like to think of the Volvo Ocean Race as an inspirational challenge. Our athletes are accessible, their stories are there for everybody to experience. It is unique, it’s authentic and very grounded. This is not a directed TV show.”

“The Volvo Ocean Race is life at the extreme, but it’s real life.”

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