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No Fresh Food, Freezing Water & Possible Death…Why Sailors Take On The Volvo Ocean Race

A place where the sea bites back.

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The Southern Ocean is where Mother Nature exacts her fury and no one can hear it.

Every year though a select few of the world’s most talented sailors test this theory by going up against zero degree waters and twenty metre high waves in nothing but a sturdy plastic boat and a big sail.

“If you end up off these boats you have to have the mentality that you’re done for.”

Insane? Almost. This is the Volvo Ocean Race, the international proving ground where extreme sailing and human survival instincts meet to forge a winning team across eight months of competition in treacherous sea.

What You Didn’t Know About Extreme Sailing

The effects of salt water on the hands and not showering for 20 days

The task was set for us on this fine day in New Zealand’s Auckland Harbour. Champagne, canapés, sparkling water…forget about all that nonsense. This wasn’t your usual fair of precious influencers dressed up, galavanting around and pretending to know about the sport.

We were novices amongst amateurs amongst professionals and everyone would do their part on the waters, albeit much calmer waters.

The Volvo Ocean Race was onto its 7th leg of an 11 leg voyage and its latest stopover would provide us the perfect opportunity to experience an iota of what it’s like to be a crew member.

“No fresh food is taken on board with crew members living off freeze-dried edibles.”

Volvo Ocean Race teams consist of 7 to 11 members who engage in competition through day and night across legs that can last up to 20 days. The crew members are required to be more than just sailors with some trained in medical response, sail-making, diesel engine repair, electronics, nutrition, mathematics and hydraulics.

Each boat also has its own dedicated media personnel to cover the event however they are not allowed to help with the sailing of the boat.

Microwaved meals are also a luxury that VOC participants cannot afford. No fresh food is taken on board with crew members living off freeze-dried edibles or sneaking on jars of Nutella for each race duration.

They will also be faced with wild temperature variations between −5 to +40 degrees Celsius – with no showers available. The only reprieve here is deodorant, wet wipe gloves and one change of clothes until the next stop over.

We shook the hands of one of the Dongfeng Race Team crew members and it felt like sand paper laced with a layer of broken glass.

Salt water does crazy things to the human body and one of them is the erosion of skin that’s further accelerated with constantly wet hands and six hours a day of trimming the mainsail (holding a rope).

Race Stars Talk Timing & Risks

First order of the day involved catching up with Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, two champion sailors in their own right who share the coveted title as winners of the 35th America’s Cup and global ambassadors for OMEGA watches.

“I think the VOC is an amazing journey. The racing is very close between boats and it’s an awesome adventure as well as travelling to cool places,” says Tuke.

“You go to some pretty extreme places of the world. Southern Ocean is a cool leap from Cape Town to Melbourne. The next leg is the most isolated part of the globe.”

With OMEGA being the official timekeeper to the race series, the boys say that their timing instruments need to be absolutely impervious to the seas. Their weapon of choice? The OMEGA Seamaster Planet Ocean.

“Our watch has to be pretty robust. Obviously waterproof,” says Tuke.

“The whole boat runs on a 24-hour timing system so you need to be pretty accurate on your timing from just knowing what time it is to knowing how long it is before you go to sleep.”

Dial design is also a significant factor that often gets overlooked. Legibility across all light levels are a must in order to reduce distraction from the race, so a suitable dial needs to wear big numerals, distinguishable hands the right colours. In this case, a red highlight is chosen as it’s the first colour to be indistinguishable beyond a water depth of five metres.

“The chance of finding you are pretty slim. You don’t want to fall off the boat.”

Good timing often leads to good results but at the end of the day Mother Nature is always in control.

“You put a lot of effort into putting safety in the forefront,” says Burling.

“You have some pretty good systems in place, but down south there’s always a lot water going around and you’re getting washed around the boat a bit.”

“If you end up off these boats you have to have the mentality that you’re done for.”

“The boat’s going at 25 knots and you fall over. By the time the boat slows down, gets the sails down and comes back, they’re already quite a few miles gone and the chance of finding you are pretty slim. You don’t want to fall off the boat.”

Riding The Sails Home

The good times come with the risks

We learnt cool terminology like ‘Port’ (left) and ‘Starboard’ (right), saw what an onboard toilet looks like, witnessed the cutting-edge technology involved in producing a vessel of this calibre and met the men and women who do this as a day job for eight months of the year.

Whilst our experience was brief, it was enough to comprehend the dedication and risks that these sailors go through in the name of competition at the highest level.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of sacrifice. Once you set a goal you set a goal and work towards it. The results come later,” says Tuke.

“It’s similar in all sports,” adds Burling. “You never see the hard training days. You really can’t grasp how full on it is out there unless you’re on the boat.”

“There are times you’re not loving it but you have to push through those times and then there’s more rewarding times. A bit more fun.”

Dedicated to the sailing legacy of John Fisher, who was this week announced lost at sea to the sport he loved.

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