VOLVO OCEAN RACE: An all-female crew is competing in  the 2014-15 around the world Volvo Ocean Race

by Julia Brandon

The Volvo Ocean Race is ocean racing’s toughest test. Lasting an arduous nine months, seven teams will compete this year in a nine-leg race around the world. On average, each stage takes around 20 days, while the stopovers can be anything from 18 days to six.

Covering 38,739 miles (76,745km) in total, completing it is no mean feat, and strength and endurance are two of the main prerequisites. So it is little surprise that Team SCA has attracted so much media interest this year with its all-female crew.

Emotions among the international mix of yachtswomen – which includes American, British, Australian, Swiss, and Dutch sailors – are running high about the challenge that lies ahead. “Team SCA is not a ‘second-hand’ project, but a first-class professional project with great potential,” says crew member Carolijn Brouwer, an accomplished multi-hull and Olympic sailor, while experienced Volvo Ocean Race competitor, Abby Ehler, adds: “There are no excuses: we have all the tools and support [necessary] to achieve.”

Overnight training for Team SCA off Lanzarote

Overnight training for Team SCA off Lanzarote

MADE FOR WOMEN

Team SCA is not the first all-female crew to take part in the Volvo Ocean Race – that honor was claimed by Team Maiden in 1988-89. However, it is the first team created for women to compete with the same opportunities as men. Far from being a novelty or gimmick, the corporate message behind the decision is the empowerment of women.

SCA is a leading global hygiene and forest products company that develops and produces sustainable personal care and forest products. Eighty percent of its consumers are women, and through its everyday products the company supports the empowerment of women and their freedom to participate fully in society. So, there is a definite synergy between the sponsor’s goals and the needs of female sailing, according to Victoria Low, communications director for Team SCA.

“It’s been 12 years since a women’s team last took part in the race, and there is a huge gap in the depth of expertise among women compared to men. We need this Volvo Ocean Race to get up to speed with what is required from women’s sailing, so this female team is very important from both a sailing perspective, and SCA’s brand perspective.

“Our aim is to be the best performing all-female team in the history of the race,” she adds. “But we’re very keen to assert that we’re a professional sailing team that happens to be made up of women. We’re a sports team first, and women second.”

Of course, no amount of empowerment can change the fact that men tend to have a physical advantage over women. Not only does a male team have superior accumulated strength, but their overall weight is greater, and it is weight that stabilizes the boat.

 

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LEVEL PEGGING

This year, to put all teams on a competitive equal footing a new rule has been passed which stipulates all-female teams are allowed 11 crew members while the male teams remain at eight.

“This is a great opportunity for women’s sailing and it is the right time to do it with the change in the Volvo Ocean Race rules,” says Sam Davies, an accomplished single-handed sailor from Great Britain. “The top-level coaching structure and technical team in place will help to fast-track our steep learning curve and I really believe we have the opportunity to achieve some amazing results in the next race.”

The newly designed Volvo Ocean 65 boat also puts all teams on a more level pegging. Designed with safety and stability in mind, teams are now only as good as the sum of their crew, although this does not escape the fact that there is roughly three tonnes of material aboard that needs to be moved at a moment’s notice. So, besides power training and the obvious skills required to sail the boat to its maximum potential, Team SCA’s physical preparation includes rapid response to the sudden need to maneuver huge weights.

“It’s mentally and physically grueling, and the male teams have the advantage of experienced crew,” acknowledges Low. “Team SCA has a mix of experience – some who sailed the Volvo Ocean Race before in 2001-2002, and some who sailed in the Olympics – but the team as a whole requires a mixed skill set.”

With only themselves to rely on, the multinational crew must encompass a wide variety of professions, including a doctor, engineer, meteorologist, strategist, navigator, tactician, etc. “When we recruit we’re trying to develop an optimum team across all skill sets, so that when they’re out on the course they know how to dismantle a winch while getting battered by waves, or how to get the main sail down, patch it and stitch it back together at night,” adds Low.

PREPARING FOR HELL

By March this year, the team had already covered 10,000 miles (around 16,093km) in training over a five-week period. Their routine sees them up at 6.30 ready to hit the gym before seven hours of sailing, six days a week. They are undergoing 48-72 hour stints of offshore training to practice the on-board watch system of four people per watch – four hours on and four hours off. And they also undertake transatlantic training, which replicates racecourse conditions. According to Low, it is not so much their ability to sail or fit into the team that they focus on during training, but more about “preparing them for the hell that could be out there”.

In October, when the race begins in Alicante, Spain, they can look forward to months of physical exhaustion, intolerable weather conditions, and navigating one of the biggest shipping channels in the world, thanks to the recently announced new pit stop at The Hague. But despite all this, the team’s enthusiasm for what lies ahead is palpable.

American crew member Sally Barkow competed for the US team in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and was US Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year in 2005. She says: “It is a tremendous opportunity to have the chance to race around the world. It is in our nature to continue to push as hard as possible knowing there are no limits to how successful we can be.”

And although she will not actually be sailing herself, Low shares her enthusiasm. “This will be my fifth Volvo Ocean Race, and the third time I’ve been in a female team. I’m very proud of what they want to achieve, and it’s great to be part of a team that is taking a proper sportswomen’s approach. The crew has really struggled to get here, and if at the end of it all we have empowered other women to go out and push themselves harder, then we will have achieved our goal.”