VOLVO OCEAN RACE: No other extreme sport is anywhere near as long, grueling, exciting or as dangerous as the Volvo Ocean Race which starts on October 4
by Julia Brandon
“The first time I ever took part, we fired our skipper after the first leg but still ended up coming second,” says Volvo Ocean Race veteran Richard Mason. “The Volvo Ocean Race is all about turning around potentially massive disasters. You have to turn the worst into the best. Anyone racing for the first time this year needs to remember two things: first, to stay focused on the team unit, that’s what defines a team, and secondly, never, never, never give up.”
Lasting an incredible nine months, the Volvo Ocean Race is the longest yacht race in the world, with no prize money at the end of it. Teams are required to sail between 11 ports – starting in Alicante, Spain and ending up in Gothenburg, Sweden – covering a total of 38,739 nautical miles. It is the leading round-the-world yacht race, with a series of stops giving fans the chance to see the boats up close and experience the spectacular In-Port Race Series.
The Everest of the sailing world, it is the mother of all challenges, and a coveted international accolade that drives crews to push themselves well beyond the limit – simply for the glory of having been there and done it. The race attracts millions of spectators, and a global television audience in excess of 1.3 billion.
With some teams training for up to two years before the race even starts, participants work alongside each other for eight hours a day, as well as sharing the same space to live, eat and sleep. Nerves inevitably become frayed, particularly when sleep deprivation is thrown into the mix, and it is only the most driven, craving the achievement of sailing around the world, who make the grade.
“You end up knowing your team better than you know your own family,” says Australian-born Mason, who is backing up the all-female Team SCA for the 2014/15 race, bringing his vast experience to head up the technical shore management side of the project.
“You see the best and worst of people, and it’s important to understand when they’re at their best and worst. Understanding this is a key component to the successful management of a team.” A 16-year professional sailing career has seen Mason compete in almost every major event in the sport.
“As a sailor, you can train for all eventualities in the race, but you need to understand all aspects of the boat, too, including engineering and mechanical requirements, and be physically fit. The best team is a melting pot. You could have the best sailors in the world making up the crew and it wouldn’t work – you need a dynamic pool of people, including the quirky one, the calm one when things start to go bad, the clever one, the fastidious one – then collectively you become very strong.”
Mason has competed in four Volvo Ocean Races and sailed most recently as watch captain and boat captain in Team Sanya in the 2011/12 race. Since then, there have been a number of significant changes to the event, including the additions of a first-ever visit to the US sailing mecca
of Newport, Rhode Island and a new pit-stop destination in The Hague in the Netherlands.
“The schedules are tighter now, and it’s steadily become more commercial and professional,” says Mason. “The time factor is probably the biggest change though. The teams sail in port now, so they are sailing for three to four days before each leg even starts.
“And the stopovers are more compressed, so they don’t get many days off and there’s a lot to fit into them now – media, family, technical commitments – it’s tough.”
The first Volvo Ocean Race was held in 1973. It was conceived by Guy Pearce and Anthony Churchill who were inspired by Robin Knox-Johnston’s 1969 win in The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race – the first-ever non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race.
In a fleet of 17 ocean cruisers, 167 adventure-seeking sailors set sail, navigating by dead reckoning, and buoyed up by fresh food, wine and the thrill of the unknown.
They sailed to foreign shores, battled with the elements, with only the courses taken by 19th century square-riggers to guide them. Despite three fatalities, the first Volvo Ocean Race was deemed a rip-roaring success, and an event that took on the sea at its most unpredictable was born.
Much has changed since then, most of all the new one-design Volvo Ocean 65 introduced for this 2014-15 race. This radical, high-performance, world-class boat will see all the teams, including less-experienced or late entries, put on a level playing field for the first time. It has the added bonus of keeping costs down for the teams as there is less room for future development, although it changes the focus of the race with the emphasis shifting to the crew’s capability rather than technical elements.
This year, the boats will also carry on-board media reporters. It is hoped that the everyday features of life on the boats that are often missed will now be captured, bringing the race even closer to its audience.
Contingency plans are in place for all manner of crises both within the sailing teams and the Volvo organizers. On average, each team has two or three medics aboard – sailors trained in first aid – and the boats are tracked for 24 hours a day. Should the crew encounter any difficulties or if someone falls ill or is injured during the race, the boat’s phone dials a hotline with surgeons and other specialists on hand to give immediate advice.
“The teams this year are the most prepared yet,” says Mason, “but the race is never what you are expecting. It’s taken me four races to see that it only gets better – every time I sail around Cape Horn it’s such a big achievement – but you have to expect the unexpected.”