The toughest route, the most expensive equipment, the best crews: the Volvo Ocean Race has as much in common with regular sailing as survival has with death. Those who know it best welcome you to the world’s most challenging regatta.
The principle of the Volvo Ocean Race is simple: take one racing yacht valued at R90m, put the world’s best sailors on it, and send the whole lot off on a 72,000km marathon, once around the globe. In 2011/12 the route went from Spain via South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, China, New Zealand, Brazil, the USA, Portugal and France, in legs of up to 22 days and nights on its way to the finish line in Ireland. It thus passed through every ocean, hitting the coast of every continent, experiencing every climate.
The boats with their crews (each with 10 sailors and a media man reporting live on board) are met in each harbour by service teams who nurse the ocean-battered boats back to health. The Volvo Ocean Race isn’t just extreme from a sporting perspective: giving one single team any chance of overall victory chews up about R500m. So the team members of the 2011/12 race are employees of major companies: Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg; Groupama Sailing Team; Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing; Team Sanya; Team Telefónica and Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand.
Who is the right type of sailor for a Volvo Ocean Race yacht?
“There are very few sailors who can get that kind of yacht moving in racing conditions. It’s as limited as the number of people who can drive a Formula One car,” says two-time Olympian and skipper in the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race Andreas Hanakamp. “You have to train your whole life. You need the instincts to work around the dangers out there, as a sailor but also in confronting nature. It helps to have an additional qualification – sailmaker, for example, boat builder, plastics engineer, electrical engineer, doctor. If you do all of that together, long enough at a high enough level, maybe you have a chance at sailing in the Volvo Ocean Race.”
Given all those criteria, the list of skippers in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011/12 is a Who’s Who of the sailing elite: they include Olympic champions such as Iker Martínez (Spain); world champions and America’s Cup competitors such as Ken Read (USA), world record holders such as Franck Cammas (France) and the type of old seadog who takes a quick break from the Volvo Ocean Race to meet up with the love of his life at the altar. Memorably, New Zealander Mike ‘The Moose’ Sanderson did just that in the 2005/06 race. Plus he was zippy enough to still go on and win the regatta afterwards.
VO70-type boats are 21.5m long, a maximum of 5.7m wide, weigh 14.5 tonnes and reach a maximum speed in excess of 75kph. From a construction point of view, a VO70 is a racing yawl on steroids. At the lowest point of the seven-tonne steel keel, 4.5m under the waterline, is a keel bulb weighing several tonnes. The keel can be swivelled up to 40 degrees laterally to follow the wind direction. This action forces the boat to position itself against the wind pressure and so present as much sail surface as possible. It’s a brutally simple concept, and thus typical for the Volvo Ocean Race: if the wind blows the sail at maximum force, it presses the foot of the 31m-high carbon mast with the force of 50 tonnes in the hull.
Start: November 5, 2011
– Cape Town (South Africa)
Crash test in the Atlantic
From Spain to South Africa via Brazil in 21 days, a distance of 12,000km. Storms. Waves as tall as houses. At Abu Dhabi the mast breaks. Sanya collides with flotsam and springs a leak. “We were lucky,” says Sanya skipper Mike Sanderson. If the main bulkhead, the partition in the hull, hadn’t held, the yacht would have sunk.
Who saves you if the boat sinks?
“When you’re 3,000km from the coast, no one can help,” explains Sanderson. “Helicopters don’t have the reach and escort motorboats can’t keep up with yachts in these kinds of waves. It’s like mountain climbing. Above 7,000m, no one can save you there either. You’re on your own. Only other Ocean Racers can save you. The rules ensure that you get time compensated if you save a competitor. In 2005/06 that’s what happened. Movistar sank and ABN AMRO 2 rescued the team from the water.”
Of the six boats, only three (first Telefónica, second Camper, third Groupama) finish the first leg under their own power. Puma, Sanya and Abu Dhabi are severely mangled and are shipped to Cape Town aboard a cargo ship. The drop-out rate of 50 per cent leads to discussions: some say the rules inspire reckless solutions, or that the yachts have become too sophisticated.
Why aren’t the boats more robust?
“That’s part of the game. More robust means more weight,” says Sanderson. “More weight means slower. Lighter, on the other hand, means you need a lot of service personnel and a lot of equipment to patch the boat up after each leg. And a lot of money: 400kg less weight costs you an additional R40 million or so in service expenses. The big teams juggle 30-head service crews and 12 huge workshop containers from harbour to harbour.”
Cape Town Harbour. All the boats have arrived and are handed over to the service teams. The sailors get 14 days’ shore leave.
How do boats and crews get back in shape?
“The boats are cleaned up and completely dismantled,” explains Sanderson. Each part is checked over and, if necessary, replaced. This happens in a U-shaped yard formed of containers. The space between the containers is covered and serves as a sail-making workshop. The boats also have tobe completely disinfected. When you have 11 guys toiling like madmen and living together for 22 days and nights in a tight space, you have to do more than just give it a bit of a clean. Shore leave of 14 days may sound generous, but only at first glance: the lads are completely worn out. They look years older than they did when they first went on board.”
December 11, 2011
Cape Town (South Africa)
– Abu Dhabi (UAE)
Piggy-backing past the pirates
From South Africa through the Seychelles to the United Arab Emirates in 22 days and 10,000km. As prevention against possible attack from Somali pirates, the race organisers secretly change the course. The teams make an interim stop with interim results in Malé in the Maldives, where they’re loaded onto an armed cargo ship and transported to the Gulf of Oman. There they carry out the rest of the second leg. Telefónica wins ahead of Camper and Puma.
Read the full story in September's issue of The Red Bulletin.