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 €9m, 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 €50m. 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.


1st leg
Start: November 5, 2011
Alicante (Spain)
– 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 €4 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 ita 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.”

© Yann Riou


2nd leg
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 interimresults 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 thesecond leg. Telefónica wins ahead of Camper and Puma.


3rd leg
January 13, 2012
Abu Dhabi (UAE)
– Sanya (ChiNa)

Sleepless through the slalom

From the United Arab Emirates via India, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia to China it’s 22 days and 8,500km. The pirate danger in the Arabian Sea requires the same strategy as the third leg, except in reverse. A sprint through the Gulf of Oman, on a freighter to Malé, starting again on 22 January 2012. Through storms in the Bay of Bengal, then through the Strait of Malacca, a 900km passage between Malaysia and Indonesia. Slaloming between freighters, tankers and unlit fishing boats: here you have to be doubly attentive. Inside the boats the temperature is over 40°C, with extreme air humidity.

+ What’s worse: cold and wet or hot and wet?

“In the tropics there comes a moment when the crew wishes they were back in the icier parts of the regatta,” says Sanderson. “You can control cold and wet with good clothing and high calorie consumption, but when you’re hot and wet there’snothing you can do, except strip off. The computers on board make it hotter, but not enough to make the air drier.”

The fleet reaches the South China Sea and sets course for Sanya. The boats get a stiff wind right on the nose. For seven days, 24 hours a day, the waves hit the carbon hulls, sledgehammer style, and wear the crews down until they’re running on empty. Sleep? That’s reserved for the specialists.

+ Goodnight at full speed

“A Volvo Ocean Race crew works in a four-on-four-off rhythm: four hours’ sailing, four hours’ free time, and this pattern carries on 24/7,” says Sanderson. “In the berth you feel as if you are lying in a roaring, gurgling washing machine while a madman bashes the outside with a hammer every 10 seconds. Even when you’re tired enough to slip from a doze into sleep, you experience a rollercoaster ride and hit the hull or the edge of your berth with your head and suddenly you’re wide awake again. Somehow you manage to recover. Skippers and navigators don’t have a rhythm; their on-off phases are determined by the weather, the competition and self-exploitation.”

Telefónica manages to leap out of the South China slalom ahead of everyone else and sail as victors into the harbour of resort city Sanya. Since the beginning of the race in Spain the Ocean Racers have covered 30,000km. They’ve been at sea for 65 days and have had 23 days’ free time. Three of the six boats were so badly damaged that they had to forfeit a leg. Spanish team Telefónica has won all previous legs and so leads in the overall placings, ahead of Camper, Groupama, Puma, Abu Dhabi and Sanya.

Tactics are decided in the belly of the boat: navigator Tom Addis (left) and helmsman Tony Mutter ?(Team Puma) analyse the weather data and the positions of competing boats
© Amory Ross


4th leg
February 19, 2012
Sanya (China)
– Auckland (New Zealand)

A cloud as big as Texas

From China to New Zealand via the Fiji Islands in 19 days and 9,700km. Before the start of the race a typhoon rages north of Taiwan. As the Volvo Ocean Race sets out, the worst of the wind has passed, but it leaves behind a hysterically churned-up sea. “We drop like stones off the backs of these steep waves,” reports Nick Dana from Abu Dhabi. If a sail tears, it has to be repaired with a sewing machine below deck. Many repairs have to be carried out manually, with sail set and at full speed. And if that isn’t enough, one of the men has to climb the mast. Puma skipper Ken Read reports a strange observation: “It was night. We were going fast and then a green spot the size of Texas appeared on the radar.” A huge rain cloud over the ocean. A lot of water, no wind, no hope of avoiding it. Puma sits for six hours in the sea as the rest of the field speeds ahead. Groupama is in the lead. Shortly before the finish line of the leg, the bow starts to subside. Leak. The beating of the waves causes the shell of the hull to come away.

+ Why ships peel

“The technical term is ‘delamination’. The shell splinters from the enormous forces at work against the material,” says Sanderson. “You have to build thousands of horsepower into the boat so that it sails the same way under engine and sail. So you have a lot of mass times speed, huge amounts of energy, a lot of momentum… Hit the water with an open hand with full force and multiply that many times. Then you have some idea what goes on out there.”

Despite a hole in the boat, Groupama wins the fourth leg and so sails past Camper to take second place overall.

Groupama’s mast breaks off near Argentina
© Yann Riou


5th leg
March 18, 2012
Auckland (New Zealand)
– Itajai (BRazil)

The Roaring Forties

From New Zealand via the Pacific to the icy Southern Ocean, round Cape Horn and on to Brazil in 19 days and 13,000km.

+ Madness in the Southern Ocean

“Most people have constructed an image of the world for themselves, in which Europe, America and Asia are in the middle, separated by the big oceans – Atlantic, Pacific and Indian” says Sanderson. “They all empty into an ocean in the south, which we don’t know a whole lot about and which doesn’t really have much significance for most people. Volvo Ocean Racers see it differently: this vast ocean around Antarctica is the centre of their world. It begins at 35 degrees south and if you go right round the globe it is only interrupted by one piece of land: the southern tip of South America, the famous Cape Horn. To get to the Southern Ocean with the Volvo Ocean Race you have to sail the marginal seas, but they’re just the feeder lines to the serious sailing. At 40 degrees south the Roaring Forties begin, and then come the Screaming Fifties. They’re called that because of the noise that the wind makes from here on in. And then you dive into the peculiar grey of the ocean, the endless expanses that are ruled by the largest birds in the world, albatrosses. The weather systems are unbridled in their force. Take a storm depression over the Atlantic as comparison. It moves across the ocean, retires after a couple of days and dies out over Europe. A Southern Ocean depression races at breakneck speed three times round the planet, easily. This is the region where in the old days, the days of the great sailing ships, you’d sail from the Atlantic to Australia. On the other hand, these unchecked weather systems create gigantic waves, liquid Himalayas, which you can just keep surfing with the ship. I know two types of sailors: those who are drawn back here again and again, and those who don’t want to go back under any circumstances.”

As the Volvo Ocean Racers set off, they are met by a storm with winds of 120kph off New Zealand. Abu Dhabi’s bulkhead breaks. The rest of the regatta struggles on in the direction of Antarctica. On March 20, Puma reports two serious injuries. Thomas Johanson (Olympic gold medallist in 49er sailing) has dislocated his right shoulder. Casey Smith has a suspected slipped disc.On March 22 both patients are doing better, reports skipper Ken Read: “Thomas looks like a real person again! He was getting instructions on how to put his shoulder back over the radio from our doctor. You should have seen his face! At first agony, then wide-eyed and then an expression of speechless surprise as the pain suddenly subsided. Casey, on the other hand, carried out a set of exercises to determine whether it wasn’t in fact just a muscle injury. The experts explained that you can tell straight away: if it’s a slipped disc he’ll roar with pain. Casey didn’t roar.”On March 26, the field reaches the pack ice limit. Wind gusts remain at 120kph and the waves are 10m high.

+ Why would you do it to yourself?

“Why do people climb Mount Everest? The Volvo Ocean Race is the best sailing you can get,” says Sanderson. “You can go flat-out for months with the best sailors on the best boats. And the places you sail through are fantastic! The exertion, the danger, you know all that as soon as you step on board. The only stress we have is the race.”

On March 31, the crews of Groupama and Puma smoke their Cape Horn cigars. This is the traditional custom among sailors to celebrate rounding the most famous of all landmarks. On April 5, a shocked Franck Cammas reports by radio from leader Groupama: “We’ve just lost our rig!” Broken mast. Groupama motors 100km to the harbour of Punta del Este on the Argentinian coast and erects an emergency mast. On April 7, after a slog of 19 days, 18 hours, 9 minutes and 50 seconds, 13,000 monstrous kilometres through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn, Puma is just 12 minutes ahead of Telefónica over the finish line in the Brazilian port of Itajai. The crew is happy, but hungry: provisions ran out one and a half days before the end.

+ The truth about ship’s grub

“Yes, it’s true that the Volvo Ocean Race is unbelievably demanding and that every sailor loses weight and muscle mass during the race,” says Sanderson. “But it’s not true that the catering on board is terrible. There are dishes that are more for British tastes, like shepherd’s pie, chopped so fine as to be unrecognisable and mixed into a pulp, but for central Europeans it’s salvageable with a lot of Tabasco and pepper. The Brits (and the Kiwis, Aussies and Yanks) on the other hand seem to find risotto with spring vegetables boring. What helps? Correct: Tabasco and pepper. The typical menu on a Volvo Ocean Race yacht? Muesli or semolina for breakfast with tea or coffee and a handful of supplements (vitamins, minerals, etc). Lunch and dinner are main meals, freeze-dried and prepared with hot water. Between meals you have bars (protein, carbohydrates) and supplements. Liquid fibre once a day to keep the bowels working. After each shift on deck you have a shake to recharge the muscles. You desalinate sea water and stir in powder to make a hypotonic drink.”

Groupama reaches the finish line four days after Puma. Abu Dhabi and Sanya have given up, in fact Sanya is so broken up that they have to duck out of the sixth leg as well.

The sleep of the spent: as if business as usual wasn’t hard enough
© Yann Riou


6th leg
April 22, 2012
Itajai (BRazil)
– Miami (USA)

War of nerves in paradise

From Brazil through the Caribbean and on to the USA in 17 days, 8,900km. Friendly weather, holiday mood. But a walk in the park soon turns into a war of nerves. The culprit is the accordion effect. Puma skipper Ken Read pulls ahead of the field in the wind, hits the doldrums and although still in the lead, on the night before the finish he can only watch helplessly as Camper catches up mile for mile – to then find it is calm again. Nothing has changed in the overall placings: after six legs Telefónica is ahead of Groupama, Camper, Puma, Abu Dhabi and Sanya.

Danger can strike round the clock, in any weather conditions and in a variety of ways: crews learn that the shortest route isn’t always going to be the fastest (pictured: the Abu Dhabi team)
© Ian Roman


7th leg
May 20, 2012
Miami (USA)
– Lisbon (Portugal)

Tail storm

From the USA over the Atlantic to Portugal in 12 days, 6,500km. To begin with there’s a hurricane. ‘Alberto’ is moving with gusts of 100kph towards the East Coast of the US. The Volvo fleet heads north quickly in the Gulf Stream, right into the storm. Groupama is the first to reach the hurricane’s theatre of operations and so races ahead of the rest of the field – and later slips into a parking spot in the Atlantic as Alberto loses its breath.

+ Why the shortest route isn’t always the fastest

“The Volvo Ocean Race is like a game of chess on water,” says Sanderson. “The chess board covers all the oceans and the number of possible moves is almost endless. The prerequisites for the game are the predictability of the boat’s performance and the weather. The former is within your control, but the latter leaves a lot of room for speculation. Two men on board try to manoeuvre the boat through this jungle of uncertainty, the skipper and the navigator. At least one of the two stays in the depths of the yacht, far from daylight, staring at computers to predict future developments from an avalanche of weather data, with help from satellite images and live data. They are based on global weather models calculated every six hours by mainframe computers and sent to the fleet. In extreme cases a boat starts tearing off in the opposite direction and still finishes first.”

The top group of the overall placings has been through some changes in the seventh leg: Groupama leads ahead of Telefónica and Puma.

Groupama in heavy seas on the way to France. The bow plunges into a wave and, for a brief moment, turns the boat into a submarine
© Paul Todd


8th leg
June 10, 2012
Lisbon (Portugal)
– Lorient (France)

The dream shatters in the Atlantic

From Portugal via a wide arc in the Atlantic to France in five days, 3,600km. It’s neck and neck, all the teams are close together. The sea is raw and churned up. Winds of 80kph, waves 7m high. A tactical battle, because going fast isn’t enough now. If you want to sail you have to avoid making mistakes – and arrive in one piece. Telefónica is ahead, followed closely by Groupama, but suddenly the Spaniards’ rudder breaks. They fall back, catch up again, but then the rudder breaks once more. Telefónica manages to slink towards the finish line. At the end of this leg, the Spaniards fall back to fourth place in the overall placings. Their dream of overall victory is over.


9th leg
July 1, 2012
Lorient (France)
– Galway (IreLand)

Winners don’t need running water

One and a half days, 900km; for Ocean Racers it’s a stone’s throw from France to Ireland. Groupama could cruise into fourth place and still secure overall victory. However, the Frenchmen grapple with leading team Camper right up to the finish line, ending this leg in second place, but ahead of the final Harbour Race they’re unreachable in the overall placings. After 248 days and 78,000km, the winner of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011/12 is Groupama, ahead of Camper, Puma, Telefónica, Abu Dhabi and Sanya.And of all people, it was a Volvo Ocean Race rookie who led Groupama to victory. Skipper Franck Cammas, 40, is also an extreme cyclist, skier, swimmer and mountain climber. Up to now he has scored his greatest successes on multihull boats, breaking long-distance records (including a Jules Verne Trophy victory in 2010 for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe in under 50 days), and has won more than 30 high seas regattas. And Cammas has managed to achieve all these nautical accolades, even though he grew up in Aix-en-Provence, more than 30km away from the open sea, in a house without running water.

Check out the other fascinating stories in the June issue of The Red Bulletin and download the free Red Bulletin App, available on the App Store for the iPad and in Google Play for Android.


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