This is what it’s like to sail in a cyclone

Stormy seas and serious wind – watch what happens in the Volvo Ocean Race when a cyclone hits.
By Jonno Turner

Reefs, killer whales, sharks and underwater mountains – in this nine-month round the world adventure, there are plenty of dangers lurking under the water. For sailors on the Volvo Ocean Race, they're prepared for living in tough circumstances. But sometimes, the biggest threats come from elsewhere. It’s not enough to look down – you have to look up, too. Be sure not miss the complete video at the bottom of the page – or check out more of the race on!

Check out video from the cyclone sail

“This is the first time I’ve sailed into a cyclone,” says Team SCA’s navigator Libby Greenhalgh, letting out a nervous laugh. Around her, the boat grunts and groans, creaking under the stress of the winds and rain relentlessly battering it.

To most people, a cyclone is reason to batten down the hatches, stay indoors. But to a rare few, the prospect of 50 knots of boat-breaking breeze and stormy conditions is a lure too good to resist.

Sailing into a cyclone
Hitting a cyclone means hauling ass © Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing / Volvo Ocean Race

After all, these salty adventurers are racing across the sea. They’re desperate to steal every inch, every metre, every mile on their opponents – and playing well off a storm is going to give them a chance to do just that. “If you push hard and get away with it, you can take big miles,” says Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker, weighing up the options. “But then again, if you push it too hard, you can’t finish the leg, so the stakes are high.”

See the stormy seas

It’s the ultimate, all-in gamble. Hit it just right and, spinning like a roulette machine, the full force of the storm could slingshot you to your destination. But get it wrong, calculate an imperfect angle, or misjudge its severity – and there’s no two ways about it. It’s game over.

Imagine driving a go-kart fast around a track corner. It’s important to carve out a tight line, from outside to inside and back to outside. It’s exactly the same when gybing in and out of the eye of a cyclone – except the road is greasy, your breaks don’t work, and the track is constantly moving.

Sailing into a cyclone
Grab a hold of something! © Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing / Volvo Ocean Race

And when you’re living in these conditions 24/7, a single decision could be the difference between winning or losing – between life and death.

“It becomes a bit like being in a washing machine,” explains Will Oxley, on Team Alvimedica. “You can be flying along and a wave will come from the side and just completely engulf the boat. We know that if you go overboard it will be very difficult to get you back.”

Plenty of up and down

When the wind blows from behind, and the current comes from the front, each wave is as big as a house – a 10m skate ramp, with nothing but a fall waiting on the other side.

“I don’t think your body is meant to do this for days on end!” shouts Dave Swete, as thousands of saltwater marbles scatter over his head, spilling onto the deck. It’s like driving over speed bumps at 80 kph. It’s turbulent, temperamental – and often, tempting fate. After all, sometimes, even with the best navigation and forecasting equipment, Mother Nature is simply one step ahead.

Sailing into a cyclone
Got your raincoat on? © Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing / Volvo Ocean Race

As the Volvo Ocean Race fleet left Auckland to begin Leg 5 to Brazil earlier this month, the region was being ravaged by 200km/hr Cyclone Pam. Days earlier, the storm had torn its way through the islands, crumpling buildings like scrunched up balls of waste paper.

“When you’re sleeping, you get lifted up by the waves then smashed back onto the bunk,” says Liu Xue, on Dongfeng Race Team. That’s why sailors sleep with their feet to the bow, and strapped in tight. To guard against bumps in the night – bloodied noses and broken necks.

And as the navigator and oldest member of Team Alvimedica, Will Oxley is all too aware of the gravity of his strategic decisions. “In some ways, you feel responsible for sending the crew into bad conditions, and you don’t do that lightly,” he admits, staring out into an angry and unpredictable sky. “We’ll be careful - but we’ll also take an opportunity if it presents itself. It’s a case of risk versus reward.”

And when you’re eyeing first place, sometimes, the ultimate reward is worth the ultimate risk.

Sailing into a cyclone
This man is brushing his teeth © Matt Knighton / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing / Volvo Ocean Race
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