Watch Sailboats Race in Dangerous Waters

What’s it like to race a sailboat across the ocean? Well, one thing it isn’t: Flat.
So inclined
Plenty of spray, too © Francisco Vignale/MAPFRE/Volvo Ocean Race
By Jonno Turner

Gravity is a cruel mistress. It pulls and tugs and grabs at your legs, it wraps its thick and heavy chains around your ankles. Just ask the Volvo Ocean Race sailors, currently making their way from China to New Zealand in Leg 4 of an epic nine-month adventure around the world.

Their life is an extreme one — extremely wet, extreme levels of difficulty and extreme angles of heel. The technical term for it is "heeling over" — and basically, it’s when the wind pummels and pounds the boat’s sails so hard that it leans to one side. A life lived at 45 degrees.

See more on Red Bull TV's "Life at the Extreme"

Watch what it's like to live at 45 degrees

 

And down below, with the curved edges of the hull, you can add another 5 or 10 degrees. “It’s not easy and it’s very uncomfortable — this boat heels a lot,” says Dongfeng Race Team skipper Charles Caudrelier, onboard his Volvo Ocean 65.

And guess what — when the boat heels, everything else inside it heels too. In fact, life on an angle makes even the most basic tasks almost impossible. A cup of coffee? Good luck. Changing your clothes? Have fun.

You're going to get wet

 

We asked the saltiest sailors how to best describe the sensation of trying to balance while heeling and slamming at full speed in high winds and a ferocious ocean. Here's how one put it: “Imagine standing on the side of a slippery mountain made of ice, and that mountain is moving and trembling due to an earthquake. Now imagine trying to boil water, make food and brush your teeth, whilst all the time keeping your balance.”

So inclined
Team Alvimedica takes a nap © Amory Ross/Team Alvimedica

In other words, when you’re heeling and racing upwind in 25 knots, the only really safe place is the bunk — and that’s because it comes with a seatbelt. “The very idea of eating makes me nauseous,” says Sam Greenfield, alongside Caudrelier on Dongfeng. “Thinking about performing simple acts, like putting on my wet weather gear to go outside and pee, feels like squaring off on the starting line of a marathon across the Gobi Desert.”

Check our VOR pre-event primer

So inclined
This is a view askew © Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

It’s kind of like being in the International Space Station — cramped and complex but without the floating. Instead, they stick to the floor, monkey-climbing their way from one side of the boat to the other, as if conquering a carbon-fiber rock face.

The smallest movement requires ultimate focus, three points of contact and an awareness of where to grab the next possible grip or foothold. “I feel like an orangutan swinging around down below,” says Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Neal McDonald, a six-time veteran of the race.

So inclined
Staring into the sun at 45 degrees © Amory Ross/Team Alvimedica

As their boat drills into tower-high waves one after the next with a relentless pounding rhythm, gallons of ice cold, salty water pour onto the deck like buckets of white confetti. Every impact in these boat-breaking conditions reverberates around the walls. There is nowhere to hide — and SMASH! — gravity slams the boat back onto the ocean every five seconds.

BANG! That’s 720 times an hour. THWACK! That’s over 17,000 times a day.

See what happens when disaster strikes the VOR

So inclined
Not the easiest way to eat dinner © Sam Greenfield/Dongfeng Race Team/Volvo Ocean Race

And the crew must brace themselves for every hit. It’s tough on the wrists and ankles, it crunches the core and plays with the mind. It’s a serious business, too. They sleep with their feet toward the front of the boat, so that their knees can take any impact — instead of their necks.

“You just can’t move inside,” says Francisco Vignale, gasping for breath on Spanish boat MAPFRE. “We go from the deck, always wet, to the bunk, and then the other way round — it’s the only place you can possibly be.”

Want to know more about the Volvo Ocean Race? Check it out on Red Bull TV.

 

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