This is the first in a series of articles that will follow the Volvo Ocean Race, focusing on its extraordinary aspects that will appeal to an audience unfamiliar with competitive sailing. The nine month race around the planet is the world’s toughest sailing competition.
When the six boats set out from Alicante, Spain in November, their crews knew they had one of the toughest journeys in the world ahead of them. Over the next nine months, they would cross the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans and see Europe, the Middle East, China, South America, Africa and the United States. But only provided they survive the monster waves, iceberg-filled waters, scorching heat and freezing temperatures they would endure along the way. They were in the Volvo Ocean Race.
The race was first held in 1973, when 167 sailors in 17 standard ocean cruising yachts set out from the Isle of Wight. The early version of the competition, then called the Whitbread Round the World Race, combined adventure with creature comforts. The boats had individual cabins and on-board chefs; off duty sailors played cards and relaxed with wine and spirits. But danger was never far from anyone’s mind: three sailors perished in the first race alone.
The last three decades have brought an enormous increase in the speed of the boats and the level of competition. The cards and booze are long gone, and the adventurers have been replaced by professional sailors who have dedicated their lives to the sport.
The result is a race of unparalleled complexity, sophistication and intensity. The yachts are built to order; the sailors train for months; the work that goes into making the boats as light and fast as possible is extraordinary. The teams that are currently sailing around the world spent up to two years preparing for that first day in Alicante. For the Puma Sailing team’s skipper Ken Read, the journey began 22 months before heading to Spain.
Step one was bringing together key crew members and the design team that would build a racing yacht from scratch. One by one they gathered around Read in Newport, Rhode Island. The design team spent seven months creating a boat with the perfect balance of speed and strength. Finding that middle ground- going fast enough to win but at the same time ensuring the survival of the boat and crew- is a recurring theme of the Volvo Ocean Race, as teams continually weigh the advantages of speed against safety.
In this video from Puma, the team walks through the process of designing and building the boat:
Once the design was in place, the team took another six months to build the boat, which was christened the Mar Mostro – the monster of the sea. By the time of its completion, the crew had six months to get it on the water and learn its every detail before the Volvo began.
The number of sailors considered capable of participating in the Volvo is remarkably small- only 60 are competing in the current race. They will endure every type of weather and conditions Mother Nature has in her arsenal over the nine months, and will spend three weeks at a time on the open water.
Read calls the Volvo sailors a “pretty incestuous bunch,” saying long-distance sailing is the “ultimate free-agent sport.” Just about every sailor competing this year has sailed with or against every other. The goal is to create a team of ten men (and women, though they are in the minority), each capable of manning any position and fixing any part of the boat. Most have to have a specialty as well- the Puma crew includes an engineer, a sail maker, a rigger and a nutritionist.
The most important credential for the Volvo? Experience. The race is unlike any other in the mental toll it can take. Read describes the living quarters onboard as “half the size of a small jail cell.” Waves beat against the side of the boat 24 hours a day while wind whistles all around. Sleep comes in four hour shifts that alternate with four hours on deck. To summarize, Read says: “Mentally, you just have to be prepared for a pretty miserable nine months.”
The only sure sign that a sailor can handle the race is that he’s done it before, which is why nine of the ten Puma crew members have at least one Volvo under their belts. Design coordinator and watch captain Brad Jackson has five. The only newbie is Rome Kirby, who, at 22 years old, has 19 years of sailing experience. It’s an international group: two Americans, three Australians, three New Zealanders, a German and a South African.
In the 22 month lead up to the race, the crew spent as much time together in Newport as possible. They practiced on the water using the Il Mostro, Puma’s boat from the 2008-2009 Volvo. They worked to get physically fit, focusing on core body strength. Back injuries are very common in competitive sailing and the crew can’t afford to lose a man mid-race.
But above all, they worked to build team chemistry. Read knew that setting out from Alicante, they had an incredibly tough journey ahead of them, and that they would have to work as a group if they had any hope of taking the crown.
Before long, that bond would be put to the test- when the mast of the Mar Mostro snapped in three places in the South Atlantic Ocean, 700 miles from the nearest landfall.