This is the second 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.
The Volvo Ocean Race comes with many dangers, and has claimed more than one life in its forty year history. But this year, race organizers and sailors are dealing with a new kind of threat, one that many associate more with eye patches, peg legs, and skull and crossbones flags than with the 21st century: piracy.
In the last few years, the rise of piracy around Somalia has become a major issue. 1,181 seafarers were kidnapped in 2010 alone; a Navy SEALS team just rescued an American woman and a Danish man from Somalian pirates, killing nine gunmen.
Given the high profile of the Volvo sailors and the money behind the race, which includes sponsors like Puma, DHL and the City of Abu Dhabi, the yachts would make a tempting target for pirates seeking hostages and hefty ransoms. As the race route runs from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi and then to Sanya in southern China, the six teams would find themselves spending a lot of time in the Indian Ocean, in zones regularly patrolled by pirate ships.
Last August, Volvo Ocean Race officials conferred with the International Sailing Federation and marine safety experts, and determined that the route would have to be adapted for the sailors’ safety. But no one wanted to take Abu Dhabi off the itinerary. One goal of the Volvo is to promote the sport of sailing around the world, and this was the first time a Middle Eastern city was included as a port. So they came up with an interesting compromise.
The teams left Cape Town as originally intended and followed the African coast north. Once past Madagascar, they entered a “stealth zone” in which their locations, usually available to the public following the race online, were hidden. Instead of heading straight to Abu Dhabi, they raced to a secret port, known only to them and race organizers (it was Malé, in the Maldives, east of the normal reach of pirates).
At the unknown harbor, the boats were taken out of the water and loaded onto a larger ship, which traveled with an armed escort through the Arabian Sea and into the Gulf of Oman. There, they were unloaded, and the race resumed with a sprint to Abu Dhabi. For the Abu Dhabi-Sanya leg, the process was repeated, but in reverse, with a longer stretch following a sprint.
The Volvo is based on a system that awards teams points based on their position in each leg of the race. To adjust for the splitting of the two legs, race organizers gave 80 percent of the points for the longer stretch and 20 percent for the sprint.
Race Director Jack Lloyd said:
Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad said that piracy is just one of many risks the sailors face and that the race must prepare for; he called it a “risk management situation.”
The six teams all sailed to and from Abu Dhabi without incident, and the armed escort leg of the trip will be remembered as just one more aspect of the adventure of a lifetime.