DECEMBER 2014 – Pitting sailors against nearly 39 000 nautical miles of ocean, the Volvo Ocean Race – now in its 12th exhilarating edition – marks the pinnacle of long-distance yacht racing.
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.”
It’s been over a century since John Masefield penned his iconic verse describing the irresistible allure of the sea, but for the 59 sailors racing across the oceans of the world in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race it is as relevant as ever, as seven teams on board state-of-the-art yachts tackle thousands of kilometers of open ocean in a bid to claim a prestigious victory.
In the sailing fraternity the Volvo Ocean Race is, quite simply, the pinnacle of long-distance yacht racing. While the America’s Cup claims the longer heritage, and the Summer Olympics has the added lure of gold medals, neither quite compare to the nine months of waves and ice, doldrums and squalls that the ocean crossings and nearly 39 000 nautical miles of the Volvo Ocean Race can muster.
While the Vendée Globe race is perhaps as much of a challenge for solo sailors, “this is the premier event for crewed round-the-world sailing,” says Jon Bramley, Alicante-based Director of News and Media for the Volvo Ocean Race.
“The Volvo is the race that every race around the world has been judged on over the years,” commented Kiwi skipper Grant Dalton, whose New Zealand Endeavour took the maxi-class honours in the 1993-94 edition.
While today’s Volvo Ocean Race is a media-friendly high-technology sprint around the globe, it has its roots in the rollicking 1970s when it appealed more to devil-may-care adventurers than professional athletes.
More than 300 sailors and 17 boats entered the inaugural Whitbread Round The World Race of 1973-74, when three sailors lost their lives at sea. That iconic event entirely redefined the realm of oceanic yacht racing, and the race grew from strength to strength through the last decades of the 20th century.
The 1985-86 challenge saw an added dose of celebrity glamour, with Duran Duran lead singer entering his maxi-yacht Drum into the race, despite capsizing and losing its keel in the warm-up Fastnet Race.
The 1997-98 race was the last as the Whitbread Round the World, and the new millennium marked the rebirth of the rebranded Volvo Ocean Race with the 2001-02 edition seeing Illbruck Challenge smash the 24-hour distance record for a mono-hull yacht.
While it has evolved from an adventurer’s challenge to a professional event attracting the most skilled sailors on the planet, the current 2014-15 race marks a watershed moment for the event.
For the first time every team in the race is sailing on identical yachts, whereas in previous outings teams were free to design and build their own boats within a strict set of rules and parameters. However, this often meant that the teams with the deepest pockets hit the start line with a distinct advantage, having hired the best designers and boat-builders money can buy.
In this race, each of the seven teams is sailing the ‘one-design’ Volvo Open 65, a 65-foot boat dreamt up by the respected Farr Yacht Design in the United States and built by a consortium of boatyards in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Switzerland. With identical boats the outcome of the race comes down to the skill of the sailors and their ability to play the weather – and each other – to their own advantage.
“If it hadn’t been for the new one-design rule, then I probably wouldn’t have done the Volvo Ocean Race again,” said Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s skipper, Ian Walker, sailing the race for the third time. “This will undoubtedly be the closest Volvo Ocean Race in history. Sailing identical boats means that any performance advantage will come from the abilities of the sailors and how hard they are able to keep pushing their boats without breaking them.”
“We’ve levelled the playing field, so it’s down to the sailors themselves,” agrees Bramley. “In the past there have been some sailors scuppered by boats that weren’t up to standard.”
That certainly won’t be the case with the Open 65s, which boast the latest technology from four of Europe’s top boatyards. Dual aft water ballasts and a canting keel provide greater stability and speed, sails are crafted by North Sails using groundbreaking 3D-moulding technology, and internal hull bulkheads have been doubled to withstand the testing conditions that 39 000 nautical miles of ocean will bring.
“We have spent the last six months trying very hard to break [the boat], without success,” Walker told a news conference shortly before the start of the race in Alicante, Spain. “Now we’ll have to make sure we don’t!”
Safety and speed aside, a further benefit of introducing the one-design format has been to slash the start-up costs for teams. With the economic doldrums of the past five years putting pressure on potential sponsors, the introduction of a standardized yacht has dramatically reduced the investment required for a team to enter the race.
“The one design brings the cost of the boat down by about a third compared to its predecessor, the Volvo Ocean 70. These boats can be maintained by a single maintenance centre, where they can share spares and costs, and teams have been able to cut down dramatically on the shore crew required in each port,” explains Bramley. “We reckon we have halved the costs of entering the Volvo Ocean Race, from 20-million to 10-million Euros. These boats are also built to do two races, so it makes the cost more manageable for sponsors.”
For as with everything from Formula 1 to golf, sponsorship has become a crucial aspect of high-stakes yachting events. Aside from race owner Volvo, the event has attracted brands as varied as Puma, ABN AMRO and SCA over the years.
Cities worldwide also bid for the rights to host a leg of the race and while they contribute financially the economic spin-off for each city is substantial.
According to the report for the last race in 2011-12, Auckland’s local economy saw a NZ$4.7-million injection from hosting the race. Direct benefits aside, both sponsors and host cities also benefit enormously from the extensive media coverage generated by the nine-month event.
And the figures are impressive: 1.5-billion TV viewers tuned in to coverage of the 2011-12 race, eight million views were logged on the race’s official YouTube channel, six-million fans went to volvooceanrace.com, and there were 16-million visits to the race tracker. Overall, sponsors of teams in the 2011-12 race received a return-on-investment in excess of 87-million Euros per team.
At each stop, thousands of locals crowd the well-branded quaysides to marvel at the yachts and watch the in-port racing. The race village bustles with all the glamour of high-stakes yacht racing as VIP guests and visitors soak up the buzz of the marina. Expect celebrity appearances, interactive displays that take you inside the race, and plenty of live entertainment. In the previous race, over 25 000 fans packed the Abu Dhabi Corniche breakwater to watch Grammy Award-winning rock band Coldplay mark the opening of the Race Village on New Year’s Eve, while Itajaí welcomed the race to Brazil with a two-week long music festival.
The race stop-overs also provide a unique opportunity for corporate hosting. For while media coverage is a crucial return on the investment from each team sponsor, “the business-to-business opportunities are phenomenal,” says Bramley. “There’s nothing quite like putting clients on one of our boats in a competitive situation on the water with our pros in the Pro-Am series. People can get on board and see the power of these yachts, talk to the sailors and really experience the race.”
Without commercial sponsorship it’s doubtful a single sail would be raised on the start line of the Volvo Ocean Race, but looking past the spreadsheets and dollar signs the Volvo Ocean Race remains a human drama; an odyssey of men and women pitting their endurance, skills and courage against both their competitors and the ocean.
Oceanic yacht racing has always been a dangerous game, not least in the Southern Ocean that is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of water on earth. Deep in the ‘Roaring Forties’ storm swells throw up huge waves, while icebergs are an ever-present danger for teams that venture too far south.
“All the legs are challenging for different reasons, but the leg through the Southern Ocean from New Zealand to Brazil is traditionally where we encounter the strongest winds and the biggest waves,” adds Walker from Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. “We are always glad to get around Cape Horn and head north on that leg.”
“If something goes wrong in the Southern Ocean, the nearest humanity is usually a few kilometers up above you… in the space station,” says Bramley wryly. “That said, we have a 24/7 control room that is watching the fleet every minute of the day. They are in constant contact with the boats and we have a well-rehearsed crisis management system in place. We’re also in touch with all the coastguards around the world. We go to huge lengths to make this race as safe as we can, but it is a dangerous undertaking… for a lot of the sailors though, that is part of the attraction.”
While lurking icebergs and sudden squalls may be some of the more dramatic dangers facing the fleet, perhaps the bigger challenge is the simple daily grind of sailing a next-generation racing yacht at full speed, 24 hours a day, for weeks on end. With the crews working in four-hour shifts, sleep and personal comfort will be at a premium.
And yet, for the sailors forever trimming the sails to eke a fraction more speed out of their boat, there is perhaps nowhere they would rather be. For these sailors with a passion for long-distance sailing – and perhaps salt water running through their veins – the Volvo Ocean Race will remain one of the high-points of their career on the water. There will be intense competition over the months of sailing that will bring the fleet home to Gothenburg, but perhaps the real joy is not the thought of a place on the podium, but the simple thrill of challenging the ocean… and winning.
“I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life; To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife” wrote Masefield, in the final verse of ‘Sea-Fever’. “And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover; And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”
For the sailors who battle the winds across the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans towards the finish line, their quiet sleep is a long way off.