Human beings are just weird. This is a statement of the blindingly obvious, but it bears repeating. We’re the least-equipped denizens of the planet when it comes to basic survival without external aid. We’re born completely helpless and, as we grow, we’re totally dependent on various support systems, so by rights, we should be doing everything in our power to not put ourselves in harm’s way. Most of us didn’t get that memo, of course, as a result of which humanity does its damnedest to come up with ever more creative ways to leap across the tracks just as the locomotive is approaching, as it were. The less cynical amongst us might put this down to higher callings, like a spirit of adventure, a sense of curiosity and the expansion of one’s boundaries, and they wouldn’t be wrong — after all, we would not be here, supercomputers in hand, had our ancestors simply sat around and said “Nah, rubbing these two stones together seems like it might be somewhat dangerous.”
Still, there’s no denying it — as a species, we like taking massive risks. What else would you call the Volvo Ocean Race, for example? To break it down into its bare components, it involves sailing 45,000 nautical miles around the world, over a period of 9 months, in a yacht propelled only by the wind, through some of the planet’s most insanely dangerous oceans, running the daily risk of being swept overboard — and all for a large trophy (there’s no cash prize). It requires incredible focus (and not a little craziness) to sign up for something which requires you to exceed the limits of your body and mind, and if, like sailing legend Bouwe Bekking, you’ve done it *seven*times, you’re probably part-Replicant. As I said earlier, some of us didn’t get the memo.
What has been known as the Volvo Ocean Race since 1997 was, originally, called the Whitbread Round the World Race. In 1973, the Royal Naval Sailing Association had a meeting with brewery owner Sam Whitbread, the eventual outcome of which was 17 crews lining up for the start of the first ever Whitbread Race in Portsmouth, in the UK. Most experts had said that a round the world race in yachts with full crews couldn’t be done, but done it was, and the event is now considered the toughest sailing race in the world. When you step inside one of the 65-foot Volvo 65 race yachts (each team uses an identical yacht, to level the playing field), you begin to get a tiny inkling of just how tough.
I snagged a look at one of the yachts during the race’s stopover in Auckland, in New Zealand. Known as the City of Sails, Auckland has always had a rich sailing history, with a very high percentage of the population owning some kind of boat, and it’s thus no surprise that it’s a popular city with the crews. Huge crowds show up (from all over the world) to the race pavilion over the course of the stopover, and it’s a major event in the city’s tourism calendar, bringing in revenue and worldwide attention alike.
Squeezing myself through the entrance to the cabin of team Turn The Tide On Plastic’s yacht, I was greeted by a cramped, spartan interior, consisting of the communications and navigation station, hammock-like sleeping quarters, a galley and the head (or ‘throne’) — essentially a bare-basic toilet with most pretensions of privacy flung overboard, which is particularly significant given that the teams also have female members. In here, the crew experiences extremes of temperature (“bloody hot and bloody cold”) and the constant thudding of waves smashing against the yacht’s hull. Since the yachts are structurally identical, teams try and save weight in a myriad of ways — taking only a single change of clothes, for instance. Given that they’re out at sea for weeks at a stretch, the cabin becomes pretty ripe, and teams joke that when they meet their families at the next stopover, the families usually turn and run, from the smell. All food is strictly of the freeze-dried kind, and an on-board desalination plant provides drinking water. A luxury cruise aboard the QE2 this is definitely not.
The hardships of the cabin come off looking like a weekend at the Ritz, compared to what the sailors have to deal with on deck. Crews sail 24 hours a day, battling trifles such as hurricanes, giant icebergs, 100-foot waves, the scorching sun, freezing water, pirates and their own limitations. The race is safer today than at any point in its history (it’s held every three years), but it’s still hugely risky. The current race has already had its share of tragedy, when British sailor John Fisher was knocked off his yacht and presumed lost at sea, after an extensive search failed to locate him.
I was also fortunate enough to be offered a seat in a stupidly fast Volvo speedboat, which tailed the (stupidly fast) yachts from Auckland’s harbour out to sea as they set off for their next port of call, Itajai, in Brazil. To get there, they would be sailing through the Southern Ocean, a treacherous section of water that is so remote that the closest human contact is the Space Station, at one point; it is also full of icebergs, giant waves and has extremes of weather. Once they made it to Itajai, it wasn’t like they could put up their feet and rest easy, because they had to shortly set out for Newport, Cardiff, Gothenberg and then, only then, celebrate the end of their incredible journey at The Hague. Some people get the memo and some don’t — and I suspect it’s the ones that don’t that will have better stories for their grandchildren.
FACTS AND FIGURES
- The Volvo Ocean Race is held once every three years
- The first race was held in 1973-74, and had 19 teams
- The current race (2017- 18) will be the longest in its history, covering 45,000 nautical miles
- Identical Volvo Ocean 65 monohull racing yachts are used by all the teams
- 126 women have participated in the race, since inception. The current race allows an all-woman team of 11
- The race had a stopover in India (Kochi) in 2008
- The worldwide TV audience will exceed 2 billion people