There is something about the word ‘challenge’ that can persuade otherwise rational people to subject themselves to the sort of deprivations the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would unequivocally describe as ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.
Whether you would gain any more insight into this particular conundrum from the six crews presently going head to head in the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race is doubtful, but the 60 or so yachtsmen from the cream of the world’s racing scene are presently more than halfway through a nine-month marathon of untold self-imposed suffering – all in the name of a challenge.
Sleep deprivation, constant exposure to injury, psychological duress, persistent immersion, unceasing noise and indentured labour are all high on the list of human rights contraventions in most developed nations, yet all this and more is the daily fare for these serially challenged overachievers, as they blast their way round the world in 70ft, wedge-shaped, carbonfibre missiles.
The Volvo Open 70, the name given to this class of boat designed around a ‘box rule’, is not a thing of beauty; it is quite simply a mean, turbocharged projectile weighing little more than 14 tonnes, designed and constructed to achieve a knife-edge balance between velocity and durability as it crosses some of the world’s roughest oceans.
Capable of achieving speeds close to 40 knots (74km/h), these yachts demand relentless vigilance from their skippers and crews, who must gauge when it’s safe to unleash their full power and when conditions dictate that they back off – if they can. Let loose on a steep wave, the Volvo 70 has a natural desire to get airborne – an attitude that easily sets off a spiral of self-destruction, usually accompanied by the alarming sounds of splintering carbonfibre and the rush of incoming water.
Helming one of these over-eager race machines at full throttle, with water constantly blasting waist-deep across the deck, can be both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. As race veteran Richard Mason puts it when describing a typical night in the Southern Ocean, “It’s like driving in the Paris Dakar race with no headlights and a smashed windscreen”.
Not surprisingly then the attrition rate of both crews and boats can be high, with this 11th edition of the race, which first started in 1973, being no exception. While the most serious damage has fortunately been visited on the boats more than the crew, the litany of ‘casualties’ still reads like something from a frontline war report.
From the very first night at sea when the boats left Alicante in Spain in November, masts have collapsed, bulkheads have been destroyed, rudders have sheared and hulls have delaminated as every one of the six crews has wrestled to keep their boat afloat, much less remain competitive.
By the time the fleet and its exhausted crews arrived in Auckland in March – near enough the halfway mark in the race – the shipping companies and shore teams had already run their own parallel marathon halfway round the globe, the former ferrying all the yachts through pirate zones off Africa or delivering crippled yachts from the refuge of obscure islands and inlets to the next port of call, and the latter hastily rebuilding whole sections of damaged hulls and rigs before sending their colleagues off into the next battle zone.
So a large and warm welcome to New Zealand was the least the bruised and battered crews could hope for, which gratifyingly the Kiwis gave them in spades.
For the people of Auckland this sailing event was an opportunity to indulge their second-greatest sporting passion, having finally ticked their biggest box – to the world’s collective relief – of hosting and winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
The city’s residents turned out in their droves to welcome the fleet and watch an intense seven days of boat repairs, in-port races and preparations for the next leg, before bidding the yachts farewell as they embarked on the fifth and toughest leg of the race.
The large Race Village in the heart of Auckland at the Viaduct Basin was a hive of activity, with opportunities for spectators to see the boats and crew at close quarters or to get a taste of the challenges faced by these yachtsmen by grinding winches, watching film footage of the race or being thrown around in a Volvo 70 yacht simulator. Even the St Patrick’s Day Parade was re-routed to finish at the Race Village, with a haze of green permeating the crowd as proud Kiwis sported t-shirts proclaiming “Irish for a Day”.
The mixed bag of weather for the week saw the Pro Am Race abandoned from the lack of wind on a bright sunny day, while the In-Port Race and the Leg 5 Start had no shortage of breeze but an equal measure of rain and heavy, low cloud. But nothing could deter the crowds.
WORSE TO COME
For the ‘home team’ of Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand – whose race thus far had not met expectations, despite a stellar crew that includes Australian Chris Nicholson as skipper – luck was to turn on home turf with an impressive In Port Race win, cheered on by thousands of their countrymen who lined the city’s foreshores to watch the race unfold.
While the home-ground win lifted the spirits of the Camper crew, it was the Spanish line-up on Team Telefonica who wore the widest smiles all week after an extraordinary run of first-place finishes on three of the four completed legs. Skippered by Olympic dinghy sailor Iker Martinez and navigated by Australian race veteran Andrew Cape, the Spaniards’ unerring route selection and weather prediction had the rest of the crews shaking their heads for most of the 21,000nm from Alicante to Auckland.
At the end of a very intense week the Kiwi crowds farewelled the fleet on its leave-taking lap of the harbour, knowing that the weather forecast predicted another hammering for the crews on their route to Cape Horn.
Sure enough, the Southern Ocean exacted a cruel toll in the ensuing three weeks with only Puma Ocean Racing by BERG surviving unscathed to win the leg to Itaja in Brazil; remarkably, only 12 minutes behind, Team Telefonica almost pulled off ‘a Bradbury’, returning like Lazarus from what had seemed like a leg-ending breakage at Cape Horn.
Amory Ross, the Media Crew Member (MCM) aboard Puma Ocean Racing, is one of six MCMs across the fleet whose duties are principally dedicated to providing daily reports and imagery from on board each yacht. That would seem more than a fulltime job, but they also have to cook and clean for the full crew.
A brief interview with Amory in Auckland during the race stopover suggested that the job advertisement for which he successfully applied ran something along the following lines …
Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend nine months with 10 speed-obsessed mariners delivering small, fast, noisy, wet and dangerous carbonfibre vessel from Spain to Ireland (via Cape Horn) in fastest possible time.
REQUIRED SKILLS AND ATTRIBUTES
Sailing: Must love sailing for months on end without actively participating. Visual media: Must be expert in hand-held photography and video, shooting from a fast and highly-unstable platform (including regular periods submerged). Should be prepared to risk personal safety to film and interview crew during emergencies.
Journalism: Must be able to type and email daily story from a confined, noisy and dark space that crashes around unpredictably.
Cooking: Should be able to make rehydrated freeze-dried food taste palatable for entire crew four times a day for 36 weeks; bring own condiments and sauces.
Cleaning: Must be willing to clean up every day after exhausted, smelly, seasick and occasionally ill-tempered colleagues.
Teamwork: Must be an expert in psychology and resilient to occasional verbal abuse.
CONDITIONS OF EMPLOYMENT
Location: Mobile, ranging from windless tropics to freezing Southern Ocean; wet, whatever the location.
Working environment: No dedicated workspace provided, corner of a bunk may be available occasionally.
Working hours: 24/7. Daily stories must be filed during European working day, regardless of the yacht’s present time zone.
Health/wellbeing: Should be in robust health and prepared to forego sleep, lose weight, be permanently wet and periodically terrified. Benefits: None that employer is aware of.
With Team Sanya and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing retiring with serious damage before reaching Cape Horn leaving Groupama (dismasted) and Camper (hull damage) to limp over the line after major repairs, the behind-the-scenes race was on again to get all six boats present in Itaja and ready for the next leg to Miami and ultimately a return to Europe.
This year’s race will clearly provide plenty of competition for the special trophy that acknowledges ‘the unsung heroes’ of the Shore Team; there may even be time to have a special medal struck in recognition of the shipping line that has carried the most yachts the greatest distance around the globe.
But perhaps the most important trophy missing from the prize table is one that recognises the team best able to demonstrate the greatest depth of suffering experienced in the quest to win this extraordinary race.
That trophy could only be called, ‘The Challenge Cup’.
THE STORY SO FAR…
(Placings at end of Leg 7, Lisbon, Portugal)
Groupama Sailing Team 183pts
Team Telefonica 180pts
Puma Ocean Racing Powered by BERG 171pts
Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand 162pts
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 104pts
Team Sanya 32pts