Australian-born sailor Luke Parkinson will never forget the day he passed over Point Nemo, almost six months into the 2014-15 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. Equidistant from the shores of three obscure islands, somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, it is the most remote place on earth – the nearest humans are more likely to be astronauts in space than anyone on land. ‘You realise you’re thousands of kilometres away from help in any direction,’ he reminisces. ‘I’ve never felt so small’.
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For those of us with a firmer grip on sanity (or a weaker concept of adventure – depending how you look at it), scenarios like these are the stuff of nightmares. But for several hundred professional sailors around the world, they’re the peaks of the ultimate roller-coaster – seductive enough to entice someone like Parkinson to return for the 2017-18 race, which ploughs through Atlantic waters this very minute. Since the off shore marathon was first launched as the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973, it’s become the Everest equivalent for avid seamen, many of whom recall watching the boats arrive for a stopover at their local port as children. The round-the-clock contest is one of the three biggest challenges a sailor can take on, the other two being the Olympics and the America’s Cup. But next to the rapid-fire match races and regattas that characterise the latter events, the Volvo is an entirely diff erent animal.
‘The other two are very technical, very focused on skills,’ explains New Zealander Blair Tuke. The Olympic gold medallist and America’s-Cup champion is attempting the epic race for the first time this year with Spanish team Mapfre – if he wins, he’ll be the first person in history to score sailing’s Triple Crown. ‘You still have to be a great sailor to do the Volvo, you still have to push the boat really hard, but it’s more of an endurance thing, an adventure.’ True to his words, the race’s lengthy history has been peppered with the kind of adventures you only ever read about, of both the bizarre and the tragic variety: collisions with whales, cyclone threats, men lost at sea, and even the strange case of sailors being arrested off the coast of Africa by the crew of an Angolan gunboat. Every edition has seen big developments, too. Operations have been fine-tuned, rules tightened, scoring systems altered, the route adapted – lengthened significantly. In the 2014-15 race, the one-design rule was introduced, changing the game completely by demanding that all teams race on identical boats, designed and built for them. And 2017-18 brings new challenges.
The 13th edition, which sets sail from Alicante, Spain, on 22 October and finishes in Th e Hague, Netherlands, in late June 2018, follows the longest course in history: 45 000 nautical miles across four oceans, stopping over on every continent but Antarctica in 12 host cities, with Cape Town sitting at the end of Leg 2. It is the first Volvo Ocean Race to strongly incentivise the inclusion of women. And the first to include such a huge chunk of the notoriously icy and unpredictable Southern Ocean. Of course, as the beast of the race gets bigger, so does the task of organising it. ‘Logistics is the most challenging part of this race,’ says Nick Bice, former competitor and current chief technical development officer (Volvo speak for ‘director of all things that float’). It starts with the now-centralised design and construction of the Volvo Ocean 65 yachts. Not that you can call them yachts. Th ese racing machines are to regular sailboats what a Ferrari SF7OH is to a Chevrolet Spark.
‘Th ey probably sail greater distances in eight or nine months than any other boat does in its lifetime,’ Bice explains. ‘And in conditions that most boats will never see.’ Made of carbon fibre, the 65ers are designed with the goal of maximising strength, while minimising weight. Eight bulkheads (four more than the norm) make for a reliably robust structure, a longer, lighter canting keel provides excellent stability, and an impressive downwind sail area of up to 578m2 gives the boats record-breaking speed potential. And then there’s the mountain of safety equipment and one of the world’s most advanced onboard media systems, so yachts can connect with land from anywhere on the route.
And send the odd selfie home, too. Thing is, serious sailboats require serious servicing, and sometimes serious repair. To manage this challenge, Bice pioneered Th e Boatyard concept, a massive mobile maintenance facility set up at every stopover. The operational implications are mind-boggling. ‘Th e Boatyard is made up of around 30 containers that live in a huge tent,’ he explains. ‘When the boats leave a port to start the next leg of the race, we can’t pack all that stuff up and ship it off fast enough to arrive at the next host city in time, so we need two sets of everything.’ Th ough not quite on the same scale, the sailors themselves have a huge amount of preparing to do. Visas have to be arranged, warm-up races completed, top-of-the-range wet-weather gear sourced, and a solid number of hours clocked at the gym.
Training is extensive: out on open water, Volvo team members must be so much more than just sailors – they need to be medics, mechanics, navigators and counsellors. There’s also the matter of what to take on board. Because boat weight is directly related to performance, sailors have to pack the bare minimum. ‘We take one change of clothing for each leg and you just have to get used to everyone smelling a bit,’ laughs Tuke. It’s an example of how important the small details are out there. In a race as fiercely competitive as the Volvo, strategy is everything. ‘All the way along you’re making decisions about the fastest course, the best direction to take, the right sail combination,’ Parkinson explains.
‘The tiniest move can be the diff erence between winning and losing a leg.’ But here’s the catch: in Bice’s words, ‘You can do as much planning as you want, but when you’re up against Mother Nature, there are so many unknowns’. Roughly translated: anything can happen, and it will. On one end, there’s scorching heat, the threat of sunstroke, the risk of getting stuck on windless waters (Volvo strictly forbids the use of engines). On the other, crippling cold, a constant barrage of icy water, nights thick with foggy darkness, giant icebergs, and wild, rolling storms that lift and drop yachts like playthings. ‘It’s not unusual to experience wind speeds of up to 50 knots and see waves that are 15 metres high,’ says Bice.
He knows the dangers better than anyone. During the 2005-6 edition, he was part of the crew that lost helmsman Hans Horrevoets to the elements when a giant wave ripped him from deck in the early hours of the morning. Let’s also not forget the smaller frustrations that come with spending weeks at sea. With a four-hours-on, four-hours-off watch system in place, sleep deprivation is a major challenge. So is poor nutrition and dehydration: freeze-dried food is a main part of sailors’ diets, and seawater has to be desalinated for drinking purposes (forget showering – you have to wait for rain). Add to that health and dental issues that, while manageable on land, can bring a team to its knees thousands of kilometres off shore. But for Parkinson, it’s the remoteness that bugs him most. ‘You can’t call home, can’t speak to close family and friends [communication is closely monitored to prevent cheating]. And at the same time, there’s no personal space or privacy. No toilet door. You’re stuck within a few metres of your team 24 hours a day, seven days a week’.
So why do they do it? What possesses someone to willingly take on the struggles of sailing around the world? When these questions are put to Parkinson, he laughs. Clearly, he’s been asked this before. ‘I did the Volvo the first time because it was just something I’d always dreamed of doing, but now it’s something I can’t stay away from. It’s hard to explain, it just keeps sucking you in.’ Ask other sailors and they’ll tell you something similar. Th e extreme highs make up for the lows. For all that fear, there’s indescribable joy. For every unforgiving storm, unparalleled beauty. For the anxiety of every start, there’s the thrill of every finish. For every pang of loneliness, an intensifying of team bonds. For all that remoteness, the knowledge that you’ve visited places most people will never be lucky enough to see in their lifetime. And of course, for every urge to give up, the ever-present allure of a Volvo Ocean Race victory. Th e 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race will reach Cape Town towards the end of November. Visit the V&A Waterfront to watch Luke Parkinson, Blair Tuke and all the other sailors arrive and depart.