The Volvo Ocean Race

Post by: Dee White
09 October 2011

Volvo Ocean Race logo

On Saturday 5th November 2011, 6 teams of 11 professional sailors will depart from Alicante, Spain, to take part in one of the toughest races in sport and the longest professional sporting event in the world. The race will take overall nearly 9 months, ending in Galway, Ireland on 7th July 2012, by which time the teams will have raced their Volvo Open 70 yachts (the fastest monohulls in the world) for 9 legs and sailed over 39,000 nautical miles (72,000 km) of the world’s most dangerous seas, following the prevailing winds. The route will take them via Cape Town (South Africa), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Sanya (China), Auckland (New Zealand), Itajai (Brazil), Miami (USA), Lisbon (Portugal) and Lorient (France). Unfortunately, this year, the risk of piracy in the Indian Ocean, has forced the route organisers to alter the original route slightly. Instead of boats racing directly from Cape Town into Abu Dhabi, they will go to an undisclosed “safe haven” port and be transported closer to Abu Dhabi, completing the leg from there. The process will be reversed for the 3rd leg. The teams will cross four oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Southern) and pass through five continents (Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Europe).

Some History

Named after the present sponsor – Volvo, the race was originally the Whitbread Round the World Race, but the idea for a round the world race was inspired by the exploits of two remarkable sailors from the 20th century, Sir Francis Chichester and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who completed solo voyages round the world. These amazing journeys led to ideas of fully crewed yachts pitting their skills against each other and in 1973 the Whitbread Race was born, thanks to the sponsorship of Colonel Bill Whitbread, of the well known brewing family. It was to be the longest, toughest and most hazardous sporting contest in the world. Taking place originally every four years, but recently every three years, this year will be the 11th time the race has been held.

How has it changed?

The challenge, in the early days of the race, was to record the fastest time between ports. The yachts were the standard ocean cruisers of the time and the crews were mostly adventurers paying for the thrill of the race, or servicemen on an exciting training mission. The skippers were experienced and paid, but it was very much a venture into the unknown for most of the crews. Navigation was by dead reckoning and sextant and the routes followed those of the old square riggers from the 19th century. The boats were comfortable, with some crew being lucky enough to have separate cabins. Fresh meat was provided and stored in fridges and there were even cooks on board during the first few races.

How race sailing has changed! Today’s yachts are built from materials that would not be out of place in space shuttles and advanced technologies have transformed the speed and capabilities of the yachts. However the comforts of the crews have moved the other way. Cabins, wine, fresh food, meat, cooks and fresh water have given way to shared bunks, desalinated water, freeze-dried food and protein bars. There are no added luxuries and personal crew kit is severely restricted. The crew now consist of Olympic athletes and sporting champions in the field of sailing and only the most talented will have any chance of taking part.

On board

Each entry will have a professional sailing crew of 11, covering such positions as skipper, boat captain, navigator, bowman, watch leader, helmsman, pit man, trimmer and media crew member, who will have their skills, competitive spirit and endurance tested to the utmost. Three of the crew members must be under 30 and this year there are representatives from 15 different nations. The sailors will race for more than 20 days at a time, day and night, experiencing extremes of hardship and deprivation. No fresh food will be taken on board, there will be temperature variations from -15 to +45 degrees Celsius and they will be allowed only one change of clothes. They may be forced to make their underwear last longer by wearing it back to front and inside out. Not a race for the fainthearted!

The teams

The six yachts competing this year are:

  • "Groupama 4" - Groupama Sailing team – skippered by the Frenchman Franck Cammas, the boat was designed by the two time race winner Juan Kouyoumdjian.
  • "Azzarn" - Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – the UAE entry led by the double Olympic medallist and 2008-9 Volvo Ocean Race skipper, Ian Walker.
  • "Puma’s Mar Mostro" - Puma Ocean Racing – as in 2008-9 the team is skippered by the American, Ken Read.
  • "Camper" - Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand – the team includes a number of seasoned round the world sailors and is skippered by Chris Nicholson.
  • "Telefonica" - Team Telefonica – dual Olympic medallist Iker Martinez will skipper the boat in the team’s 3rd successive Volvo Ocean Race. Like Groupama, this boat was designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian.
  • "Sanya" - Team Sanya – the first Chinese entry ever to take part. The skipper, Mike Sanderson, unfortunately was rushed to hospital for an emergency appendicitis operation last month, but hopes to be fit for the start of the first leg at the beginning of November. He took the helm for the first few laps of the qualifying sail but was then transferred off the boat so as not to hamper his chances of recovery. Sanderson won the 9th edition of the race in 2005-6.

In-port racing

In addition to the 9 main legs of the race, there are also the critical In-port races in each of the 10 Host Ports, in which spectators can watch the intense action at close quarters. The race course is very short and each race is only 45 – 60 minutes long, ensuring exciting tussles between the boats, as each jostles for the lead. Winning the start is essential in an in-port race and the jockeying for “best” place starts well ahead of start time. Teams will try to squeeze out their rivals, forcing them into a poor start position or even onto the wrong side of the start line. For the first time ever these races will be broadcast on the Volvo website and will be covered by television, each boat having an onboard crew camera, as well as a fixed camera, to record all the action. There will also be helicopters filming from above and RIBs in the middle of the fleet.

Scoring

The race is scored on a points system with each off-shore leg weighted to be worth 5 times more than the in-port races.

Preparations

The yachts, with their sailing crew and support teams, have already been in Alicante for several weeks so that all the yachts could be taken out of the water, (having removed their masts), and carefully measured and a certificate issued, confirming that they conformed to the rules. The teams use the last few weeks ensuring that they are fully prepared for the race ahead and enjoying their last few experiences of fresh food, comfortable beds and maybe the odd spot of alcohol. A qualifying sail, in which no points are scored, started on 7th October, to test all the safety systems on the yachts, with the first In-port race scheduled for 29th October. The start of the first leg is 5th November. Let’s hope not too many fireworks will fly as the boats cross the start line.

The Legends Regatta and Reunion

This will be a fitting lead-up to the start of the race. It is to he held in Alicante from 1-5 November and is apparently the first ever official reunion of those who have sailed in the race since 1973. Yachts from the 38 year history of the Volvo and Whitbread races will sail to the race village for a varied programme of activities, including a full racing schedule, a regatta prizegiving and many social events. The aim is to have at least one representative boat from each of the races from 1973 and to attract as many people as possible who have played any part in those races, including some of the great racing characters from the first Whitbread race. Some members of the IACH (International Association of Cape Horners) who took part in the early races will also be there. It sounds like a party not to be missed and an appropriate prelude for this renowned round the world race.

The winner of the regatta will receive the Sir Peter Blake Trophy, a re-named antique trophy made in 1926. It will be presented to the overall winner by Lady Blake, as a tribute to her late husband, who completed the first five Whitbread Races and won all five legs of the 1989 edition in “Steinlager 2”.

Author - Dee White