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Donkin on Sailing

February 2009 – Volvo Ocean racing

Volvo Ocean RacingThey gave me a red shirt and I put it on to look like one of the rest of the crew, taking the handles of a grinder opposite a giant from New Zealand who everyone called “Meat.”

“Stand with your legs wider to get the balance right. That’s better,” said Meat, known to his nearest and dearest as Andrew Taylor. We alternated our hands on the handles, mine, soft and white like hands that do dishes, his, like two prime cuts of best beef.

Six of us wound at the pedestals to raise the powerful mainsail of Puma, the big red triangle of an Open 70, currently in third place in the Volvo Ocean race, billed as the world’s most extreme team sailing race.

I was sailing between legs in a Singapore practice session, not that I could do much to lend a hand. This kind of racing is far removed from that of a Cowes Week regatta. One of the grinders, a tall, rangy Antiguan, Shannon Falcone, told me that during the previous leg the boat had plunged down a wave measured at 17 deg to the perpendicular, burying itself in the trough.

Another wave had wrenched him from the pedestal and thrown him down the deck, bowling over watch captain Chris Nicholson who suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury that could have ended his race. “I hope it will repair enough for the final legs but we need to wait and see,” he says.

Volvo Ocean RacingWhen the boats are sailing at high speed, such is the force of water over the decks that Sidney Gavignet, the only Frenchman in the race, has taken to wearing a fire fighter’s helmet for protection on the foredeck.

The dangers of high speed ocean racing were tragically underlined in 2006 when Hans Horrevoets, a member of the ABN Amro II crew, was washed off the back of the boat, injuring his head as he was pitched in to the sea. He could not be revived when his body was recovered 40 minutes later.

It explains why at the top of Puma skipper, Ken Read’s list of priorities for the race he puts “everyone present and correct in St Petersburgh,” on the finish line. The second point on his list he calls 2a: “that the sponsor gets more out of it than it could ever imagine.” Point 2b recognises that winning would be the best way of making 2a a reality.

The latest boats with their high-powered sponsorships, highly trained professional crews and finely tuned technologies, seem a world away from the first Whitbread race in 1973, when 17 yachts of different designs, some of which were sailing with relatively inexperienced crews, set out from Portsmouth with no knowledge of what to expect. Three men lost their lives when swept overboard in that race.

In the first Whitbread race, crew members often paid for the privilege of competing. Today the best crews can demand increasingly lucrative contracts. 

“In the old days we used turn up after a race and hit the bars. The yacht racing circuit was pretty simple then, living in trailers, chicks on the quaysides in the Caribbean, that sort of thing. It was great,” said Jerry Kirby, a former America’s Cup winner who, at 52 is one of the oldest bowmen on the professional sailing circuit.

“Looking forward to the race helps me keep fit,” says Kirby, who trained with the elite US Navy Seals to get in shape for the event. You have to respect the foredeck crews on these yachts. Working at the weather end of the boat they occupy almost a world of their own, often out of touch with their crewmates as voices struggle to carry when there’s a gale.

Kirby’s prowess at press ups has earned the admiration of his crewmates on PUMA. “I say this with love and affection: he is a complete freak of nature,” says Read.

It was Kirby’s stories from previous Volvo races that inspired Read, to put together the 2008-09 campaign. “I’d heard Jerry’s stories of past races so many times. Without those stories and his friendship I don’t know if I would have had the drive to go ahead with it. So I blame him for a lot of it,” says Read.

Volvo Ocean RacingLooking for sponsorship, Read was introduced to Jochen Zeitz, the chairman and chief executive of PUMA, the sports goods manufacturer. Zeitz had been thinking of launching a new range of clothes for sailing so the PUMA sailing team and their boat, nicknamed Il Mostro (the Monster), became the focus of the campaign.

“They didn’t compromise on anything so we have the full kit – boots, gloves, underwear, socks, the lot, all made by PUMA,” says Read.

I joined the crew practising starts for their Singapore in-port race. Singapore must have one of the world’s most crowded anchorages but the port authorities, in the same efficient way that everything operates here, had shifted the boats away from part of the bay to allow room for racing.

The in-port races earn points in the overall event but are something of a sideshow from the ocean legs. The ocean racing is not quite the blur of activity that characterises round-the-cans contests but it is full-on non-stop racing nevertheless.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Read. “Every moment of the day at sea is spent trying to make the boat run fast. We get three hour position reports so the intensity is maintained the whole time. It’s like a day race that just happens to last weeks at a time.”

While the crews are racing at sea, their wives, partners and families move to the venue for the next leg stopover. Volvo even provides a school for the children of crew so that the whole event is like one big travelling show.

 “It pretty well takes over our lives for the duration although we’re rotating crew a little bit more this time and I think that has been a help,” says Read. “The physical demands are enormous, but it’s mentally tough as well,” he adds. “The key thing is to look out for ourselves and each other. The boats are vicious and we don’t want to take unnecessary risks. There is nothing macho about dying.”

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved