The race began with a departure from Southampton, England on September 23, 2001. It features nine challenging legs and stops in ten different ports on the way to the finish in Kiel, Germany. The route includes stops at Cape Town, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Miami, and Gteborg, Sweden, among others.
It's a tough, uncomfortable, and dangerous undertaking. The teams traverse some of the world's wildest and most remote waters, in search of downwind speed sailing unlike any other. To complete the race is one of the great experiences of any sailor's careerand certainly among the most demanding.
As 1997 to '98s victorious skipper Paul Cayard told National Geographic magazine, "Climbers do Everest, divers do the deep sea, and sailors do the Whitbread (Volvo)."
The Quest for Speed Requires Dedication and Innovation
The race fleet consists of eight teams, all manning state-of-the-art 60-foot Volvo Ocean 60 racing boats. These specialized craft are designed purely for speed, and weigh just 13.5 tons.
The racing focus means only spartan comfort for the crews. There are no refrigerators for cold drinks, no hot showers, no cabins. Just shared bunks and sleeping bags, and rehydrated food over a single burner for the 12-person crew whose focus is to drive the boat as fast as possible, 24 hours a day.
Volvo crew members are naturally keen sailors, but there is a lot more to successfully managing a 60-foot boat than tactical sailing skills. Crews must contend with a challenging array of tasks, all made more difficult by the often hazardous onboard conditions.
Equipment must be repaired. Sails must be mended. Preparing meals, even when they are as simple as rehydrated gruel, can be a challenge in punishing seas. Medical needs must be attended to. These routine chores tax the crew even when things are going according to plan.
Naturally, in a race like the Volvo, nothing stays according to plan indefinitely.
Abagail Seager, of the all-women entry Amer Sports Too, illustrates the way in which problems can mount with a description of her team's struggles on Leg 5, from Rio de Janeiro to Miami. "First one thing broke and then another and another," she explained. "It kept on like that for over a week. And all that time, some of us had to stay down below trying to fix the breakdowns. Actually, Emma Westmacott, Liz Wardley and I did not spend more than a few hours on deck during that week. It was a snowball effect."
The ability to adapt and deal with the unforeseen is a critical component to Volvo success, thus sailors double as medics or engineers when the need arises.
Crews also do their bit as media liaisons, finding time to keep in contact via audio, video and e-mail, making it easy for fans to follow every aspect of the race live on the Web. E-mails provide an intimate look at life onboard, and titles might range from tactical discussions to "Man the pumps! We are sinking!" or the disastrous "Pizzas are all gone." With burgeoning technology and an ever-increasing competition for tactical advantages, entering a team in the race is an expensive proposition. Costs for boat, crew, sail development, and myriad other mounting expenses drive the price of playing to ten million dollars at the low end, and twice that at the high.
The payoff is a stake in an increasingly high-profile event, and a chance at the glory that comes with victory. The winners receive no cash prize, just a crystal trophy and, more importantly, the respect and admiration of the sailing world.
As usual between legs, boats will be on display and sailors will rest, recover and enjoy the attendant celebrations until the beginning of the next test. Leg 7 gets underway on April 28, and runs 3,400 nautical miles from sailing hotbed Annapolis, Maryland to La Rochelle, France. It should be completed around May 11th, though the date is subject to the whims of the Atlantic.
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