Volvo Ocean Race Pounds On—Even at Pit Stops

Brian Handwerk in Baltimore
for National Geographic News
April 24, 2002
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The Volvo Ocean Race is a marathon event. For nine months, world-class racers battle each other around the globe over some 32,700 miles (52,600 kilometers).

Participants spend weeks at a time driving their boats to the limit 24 hours a day. They sacrifice sleep, privacy, fresh food, and other comforts to win each leg. But what happens when they reach the next port of call?

The race doesn't stop—it just shifts gears. Weary sailors get a chance to rest and prepare for the next leg, while the shore crew swings into action.

After weeks of demanding action, and a spartan existence at sea, the first things these exhausted sailors crave are basic human needs.

"My priorities are a refreshing pint of beer, followed by some nice fresh food, and then a hot shower," said Amer Sports Too watch captain Katie Pettibone. Amer Sports One tactician Dee Smith looks forward to "a big, big food intake. Your body wants to grab anything it can get. During the race your body gets pretty depleted, so you're craving food."

After weeks of round-the-clock shifts, everyone's also short on sleep, so that's also a priority.

But, Pettibone noted, it's not always easy to catch up. "I definitely try to sleep in, but you can't because your body is still on the watch system," she lamented. "It takes a while to get off that."

Facing the Next Round

Stopovers are up to two and a half weeks long, so most crew members have a chance for some real rest and relaxation before their hard work begins anew.

"At each stop we get a certain number of days to just get away from the boat," said Pettibone. Her sister lives in Philadelphia, so on the current Baltimore/Annapolis stop, the whole family congregated in Philly for a visit.

Captains also get a short and much-needed vacation. "I try to just relax and be with my family if they're there," said Grant Dalton, skipper of Amer Sports One. "If not, sometimes there is a long enough break to fly home for a short time."

Health and fitness concerns remain important for racers who have been physically taxed for long periods of time. "We keep working out, to keep our fitness level high," said Pettibone.

Crew members also spend their breaks trying not to get sick, she added, because they're tired and their immune systems are weak. "We're in a fairly isolated environment on the boat, but when we hit port we're suddenly exposed to every germ in the place," she said. "In Rio, we lost a sailor who became sick with pretty serious flu, so you've really got to try to take care of your health."

About a week before the start of the next leg, getting ready again—stocking the boat with food, plotting race strategies, testing new sails and tactics—takes priority.

Smith's job as tactician is determining where the boat will go. "To get ready for the next leg, I work with [navigator Roger Nilson] to download the weather information and histories so that we can create what we call the 'thin blue line.' That's the course we would sail based on historical weather conditions. We plot that course and then make adjustments to it based on the conditions we encounter during the race."

Meanwhile, on Amer Sports Too, Pettibone works to repair, check, and change sails. "It can be as easy as repacking them, or it might mean sewing or analyzing pictures about shape changes that occurred on the previous leg."

Handing Off

Although everyone has plenty to do, the time in port is not nearly as demanding for the crew as it was in days past, thanks to the tremendous efforts of the shore crews.

"I have guys that I can trust and they're very good at their jobs," said Dalton. "So they don't need me here at the boat all the time, although I'm always accessible by phone."

The shore crew members travel the world as well, from port to port, for the nearly yearlong event.

"Usually, we're full on, with the shore team running from 5:30 or so in the morning till after 11:00 at night," said Ilan Graetz, manager for both Amer Sports One and Amer Sports Too.

The relatively short distance of the Miami-to-Baltimore leg, and the subsequent good condition of the boats, meant that all the shore crews were feeling a bit more relaxed in port this week. Usually, however, hectic schedules are the norm.

"The crew spends the first day around the boat wrapping up, letting us know about problems and sorting them out for a work list," Graetz said. "If there are any major problems, they've called ahead during the race so that we can order what we need and have everything ready in the next port prior to their arrival."

When shore crews arrive in port a few days ahead of the racers, their equipment and gear are waiting for them, shipped from port to port by others on the team.

The cramped interiors of the boats, after weeks of close confinement, freeze-dried meals, and foul-weather gear, are "livable, but just that," said one crew member. Another called the condition "about as nasty as you can imagine."

But it's the boats' many systems that really concern the shore crews. From sails to engines to electronics, the crews must overhaul the vessels to make sure they're in top condition, and to add any competitive advantage they can.

"We completely go through all the rigging, looking for damage, examine the engine and pump systems, the batteries, patch and adjust sails. We've got electricians, engineers, riggers, boatbuilders, and sailmakers hard at work," said Graetz.

The electronics equipment on a modern Volvo Ocean 60 is extensive and creates plenty of work for Sean Healey of the Amer Sports team.

The boat has a below-deck satellite dish and a satellite telephone, and a media center with computers and cameras. Other electronics range from the absolutely essential, including a safety system that uses a directional finder to locate crew members via a watch they all wear, to the novel, such as a stationary video camera below deck that can be used for videoconferencing.

Sometimes, extraordinary damages tax the shore crews to their limits.

"In Auckland we had major structural damages. We had to replace a bulkhead and a cracked keel," said Graetz. "The girls on Amer Sports Too hit some kind of big fish and broke the rudder, so that had to be rebuilt as well."

Healey has had his hands full several times during the race with major damage to the electrical systems. Amer Sports One was hit by a strike of lightning near Miami "that just fried three-quarters of the electronics," he said.

Because of the critical importance of the electronic systems, Healey stays in touch with the boats by phone. "They'll call me from the boat. I carry the same computer that they have and I can see the exact same things that they're looking at, so we can troubleshoot problems on the fly."

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