German Team Wins Marathon Volvo Ocean Race

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 11, 2002
After 32,700 nautical miles, four oceans, nine countries, and ten ports,
the German boat illbruck returned home today as the winner of the
marathon Volvo Ocean Race.

Tens of thousands of spectators welcomed the victorious illbruck and seven other boats to Kiel at the conclusion of an epic sailing race that has been hotly contested since it began last September in Southampton, England.

Spectator boats were so abundant in the Kieler Foerde home stretch that some people joked it was possible to cross the water without getting your feet wet.

The happy skipper, American John Kostecki, was enthusiastic both before and after his traditional harbor dunking. "What an awesome moment, its just amazing," Kostecki said of the heartfelt welcome as he sported the race trophy. "Ive never seen anything like it before."

Describing the intensity and hard work of the past nine months, he said the victory moment made it all worthwhile: "We had an incredible battle on our hands, as we had great competition from the other teams, and they pushed us to fight for every point."

In their journey around the globe, the teams endured harsh and spartan conditions—bitter cold and searing heat, little sleep, monotonous food, and injuries both nagging and serious. Through it all, they battled to drive their boats at maximum speed 24 hours a day.

Late Redemption

The ninth and final leg covered 250 nautical miles, a fraction of the race's total length. The sprint from Göteborg, Sweden, to Kiel, Germany, however, was more than simply a coronation for the illbruck Challenge team.

Patchy and unpredictable winds made the final day of the race a frustrating jaunt for some; for others, it was the sweet conclusion of a demanding adventure.

Norwegian entry djuice dragons, which generally performed poorly throughout the race, gained some redemption by winning the final stage.

Amer Sports Too, the race's only all-women entry, narrowly missed a podium finish in the leg by arriving fourth at the dock, though the team did beat teammate Grant Dalton's Amer Sports One, the overall third-place winner. It was a satisfying result for a team that showed amazing tenacity through a race laden with mishaps and tough luck.

On the race's seventh leg—from Annapolis, Maryland, to La Rochelle, France—the women's boat suffered a dangerous and crippling loss of part of its mast. Instead of packing it in, the women nursed the boat 400 miles back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in stormy conditions, with the top of the mast lying on the deck.

The boat was loaded onto a container ship bound for Liverpool, England, then transferred to Southampton. Working feverishly, the crew and shore team refitted the boat and sailed it to La Rochelle in time to rejoin the race in leg eight.

"I think it was a nice way to finish for the team because we always knew we had it in us," said skipper Lisa McDonald, whose husband, Neal McDonald, is the skipper of second-place race winner ASSA ABLOY. "We've battled with drama on the high seas, we've worked really hard on our crew work and our communications, and maneuvering of the boat and our working with the sail program, and I think that has started to pay off for us."

"It's just a pity," she said, "we haven't got a few more legs."

Sweet Results for Pre-Race Favorite

illbruck was the pre-race favorite, and it lived up to its billing by leading throughout and winning all four of the event's long-distance ocean legs. The winning entry's total elapsed time was 123 days, 5 hours, 11 minutes, and 24 seconds.

In a race as demanding as the Volvo, however, nothing comes easy. Winds were both dangerously high and maddeningly inconsistent. The boats battled hazards that included monstrous waves, icebergs, and storms—even waterspouts with winds of up to 60 knots.

Leg two, which traversed the Southern Ocean's infamous "Liquid Himalaya," nearly ended in disaster for illbruck when water poured into the bow of the boat. For several hours it was unclear whether the boat was in danger of sinking.

The German entry recovered, however, to win that leg, and went on to display top form throughout the race, although its victory over ASSA ABLOY was not assured until the end of the final leg.

"We were fighting to the end, that is good," said ASSA ABLOY trimmer Richard Mason. "Second place will do until next time."

En route to their victory, the illbruck Challenge team broke the world monohull speed record with a run of 484 miles in one 24-hour stretch.

Mixed Emotions

The end of the demanding sailing marathon was bittersweet for many of the competitors. "I think we all have mixed feelings about the end," ASSA ABLOY co-skipper/navigator Mark "Rudi" Rudiger said in the race's final hours. "We're all ready for closure, and to stop moving from boat to hotel to boat and so on. But we'll also miss the race, the singular focus, the awesome sailing, and the achievement."

Rudiger said he "never ceases" to be amazed at how time relativity is affected by ocean racing. "It speeds up on land, and slows down at sea," he said. "It seems like forever to get there, but all of the sudden you're there before you know it."

Come the autumn of 2005, the competitors will have the chance to do it all again. Volvo has announced that the next ocean race will kick off somewhere in Europe, although details on the route and the type of boat entries are not yet available.

So, are there any takers among the current entrants? "Right now I'd say no," said ASSA ABLOY's McDonald. "But in about 20 minutes time, after a few beers, I would say yes, of course I would!"

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