Round-the-World Racers Hit Brutal "Liquid Himalaya"

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 30, 2001

Gale-force winds drive the frothy seas to towering heights and punishing waves of frigid water roar across the deck, threatening to sweep away anything not lashed down. Icy spray stings the eyes of crew members, who are already exhausted from long shifts.

Under such extreme conditions, most sailors would focus on only the most basic of thoughts: survival. But for the 97 people competing in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, the quest for victory means that speed is constantly played against safety in a delicate balancing act.

The limits of safe racing are truly pushed to the edge during the race's grueling 6,550-mile (10,545.5-kilometer) second leg, from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sydney, Australia. This stage, now underway, sends boats flying across some of the world's wildest ocean landscape. It happens in a remote section of the Indian Ocean sometimes called "the liquid Himalaya."

"Climbers do Everest, divers do the deep sea, and sailors do the Whitbread" (now the Volvo Ocean Race), victorious skipper Paul Cayard told National Geographic during the last race, in 1997-98.

Other ships avoid these treacherous waters. They have since the opening of the Suez Canal offered an easier route to the East. So the Volvo racers are geographically isolated, surrounded only by albatrosses, whales, and icebergs.

Another companion is storms—known to sailors as the Roaring 40s and Furious 50s for the latitudes of the ocean where they occur.

Sail at Your Own Risk

All entrants in the race use the same type of boat. In the Southern Ocean, 60-knot winds whip up 20- to 30-foot waves, allowing the race vessels to reach remarkable speeds of up to 35 knots.

The winds also subject the boats and their crews to weeks of cold, wet pounding. The hazards facing the twelve-person crews are many—being swept from the deck, caught by an errant line or a flailing sail. Four Volvo sailors have perished in these waters since 1973.

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