Serious expressions could be seen on the tanned, weather-beaten faces of some of the world’s best yachtsmen in Alicante on October 4 last year, the start date for the Volvo Ocean Race 2014/15. Seven yachts were about to set off to race around the world’s oceans for eight long months over nine stages, stopping in South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, China, New Zealand, Brazil, the U.S., Portugal and France before crossing the finish line in Gothenburg, Sweden, sometime in late June.
Listening to them talk as they waited on the Alicante jetty with seagulls squawking overhead, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in the company of masochists. They spoke of gale-force winds and storms that lashed them with icicles. They shared stories of riding on and flying over waves the size of houses. And of risking their lives.
“The bow bores down into a trough as you come down from some of these monster waves,” explains Germany’s Tim Kröger, who has taken part in the Volvo Ocean Race numerous times now. “A wall of water 5 feet high can almost sweep you away. Then you’re up to your waist in freezing-cold water. You get out of the habit of thinking. That’s a good thing: Thinking can cause doubts, and that would be inappropriate.”
The yachtsmen live on their 65-foot boats for weeks at a time, with each nine-man team packed tightly together in a confined space. They spend days in soaking-wet clothes and go to sleep afraid that they might hit a drifting container at 35 mph or ram a sleeping whale, which would spell disaster. They grimace when they describe slurping noodles out of a tube—the best cuisine a racer can expect when on the high seas. There are physical signs of how stressful this sort of race is. For some men, their beards stop growing; others might lose up to 22 pounds on certain stages.
Ken Read, a former Volvo Ocean Race skipper, explains how to create a mental image of the race. “Sit on the roof of your car in a storm and then hurtle down a bumpy mountain road,” he says. “That’ll give you an inkling of what it’s like.” Read’s greatest fear has always been hearing somebody shout “Man overboard!” “The worst thing to have happened to me during the Volvo Ocean Race was when Hans Horrevoets went overboard from another yacht in 2006,” he says. “He drowned.”
Dangers lurk throughout the event. In late November 2014, relatively soon after the start of the race, the field was reduced from seven to six yachts when the hull of the Vestas Wind vessel was sliced open by a reef northeast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The crew spent the night on the side of the boat before being rescued the next morning.
The Volvo Ocean 65 Class yachts are racing machines made of Kevlar, carbon fiber and other cutting-edge materials. There are high-tech electronics and super-strong hydraulics on board, but comfort in any sense is an alien concept. Just the fact that there’s no insulation on the boats makes life on board tortuous. In some places the ocean temperature is just above freezing, which means it barely reaches 10 degrees in the ship’s cavernous hold.
The background noise ranges from the gentle splashing of waves to a deafening crash when, for example, up on deck a monstrous gennaker sail is hauled tight over one of the drum winches. It sounds like the yacht is breaking apart.
“Three hours of sleep in one go is good going,” one of the men reveals on the jetty in Alicante. “Men take shifts in two sleeping bags to save weight and space.” Frenchman Yann Riou, 41, is the onboard reporter for the Franco-Chinese Dongfeng Race Team. Although he’s forbidden from taking part in any maneuvers, as are the reporters on the other six yachts, he has the same daily routine as the team itself.
Riou, for one, got his fair share of excitement west of Cape Horn. “I was speaking to the helmsman, Charles Caudrelier, inside the yacht when suddenly there was this terrifying crash,” he says. The top of the mast had broken away. “When that happens, you’ve got to climb up there and cut off the broken part to stop it falling onto deck. That would be even worse.”
“Every day is a little different,” considers former skipper Read on the subject of a typical day of racing. “But only the first few days are really bad. After that, you get used to it all.”