Down to the second
As the Oldport launch was heading over to Fort Adams at 0800, we passed very close to the Volvo Open 65, Dongfeng Racing. In very poor visibility and light air she was the fourth boat in the fleet to finish in the Newport leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. The word around the Newport docks was that the remaining boats had sailed into a hole off the Block Island Wind Farm — they would make landfall later that morning. The scene that greeted this gang of ocean racers could be likened to a rock concert; the headliners were the boats and crews. As Dongfeng Racing backed into her slip next to her fellow competitors, the song “Up Town Funk” by Bruno Mars was blasting — loudly — and the crowed hooted and roared. Later, it was also noted around the docks that someone made an anonymous “noise violation complaint” for this event at Fort Adams — no one cared. This ocean racing event was a cause for celebration and it was apropos for the crowd to applaud the boats and crews.
The Volvo Ocean Race — started in 1973 as The Whitbread — is a grueling 45,000 nautical mile jaunt around the globe. The Open 65s sail across four oceans and call on six continents and the boats are hosted by twelve cities. (Newport is the only North American stopover before the fleet continues on for a 3,300-mile leg to Cardiff, Wales.) It’s a team-driven endeavor using the most cutting-edge composite technologies and sailing design in the world, and the crews aboard these boats must be lauded for their tenacity, brains and brawn. The Open 65s are a Farr design and are built for speed and safety; comfort is not necessarily a concern. The sailors on these boats know what they’re signing up for and must be able to adapt to extreme conditions. This race is not for the squeamish and is looked upon as one of the top 10 toughest sporting events in the world. This is the Mount Everest of sailboat racing.
The One Design nature of the Open 65 makes this race so competitive. Each team has the same exact design; however, there are so many variables to consider for each boat that the endgame of each leg of the race — mostly because of the fickleness of the weather — can be impossible to predict. For thousands of miles in the Southern Ocean, the teams all faced horrible weather and punishing conditions. The design of the Open 65 is such that when the boat goes into a wave the water comes aft at the sailors who are on watch, and it comes at them fast. Then the boat sheds the water because of its low-slung cabin design — for windage purposes — and its open stern. And let’s not forget that in the Southern Ocean the water is freezing cold. These are Spartan conditions to say the least. While off watch down below the sailors must, somehow, eat something, answer nature’s call and try to sleep. Getting dry in these conditions seems impossible. Moreover, these boats are basically match-racing in the most desolate patch of water in the world. They are in sight of each other and charging. Remember, each team is driven hard and wants to win — it’s their raison d’etre — and they are pushing the boats and themselves 24/7. The stress on the crew and boats in the Southern Ocean is daunting, and fatigue is a big factor in this leg of the race. Subsequently, the crews stand a shortened watch system; hypothermia hovers over this entire leg of the race. Race, eat, sleep, repeat is the daily sequence aboard these boats. Certain kinds of men and women are drawn to this savage race. Team Brunel’s skipper, Bouwe Bekking, has done this race seven times and is still chasing the elusive win. One quality all of these sailors share — the crews are made up of both men and women — is that they all possess pure passion for this dangerous and arduous type of sailing.
Each team has a navigator. (Each team also has a reporter on board; however, they are not allowed to help sail the boat.) Also, each boat is rigged with an Inmarset system for global connections. As a result, the reporters can communicate in real-time: texts, videos, emails and drone footage, which results in a very visceral experience for the people who follow the fleet. The navigator of the team has the difficult task of taking all of the intel from their weather routers and making the best decisions to put their boat into the best competitive position. Although the teams have expert weather routers giving them constant weather updates, it does not deter Mother Nature from tossing a monkey wrench into their well-made plans. For example, after charging north from Itajai, Brazil to Newport, the fleet was met with slack wind and an outgoing tide as they approached the finish line off Fort Adams. The boat Maphre beat Brunel by one minute and one second on this leg. Frustration combined with elation was what these intrepid sailors felt — after that one minute and one second.
Fort Adams is currently the Race Village for the Volvo Ocean Racing Teams. Spectators can get up close and personal to the boats and sailors, explore each team’s booth, and learn about the race and its origins. Moreover, there is an Open 65 half model that we can explore to get a visceral sense of how the sailors live below decks. This is a must see along with many other interesting activities. The boats will be at Fort Adams until 20 May and will continue on to Cardiff, then to Gothenburg and the race will end in the Netherlands. If you have a chance, go see these extraordinary boats and crews.