If you haven’t heard yet, or are new to the sport of sailing, the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race started from Alicante, Spain last Saturday on the first of nine legs. Over the next four months, seven high performance boats, driven and crewed by some of the world’s top professional sailors will race around the globe pushing both themselves and their boats to extreme limits. At present, the boats are positioned in the Atlantic doldrums just past the Cape Verde Islands, turned westward towards the shore of Brazil, which they will skim past before making course for the finish line of leg 1: Cape Town, South Africa.
Despite the epic nature of this event, the sport of ocean racing does not receive much media attention. Most Americans don’t even know this sort of competition exists. As you can imagine, a four month long, around the world race, takes some stamina on the part of the viewer – not to mention the competitors themselves! This particular edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, though is already proving to be entertaining and engaging. Here are just a few reasons why you should check out the race and watch the sport unfold.
One Design Fleet
Previous editions of the Volvo Ocean Race utilized a “box rule” for how each of the competing boats was designed and built. A box rule provides naval architects and yacht designers several required parameters like length overall, maximum beam, and maximum sail area while allowing the designers to be creative with most everything in between. This type of design rule can result in a fleet of competing boats that are roughly similar yet all perform very differently depending on the design. This tends to lead to races where certain boats are inherently faster or slower due to design, not due to the efforts or tactics of the crew.
This edition of the VOR, though is being raced in a strict one design fleet. One design means that all of the boats are exactly the same. They all have the same lines, blocks, winches, spars – they all weigh the same, and they all perform the same. The idea is that this will result in a closer race where results will depend entirely on the stamina and decisions made by the sailors.
The design for this race is the Volvo Ocean 65. Designed and engineered by Farr Yachts, this boat is super light for its size and carries an immense amount of sail. Top speeds can exceed 30 knots. In comparison to an AC72 this may seem unimpressive, but the AC72 isn’t sailing through the Southern Ocean dodging small icebergs known as “growlers” in the middle of the night.
This is nuts. Eight people to run a 65’ over-powered race boat seems crazy to me. Not to mention, these people are going 24/7. This means that throughout most of the race, four people will be down below sleeping and four people will be on deck sailing.
To put this in perspective, the J/111 that I race on requires a crew of eight for racing. That is a 36’ boat and far less of a handful than a VOR 65 – we’re also not racing around the clock. The Dehler 39 that I race on for the annual Mackinac race ideally has a crew of ten so we can keep a healthy watch schedule and keep the boat performing for all 300 miles.
The crew size definitely makes stamina and injury prevention a key factor for a winning boat. With only eight crew members there is no room for anyone to be injured or out of the fight.
All Female Boat
For the first time since the 1989-1990 race, there is a boat comprised of an all female crew. Team SCA was the first to even receive their boat, giving them a big advantage in terms of where they are on the learning curve of this new VOR65 design.
Team SCA isn’t just a novelty, though. The team skipper, Sam Davies, is already a top solo ocean racer having competed in two Vendee Globe Races (that’s a non-stop around the world race – done alone!). The remaining crew is made up of top sailors and former Olympians whose sailing resumes are on par if not beyond most of their male competition. While the media surrounding the race has enjoyed pointing out the novelty, I personally think team SCA has just as much ability to win as any of the male-powered teams.
The past several editions of the race have all had better and better media coverage. This year, though, the cameras are designed into the actual boats and are an integral part of the construction. Additionally, each boat carries a media correspondent whose sole responsibility is to send the audience video, pictures, and stories from the high seas. Never before have people on land been able to pay as close attention to, and in as interesting a format as, this year’s VOR.
I’ll be honest; I’m a little partial to this race. I remember when the Volvo Ocean Race, at that time called the Whitbread, came through my home waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Friends and relatives piled into the family Pearson 30 to motor out to the middle of bay to see these freakishly powerful boats sail by. The excitement of knowing these sailors are leaving the safety of land to pursue adventure and competition out on the open ocean was remarkably inspiring. This experience helped inspire me to become a lifelong sailor and to spread the love of the water to all those around me.
I hate making trans-sport comparisons like “this is the world series of sailing,” but I’ll give it a shot. Imagine if the players in the Super Bowl didn’t stop playing after the game was over, but rather, took a three hour nap on the field, had a bucket of ice-cold salt water dumped on them, and then got up and played another game – for days on end. That is the athleticism and determination that is necessary to be competitive in a race like this. For these reasons and so much more, I will be glued to my computer screen watching for the next few months – I hope you join me.