Since 2008, the Volvo Ocean Race teams have carried a multimedia reporter onboard to give fans a taste of what its like to race around the world on a 66 foot sailing yacht. You have to admit, it sounds quite romantic and during the build-up to the 2017-18 event, yours-truly was seduced by the no-doubt once-in-a-lifetime experience of circumnavigating the earth with a bunch of fun-loving sailors. The thoughts of taking breakfast on deck at sunrise, stroking dolphins’ heads and getting a world-class tan had me eager to complete the online application at if.volvooceanrace.com.
And then, reality set in. To be fair, the application page did its best to put me off straight away, proclaiming ‘Out here, there are no coffee breaks!’ in a large font. But it got even worse in the job description, adding ‘Long work days, difficult working conditions, sun, seasickness, heat, cold, wet, sleep deprivation – you’ll experience it all.’ It’s fair to say, the Volvo Ocean Race is a bit serious. Many of the world’s best sailors have dedicated years, decades even, in trying to win it and here I was imagining an all expenses paid, round the world cruise. So, just like Mumsy taught me, I wrote down the pros and cons. Under ‘Why I Should do the Volvo Ocean Race.” I wrote tan, dolphins and awesome Instagram updates and under ‘Why I shouldn’t do the Volvo Ocean Race’ I came up with the following…
So far, all of the Volvo Ocean Race Reporters have made it safely around the world with all their limbs intact. However, they’ve only been doing it for the last four races, and there’s an awful lot that can go wrong in a round-the-clock, 45,000 nautical mile event. Put it this way, I’ve seen someone hospitalised after a sail around the World Islands in Dubai (badly sprained ankle) so the chances of getting injured/infected in nine months at sea, are reasonably high. And who’s going to drop me off a tube of Berocca when I’m in the South Pacific, half way between Auckland and the formidable Cape Horn?
An old maritime saying claims that: “Below 40 degrees latitude, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God.” Chile’s Cape Horn, located at the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago comes in at 55°58, south. It is a barren, rocky outcrop where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans angrily meet and has the nickname ‘The End of the World’. Here, 3-metre high waves are seen as flat and we would be racing around it, most likely in a storm. Errr, no thanks.
I’ve sailed out past the Atlantis and wanted to head home for a shawarma, so being at sea for a possible 273 and a bit days is pretty daunting. That’s even a long time to be in jail and at least you get to walk about and maybe have a game of soccer behind bars. In a Volvo 65, you’re basically in a 72ft long cell that’s made from carbon fibre and has no windows. Or anything. Accommodation on a 65 is best described at submarine-like, but a bit more claustrophobic.
The bunks are wafer thin and hinged, so they can move with the heel of the yacht and this is the only time you get to check Facebook and Instagram. The only positive about being the reporter is, you get a bit of a lie-in, while the crew sleep in four-hour shifts through the night. And they do this every night for nine months. A charter on the Med, this is not.
It is a barren, rocky outcrop where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans angrily meet and has the nickname, The End of the World.
It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re out in a tourist boat on the Nile, or the skipper of a Volvo 65, at some stage at sea, you’re going to get sea sick. It’s guaranteed and it’s horrible. I’ve spoken with some endurance sailors and it’s not pleasant. Imagine your worst bought of nausea, then having it for days, if not weeks. I once had seasickness for three days from being below decks for no more than a minute. Once it’s caught hold, you’re in a whole world of bad and during one leg of the 2015 race, the race Doctor, Pablo Diaz, confirmed a third of the sailors were seasick.
Here in the Middle East, we don’t really know what cold, wet seas are and being cold and wet is a big deal. For the race, I would’ve plotted a temperate route from say, Dubai to Malaysia, then over the North Pacific and through the Panama Canal to the Med for a few months. Stopping off at Monaco, Porto Cervo, Smeralda, Amalfi and the Ionians would be nice, before heading back to Dubai via the Suez Canal. But no, the organisers have to take in stops, such as Cardiff, Gothenburg and Saint Petersburg. Imagine getting into bed, freezing cold and wet, with little chance of sleep? No thanks.
Surprisingly, good weather can be just as mentally challenging as colossal waves and ice-cold winds. The Volvo Ocean Race will at some stage hit the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, the belt around the earth near the equator better known as the ‘doldrums’. Due to intense solar heating near the equator, the warm, moist air is forced up into the atmosphere. Because the air circulates in an upward direction, there is often little surface wind in the Doldrums and this can last for weeks, which is a bit of a bummer when you’re in a sailing boat race.
In ye olden days, the Doldrums terrified sailors, as stranded ships would run out of food and drinking water, leading to scurvy, delirium and cabin fever, the latter still being a problem for today’s racers. Being stuck on a stationary yacht for days on end with nothing to do and nowhere to go is draining. You’re constantly battling boredom, claustrophobia and irritability, with the quiet sea being the only therapy. You’re also stuck with the same nine people you’ve already been stuck with for months. I’m genuinely surprised a psychologist isn’t part of the race crew. I think I’d need two.
It seems bizarre to say it, but piracy is still a problem on the high seas and your everyday water-terrorist isn’t going to care that you’re taking part in a race. They’re going to see 10-million dollars worth of sailing yacht and nine potential hostages. I once interviewed a VOR skipper and he did confirm that they had encountered ‘approaches’. In certain waters, a skiff aiming directly for you could be nothing more than a fisherman on his way to sell you his catch, but you simply don’t know.
Back in 2011, with an imminent threat from pirates, the entire VOR fleet was loaded on to an armoured ship with men with big guns for six days in the Indian Ocean, before unloading in Sharjah before the Abu Dhabi to Sanya leg. Although, thanks to men with big guns and military escorts, piracy has been reduced in the Indian Ocean hot spots off Somalia, the problem still exists in the South China Sea, West Africa and South America – basically, along this year’s race route.
I was quite surprised to find that the Volvo Ocean Race 65s were kitted out with a rather snazzy carbon fibre galley, maybe in the style of Ellerman House’s corkscrew wine rack? However, on closer inspection, the ‘galley’ turned out to be three small sinks where the ‘chef’ produces the dish of the day – by adding boiling water to the freeze dried rations. There’s not even a surface to do, well, anything. The reason behind the sparseness is down to weight saving; a lighter boat will sail quicker, hence its carbon fibre construction and the use of freeze dried food.
The crew will go through 12.5kgs of dried up din-dins a day and with legs often lasting 20-days, that’s a lot of weight. It’s a far cry from the VOR’s origins, when back in 1973, competitors in the Whitbread Round The World Race would dine on large quantities of fresh food and the crew would even go as far as dressing for dinner in the evening.
So, unsurprisingly, I never did fill the online application in. Sure, the rewards of being an OBR are immense – a proper once-in-a-lifetime experience, where no doubt one day in the future, you’re friends and family will still want to hear your story on how you conquered Cape Horn. However, to do it in a cold, seasick and sleep deprived state, is really not worth the glory, at least for me. The only time I’ll be sailing around the world is with Cunard.