view counter

The Greatest Race in the World

After almost a year at sea and nearly 40,000 miles, the Volvo Race is a true endurance test

The 39,270-mile Volvo Ocean Race is the greatest test of human endurance in the guise of sport on the planet earth. It’s life at the extreme with its own curiosities.
    Starting the nine-month race in Spain is always fun. The Spanish know how to throw a good party, and the royalty-crowned pomp and circumstance befits such an epic voyage.
    But starting from Alicante, Spain, means sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to Gibraltar, a boat-busting, upwind slog. The untested crews are just beginning a 5,000-mile marathon to South Africa, and by the end of the first day at least one boat invariably has been knocked out of the race — before getting started.
    The Capetown stop is carved in stone. After three weeks of tactical grinding, the boats have to stop because they are out of food. The crews are literally wasting away. The boats have to get around Africa and into the Southern Ocean, and Capetown guards the ocean gate.
    After Capetown, the race used to sail southeast to Australia or New Zealand. This last race established new game rules. Build a boat and put together a $75 million syndicate with crews. Then find yourself a city willing to fork over $25 million for the stopover infrastructure. That’s what it takes to bring the race to your country.
    Following the money, the racers sailed north from Capetown to Abu Dhabi for Leg 2. There is nothing inherently wrong with this global marketing strategy, other than the fact that the Indian Ocean is crawling with pirates.
    Leg 2 featured an unmarked freighter strung with barbed wire rendezvousing with the fleet at a secret island near Mali, where the boats and crews were transported a thousand miles north to a spot off the Sharajah coast. There the multi-million-dollar boats were off-loaded for the second part of the leg, a 200-mile run to Abu Dhabi. No one there knows jack about sailing, but Arab money put on a grand spectacle with Cold Play performing for sailors in shorts surrounded by Bedouin millionaires in flowing robes.
    The finish for Leg 7 to Lisbon found the fleet sailing miles and miles up the Tagus River in the dark against an out-going current in squirrelly winds. At times, the boats were sailing backwards. It would have been comical if not for the fact that it allowed Telefónica to catch up to Camper after the Australians had sailed 3,400 miles across the Atlantic ahead of their Spanish rival. The river drift-a-thon negated 11 days of tactically difficult and death-defying racing.
    Finally, the last two legs, from Lisbon to Lorient and Lorient to Galway, were essentially long, offshore, in-port races. But they were scored the same as any other leg. The winner of the 500-mile leg from France to Ireland received the same points as the winner of the 5,000-mile leg from China to Australia. That’s crazy. The points system should reflect the difference in each leg, awarding fewer points for the shorter legs at the end.

Looking Ahead
    The next Volvo Ocean Race will feature 65-foot one-designs. The goal is to level the playing field and make it cheaper for teams to field an entry. Race organizers would love to see a lot more than six boats competing. The more the merrier.
    For the same reason, organizers are trying to forge financial partnerships with tennis, golf and Formula One racing. The goal is to make the race the most popular sporting event in the world. With nine months to sell many products at exotic stops around the globe, there’s gobs of money to be made by everyone under the race’s financial umbrella.
    People ask me why the race ­doesn’t stop in Annapolis any more. I tell them that if we ever hope to see the Volvos in the Chesapeake again, we need to put together a team.
    So here’s an idea. The Volvo Ocean Race should team up with the NFL. Football fans like thrilling, action-packed extreme sport, and sailing is all about balls-to-the wall excitement and ruggedly handsome men in colorful sexy outfits.
    If the Baltimore Ravens were to team up with Under Armour to outfit a crew of professional sailors, it would be a match made in heaven.
    Can you imagine a sleek purple Volvo boat with a giant raven on the sail, cruising around the world promoting American football?
    The stopover in Baltimore and Annapolis would draw a million spectators, all buying paraphernalia and filling hotels and restaurants for two weeks. Once the NFL tested the waters, the next race would have a team from Miami or New York.
    The Giants may have won the Super Bowl, but can they beat a Ravens team in a sailboat race around the world?