The machines are scary sharp, the crews wear bright and sexy clothing and the thrills and spills will keep you coming back for your fear-factor fix.
That’s sailing we’re talking about, not Grand Prix auto racing.
While we await Christmas and winter, one of the biggest shows in the world is playing out. So take a break from holiday madness for a turn on the water.
Follow the racers round the world at www.volvooceanrace.com and in Bay Weekly.
The Curse of Leg One
Presided over by a prince and princess — Felipe and Letizia of Asturias — the 11th Volvo Ocean Race began with fanfare and fireworks. It ended with a curse.
In Alicante, Spain, as in every port along the 39,270-nautical-mile course, the racers compete in an in-port race before taking to open waters.
According to Volvo lore, the boat that wins the first in-port race is doomed to a mechanical breakdown in Leg One.
The curse delivered.
Englishman Ian Walker skippered Abu Dhabi from the United Arab Emirates — the first-ever entry from an Arab country — to a 12-minute victory in the in-port race.
photo by Paul Todd; Volvo Ocean Race
After winning the first in-port race, Abu Dhabi was knocked out when its mast splintered in rough waters.
The next day, the fleet barreled west out of the Mediterranean toward the tricky bottleneck at Gibraltar, battling a fierce gale and a nasty current. Just six hours and 84 miles into the 6,500-nautical-mile leg to Cape Town, they were crashing along in total darkness when their mast shattered into three pieces.
Crewman Wade Morgan bravely jumped into the sea to cut the rigging loose so they could retrieve the million-dollar mast. They motored back to Alicante, where they spent the next few days installing a new mast before jumping back into the race. After a day of getting thrashed in heavy weather, they withdrew. If they had broken their only remaining mast, they were out of the Volvo for good, and testing a new mast under stormy conditions was not the way to go. So scratch the Arabs in Leg One.
That same evening, Team Sanya — the first Chinese entry in Volvo history — was smashing along the southern coast of Spain when the boat started to take on water. The wind was blowing 43 knots with 35-foot waves when a long gash opened up along the starboard bow.
Marc Bow; Volvo Ocean Race
On Leg One Sanya was knocked out of commission with a gash in the hull.
“We suddenly felt a very odd lurch, like dragging the keel through soft mud. We could hear the noise of water coming into the bow,” wrote the skipper, two-time Volvo winner Mike Sanderson. “For sure if the watertight doors had not been shut, we would have been sunk. We got the pumps going … our situation stabilized, and we suspended racing and headed to the nearest port.”
After much debate, the team decided to ship the boat to South Africa. Scratch the Chinese.
Volvo wisdom says that once you enter the Atlantic, you head west — away from your destination — catch the Trade Winds and tack south toward the mark off Brazil that all the boats must pass to port.
But Frank Cammas, skippering Groupama, France’s first Volvo entry in many a moon, decided to test fate and head due south, hugging the African Coast where a steady easterly was making for fast sailing. But the winds off Africa are fickle. When they spit you out at the point where it’s a straight shot southwest to Brazil, you are facing a vast windless zone known as the Diablo Triangle. Scratch the French.
Riding the Wind
Meanwhile, back west, the three remaining boats had finally hit the Trade Winds, had tacked south and were running at a 20-knot clip with Puma in a knock-down drag-out with Telefonica, while Camper clung to third about 100 miles back pinballing through the Doldrums.
With half the race over and 3,000 miles to go, Puma was first through the non-scoring gate at the island of Fernando de Noranha. As they crossed the equator, King Neptune handed out silly pills and the virgins on each boat were ceremoniously humiliated.
The big question when you’re racing to Cape Town is when to stop sailing south and start heading east. Standing between you and a frosty Castle Lager is another windless expanse of ocean the size of Texas called the St. Helena High, where hot air meets cold and mixes unpredictably in the South Atlantic Convergence Zone. That always spells trouble.
Telefonica pulled the trigger first and made a break to the east before Puma knew what hit her, taking the lead as the boats prepared to scoot around St. Helena’s bottom and hit the stormy cold-weather wall of wind that had produced the 24-hour world distance record for monohulls in the last Volvo Race (596.6 nautical miles for Ericsson 4 under Captain Torben Grael in 2009).
Media crewman Hamish Cooper, aboard Camper, wrote, “It’s like being on a low-flying aeroplane.’’
On day 17, 2,150 miles from Cape Town, Puma’s skipper, Ken Read, radioed in to Ocean Race headquarters. “We were beam reaching in 22 to 23 knots of breeze with eight to 10 foot waves … in the middle of freakin’ nowhere … when the mast failed.” Scratch the Americans.
photo by Armory Ross; Volvo Ocean Race
After a broken mast knocked Puma out of Leg One, it was loaded aboard the freighter Zim Monaco and shipped to Cape Town.
To join the fleet for Leg Two, Puma faced a logistical nightmare.
Cooper described the first step: “We were dehydrated of diesel, sucking fumes. With each new jug pulled aboard, roped in hand-over-hand from the deck of the super-freighter Zim Monaco, came another pile of miles toward our mid-Atlantic salvation island of Tristan.”
Tristan Da Cunha, a speck of lava in the South Atlantic, is the world’s most remote settlement. A former British outpost known as the Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan is only seven miles wide with a population of 262, mostly lobstermen. After a few days of playing cow-pasture golf, hiking the volcanic peaks and scarfing down fresh lobster with cold lager, the crew motored over to the lee side of the island to meet its rescuers.
Their boat, Volvo-veteran Mar Mostro, was hoisted by crane onto the pitching deck of a cargo ship specially outfitted with a cradle so the Puma shore team could make repairs as they motored the 1,200 miles to Cape Town, where a new mast would be installed.
photo by Ian Roman; Volvo Ocean Race
After 21 days at sea, Telefonica sailed into Cape Town, more than 200 miles ahead of the next boat.
Meanwhile, Telefonica avoided breakdown and rode the Cape Doctor, the steady southeast breeze around Cape Town, to victory, finishing in a little over 21 days and beating Camper by 210 miles and Groupama by 830 miles.
After so much drama, the finish was almost anti-climactic. Leg One was more about survival than strategy, and the sailing wounded, Puma, Sanya and Abu Dhabi, still have much work ahead if they are going to make the in-port race on December 10.
Next stop: Abu Dhabi.
Leader Board After Leg One
The Volvo Ocean Race uses a high scoring system, with the overall winner the team with the most points at the end of the race. All legs count with no discards allowed.
For leg points, the winner is awarded the total of the number of entries (six) multiplied by five; i.e. 6 x 5 = 30 points for the winner. For in-port races, the ratio is six boats multiplied by one, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the total points on offer.
Meet the Volvo Teams
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (United Arab Emirates): Englishman Ian Walker, a double Olympic Medalist and 2008-’09 Volvo skipper, has recruited a mongrel crew of old hands to sail the black, falcon-crested boat called Azzam (Determination), a radically designed boat by Bruce Farr of Annapolis and built by Italy’s Persico Apa in Bergamo.
Camper (Spain and New Zealand): Spanish shoemaker Camper is teaming up with a seasoned crew of Kiwis led by three-time Volvo veteran Chris Nicholson aboard a Marcelino Botin-designed boat built by Cookson Boats in Auckland, New Zealand.
Groupama (France): French offshore-legend Franck Cammas competes in the first two legs of the race with a veteran French and Swedish crew. Cammas has only signed on for the first two legs. Then he will leave and a new, and at this point undisclosed, skipper will be hired to run the boat, designed by Argentinean Juan Kouyoumdjian, who already has two Volvo winners under his belt.
Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg (United States): American Ken Read returns at the helm after a strong showing in 2008-’09 aboard Mar Mostro, the Sea Monster, another Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed boat built at New England Boatworks in Newport, Rhode Island.
Team Sanya (China): China’s first Volvo entry flies the Phoenix bird and has a mostly veteran New Zealand crew led by two-time, Volvo-winning Kiwi skipper Mike Sanderson aboard the refitted Telefonica Blue, a podium finisher in the 2008-’09 race.
Team Telefonica (Spain): Dual Olympic medalist Iker Martinez leads Team Telefonica on its third successive Volvo Ocean Race with a veteran Spanish and Brazilian crew sailing a third-generation Volvo 70 boat designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian and built at the King Marine shipyard in Valencia, Spain.