By Natalie Miller
A few hundred or so miles off the coast of southeast Brazil, nearly 100 men and women are racing toward their dream —sailing 45,000 nautical miles around the world.
Sailors from all over the globe train for years, even decades, to try to win the storied Volvo Ocean Race, which takes crew members across four oceans, six continents, and 12 landmark host cities in an eight-month, leg-by-leg, all-out, around-the-clock ocean marathon through the world’s toughest waters.
In the end, the crew with the most points—which are earned throughout the race, wins; the best total elapsed time overall and other bonus points along the way win; this is a recognition that is commended not with prize money or trophies but with the prestige of the achievement.
Hailed as one of the greatest challenges in professional sports, the Volvo Ocean Race began in 1973 and is held once every three years. This year, seven crews took off from Alicante, Spain, on October 22, 2017, with the hopes of making it through 11 legs of the global journey to finish in The Hague, the Netherlands, in June 2018. Over 12,000 nautical miles of the trek will take place in the Southern Ocean, a hostile, freezing environment renowned for boat-breaking storms.
The original inspiration for the race was the pure adventure of high-speed sailing around the world, explains Rob Penner, U.S. media manager for the Volvo Ocean Race, likening the event to Nascar and Formula 1. The participants are driven, by personal passion and a great love of sailing, to prove they are the fastest sailors in the world.
It’s a risky and challenging undertaking, and unfortunately, this year has proven to be a stark reminder of the dangers of this coveted pursuit. On March 26, Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag lost a crew member to the Southern Ocean during Leg 7 of the race, from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajaí, Brazil. The boat was approximately 1,400 nautical miles west of Cape Horn when British crew member John Fisher went overboard. A search was launched, but the sailor was not recovered.
“We are devastated, and our thoughts are with John’s family, friends, and teammates,” Volvo Ocean Race President Richard Brisius said in a press release the morning after the indecent. “This is heart-breaking for all of us. As sailors and race organizers, losing a crew member at sea is a tragedy that we don’t ever want to contemplate.”
The conditions were challenging with cold temperatures, big waves, and high winds, according to the release. The crew withdrew from Leg 7 and was assessing their next move. It was the first race fatality since 2006 when Hans Horrevoets went overboard (also during Leg 7 of the race).
Always following an easterly route, the race starts in Europe then heads to Cape Town and onto Australia. The race concludes with a few short legs in Europe to reignite the excitement before the end.
Host ports serve as a pit stop for sailors to get off the water and tend to their boats. After two to three weeks on the water, pushing the boats so hard at such high speeds, they need a break, and the crew needs to reload food and supplies, says Penner.
Over time the interest and spectacle of these stopovers have grown, he says, giving the competition more of a big event feel. The only American host city is Newport, Rhode Island, which also hosted a leg of the race in May 2015 to a record-breaking crowd of over 130,000.
In the U.S., sailing is still a niche sport, and previous stopovers in Boston and Miami were disappointing, says Penner. But with Newport’s maritime, heritage organizers were hopeful the destination city would be a success in 2015.
“It takes over the city. Anywhere you go within Newport’s boundaries, you know the race is there,” said Penner.
Newport Set to Welcome Sailors
Brad Read, Executive Director of Sail Newport, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to bringing sailing to the masses, is thrilled to be welcoming the Volvo Ocean Race back to Newport. Read, his team and the entire city and state of Rhode Island rallied together in 2015 to pull off an extraordinarily successful stopover, and they are working this year to do it again.
“We knew Volvo was used to big cities and USA stopovers always get lost,” he said, crediting the Baltimore stopover during the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race as the only American stopover that was able to rise to the occasion. “The race is used to big operations, but I knew what a boutique stopover could do.”
It was incredibly special, he recalled. “We’re lucky that this bay, this community, have been welcoming sailors for decades— navel captains, pirates, and now the Volvo Ocean Race. It’s important to welcome these men and women to port. We take it seriously. And we are proud to welcome them to safe harbor.”
This year, the stopover will be held from May 9, when the boats start to arrive at the port. On May 20 the vessels will set off on Leg 9 to Cardiff, Wales. This launch is the last of the long legs, 3,300 nautical miles crossing from Newport to Wales before completing the shorter European legs to end the competition. It’s also the final double-points leg of the race.
The stopover highlights the race yachts themselves, which passersby can see up close, and it also features sailing. Throughout the week, there will be opportunities for the public to get out on the water, as well as chances to watch pro sailing. From the MetLife Veterans Regatta to ProAm and M32 high-speed racing to the Volvo In-Port Race on May 19, there will be plenty of spectacular sailing to witness.
Rooting for the Home Team
This year, not only is there an American team in the race, but two of the members are from Rhode Island, including the skipper, Charlie Enright, who is on his second run in the Volvo Ocean Race, returning after debuting as skipper of Team Alvimedica in 2014-15.
Enright is leading Team Vestas 11th Hour alongside fellow Rhode Islander Nick Dana, who was also a crew member of Team Alvimedica 2014-15, as well as working for two other Volvo races prior as shore crew and onboard reporter.
Team Vestas has had a difficult race so far. Coming into Hong Kong, the team hit a fishing boat and had to pull out of that leg, receiving no points. Then, in late March, its boat dismasted during Leg 7 of the race.
“We were sailing in 30 knots in a moderate sea state, nothing more extreme than we had been facing in the Southern Ocean just a few days prior when it was 50 knots and 6-meter seas,” said Dana. “However, there was an equipment failure, and the entire mast came down. It goes to show this race is always about overcoming challenges. Luckily for us, everyone was safe, and we were only 100 miles from the Falklands so we could motor there.”
This year, Dana and his team are working with a new crew and he says sailing into his hometown of Newport will be special. “Volvo has opened it up for mixed crews, so we have some female sailors on board, which is great to see our sport progressing,” he explained. “We also have much more of a focus on the health of our oceans. When I am thousands of miles offshore and seeing debris, it is sad, and we need to do something about it. We are trying to leave a bigger legacy with this campaign.”
To see the schedule of events in Newport, Rhode Island visit volvooceanrace.com