The word “extreme” gets bandied about often these days, both in sports and the ever-expanding world of business. There’s even Extreme Post-It Notes. But few items or events actually live up to the word’s true definition. One that does is the Volvo Ocean Race, a battle of sailing supremacy on the high seas that combines the best of sports, sportsmanship, and high-tech innovation.
This grueling nine-month competition, with all its wild, erratic swings in weather and sea conditions, covers 45,000 nautical miles (the longest Volvo Ocean Race to date) across four oceans. 2015 winner Ian Walker of Great Britain recalled racing through the night, “when it’s windy, and you can’t see the waves. Most of the time we’re steering to the numbers.”
“I still stop myself every now and then when we’re hurtling along at 20 knots in the middle of the night and think to myself, ‘This is insane,’” said Walker. “You wouldn’t drive a car with the lights off, not knowing where you’re going. You’re basically playing a game of Russian roulette.”
Each of the race’s 11 legs – ranging from three days to three weeks – features non-stop racing, with crewmembers on deck for alternating four-hour shifts. It’s exhausting, both mentally and physically.
“This race is really a marathon,” said American Mark Towill, co-captain of the Vestas 11th Hour Racing team. “Even though it’s a marathon, it’s really a long sprint. We really live or die based on our performance over the last six hours. We do that for nine months. So there’s a constant desire to push the boat as hard as you can.”
Pushing the boat requires continuous adjustments, from navigating weather patterns to trimming sails and relocating all the on-deck equipment and crew. Each team consists of seven to 11 crewmembers (depending on the number of women on board). “It’s extremely physical, which people don’t realize,” said Towill.
Skipper of the triumphant Abu Dhabi yacht, Walker spent 10 years chasing the Volvo title.
“We had six months of planning, six months of training prior to the start,” he said. “We had 18,000 miles training. Then we’ve had the race. We had a very good plan, and we stuck to it. We’ve been much more under control. We haven’t been scrambling around trying to raise money, trying to save time, hiring loads of people we haven’t worked with before or we knew we could trust.
“And I think I’ve improved as a skipper,” said Walker. “You just learn more. You just get better as you do more.”
Walker’s quote illustrates the enormous complexity of a Volvo Ocean Race campaign. It is a multi-year effort that requires finding the right crewmembers, the right sponsorship, and enough time to get all those ingredients working seamlessly to be as competitive as possible.
One factor teams no longer have to worry about is the high-tech arms race that dominates many sports, from cycling to car racing. Faced with spiraling costs of building lighter, faster boats, and declining sponsorship, race officials have adopted a “one design” craft to level the playing field between competitors.
Identical yachts dubbed the Volvo Ocean 65 class – referred to as the VO65 – were first introduced in 2014. Designed by Farr Yacht Design in the United States, the yachts were built by a consortium of four shipyards, with parts produced in France, Italy, and Switzerland, and assembled in the United Kingdom. Sailing fans can get a close look at the yachts at any one of 12 host cities around the world, including Newport, R.I.
These “race village” stopovers give sailors a chance to recharge their batteries for a fortnight, and provide spectators a rare chance to learn about the sport, the sponsors, and watch “in-port” races. Roughly 2.4 million spectators visited the villages in 2014-15, which have a carnival atmosphere, featuring various exhibits, including cross-sections of the racing yachts.
These ultra-light yachts, said American Charlie Enright, Towill’s co-captain of the Vestas 11th Hour Racing team, are “like a real Swiss Army knife,” each featuring a carbon composite hull, seven sails (built by North Sails of the United States), a 100-foot main mast, a canted keel, two daggerboards, and twin rudders.
“The one design concept has made for very close racing,” said Towill. “Every team has the exact same equipment, which has really put the race in the hands of the sailors, and not the designers. The (competitive) level is extremely high, and you need to push the boat 100 percent all the time.”
That puts added pressure on each crew.
“For us, it’s about maximizing our potential,” said Enright. “We have all the tools we need to succeed. It’s just a matter of how much better, or faster, we can get.”
Six of the seven yachts to enter the 2017-18 race also competed three years ago. Only Team AkzoNobel has a new craft. That consistency provides financial certainty for sponsors. And since there are no monetary rewards for winning the race (or any individual stage), that financial certainty – and the fact that every boat has the same theoretical chance of winning – is critical to attracting sponsors.
“It’s like Formula 1,” said Walker. “Why would you sponsor a team that never gets in the top five? Let’s be clear – there wouldn’t have been a race if they didn’t change the rules.”
The VO65 “fundamentally changed the race,” said Walker, noting the one design isn’t the fastest or most nimble sailing craft. “But it has saved the race, no question.”
It’s clearly a race sailors wanted saved. One of sailing’s Big Three events, in addition to the America’s Cup and the Olympics, the Volvo Ocean Race was first held as the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973. It is held every three years and is actually multiple races (or “legs”) within a single overall race.
Unlike cycling’s Tour de France, however, the final standings aren’t based on cumulative time. Instead, each boat is assigned a point value based its finishing position at the end of each leg (eight points for first place, seven points for second, and so on). The team with the highest cumulative total when the fleet sails into The Netherlands in early June is declared the winner.
Walker, however, acknowledged winning isn’t everything. Though a competition, the Volvo Ocean Race is undoubtedly one of the last of the great adventures in a constantly shrinking world.
“Whenever you arrive in a port, whether you come in first or last, it’s always a good feeling,” said Walker. “It’s quite an achievement to sail these boats with a small group of people, and we always have challenges thrown at us. That’s what separates this race. With the Volvo Ocean Race, everyone here is achieving something.
“It is a big adventure,” he said. “That’s what creates the bond between the people who do it and the people who work the Volvo. There are not many of those left, short of going to the moon.”
Being at the helm of a multi-million dollar racing yacht is, in many respects, similar to leading a multi-million dollar corporation. For Enright and Towill, those two jobs are synonymous, though the pair charted a unique course. Both credit their experience at Brown University, where they earned All-American sailing honors, with providing the framework for Oakcliff All-American Offshore Team, the syndicate behind Vestas 11th Hour Racing.
“We created our own team,” said Towill. “That’s very atypical of the way you’re supposed to do it. A place like Brown promotes that thinking, and encourages you to have a dream and explore it and do it.”
Similar to international cycling teams or NASCAR, participants in the Volvo Ocean Race are private companies that assume the name of their chief sponsors. With a price tag of between $15 million and $45 million per team, sponsorship is critical. Enright and Towill launched their Oakcliff team in 2011 and then set about finding a title sponsor. In 2014, they found a willing partner in Alvimedica, a medical device firm based in Turkey that was “looking to expand their brand as well as their global reach,” said Enright.
This year, Oakcliff has two new title sponsors, Vestas (a global wind energy company in Denmark) and 11th Hour Racing (an American organization dedicated to advancing “solutions and practices that protect and restore the health of our ocean”).
“As sailors, we have a direct connection to the ocean,” said Enright and Towill in a joint release. “It’s our office, our playground, and our livelihood; ultimately we are responsible for taking care of it. Circumnavigating the globe opened our eyes to the tremendous amount of pollution that exists and has motivated us to do something about it.”
Adding to Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s global flare is the crew’s composition, with members from Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Denmark as well as three members from the States. All are world-class sailors.
“The sailing we do is all-encompassing,” said Enright. “It’s pretty extreme. It’s physically demanding. It takes you to parts of the globe that people rarely visit. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the better part of four weeks on occasion. There’s nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide.”
Much like the business world.
Catch a recap of the VOR and other exciting video clips: https://www.volvooceanrace.com/en/video/12091_This-is-the-Volvo-Ocean-Race.html