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Taking on the world

An extract from OMEGA Lifetime - The Ocean Edition

Raced over a gruelling round-the-world ocean racecourse totalling 45,000 nautical miles and taking eight months to complete, the Volvo Ocean Race has long been recognised as one of the toughest challenges in professional team sport. The 2017-18 race – the thirteenth edition of this 45-year old competition – will go down among the hardest-fought and closest-run ever in the history of the race – with the overall winners only decided in the very last minutes of the final stage from Gothenburg, Sweden, to the Dutch city of The Hague.

An obsession since 1973

First run in 1973 as The Whitbread Round the World Race before being taken over jointly by the Volvo Group and Volvo Car Group in 2001, the modern-day Volvo Ocean Race is an eight-month, 45,000-nautical mile marathon that crosses four oceans and stops at twelve major cities on six continents. Ever since that first edition in 1973, the race has had a magical allure that has held many of the world’s best sailors under its spell.

“It starts as a fascination that quickly becomes an obsession,” says Norwegian Knut Frostad who took part in four Volvo Ocean Races as a sailor and skipper before taking over as the race’s CEO for three editions between 2008 and 2015.

“Every professional sailor worth their salt knows they have to take on the Volvo Ocean Race at some point in their career,” Frostad said.

“There are times when you hate it and wonder what on earth you are doing there in the middle of the ocean, away from your home and everything you love. You say you will never come back, but when it’s over you start to miss it and you know you’ll return.”

Sailing non-stop offshore for up to three weeks at a time, the sailors cross some of the remotest stretches of ocean on the planet as they race around the world.

Along the way, they have to deal with extremes of weather, from sweltering heat, flat calms and torrential thunderstorms in the equatorial regions, to freezing temperatures and howling gales in the depths of the Antarctic Ocean. Despite racing night and day across vast expanses of ocean, the teams are often separated at the finish by just a few minutes – a testament both to the efficacy of the race’s one-design policy that ensures all the Volvo Ocean 65 boats are identical in every way, and to the skill and professionalism of the competing crews.

Most competitive fleet

There was a palpable excitement amongst the throngs of supporters who packed the vast race village in Alicante, Spain, on 22 October for the start of the first of the eleven legs of the round-the-world race – a four-day sprint stage to Lisbon, Portugal.

The crews of the seven international teams taking part represented one of the strongest sailor line-ups the race has seen in many years, including many world and Olympic champions and several key protagonists from the 35th America’s Cup. Four of the skippers – Dutchman Bouwe Bekking on Team Brunel, Frenchman Charles Caudrelier on Dongfeng Race Team, American Charlie Enright on Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Spaniard Xabi Fernández on Mapfre – had all competed in the previous edition in 2015-16.

Meanwhile, British yachtswoman Dee Caffari leading the United Nations-backed entry Turn the Tide on Plastic; Dutchman Simeon Tienpont on team AkzoNobel; and Australian David Witt on the Hong Kong-based Sun Hung Kai Scallywag were all first-time Volvo Ocean Race skippers. Among the serial Volvo Ocean Race campaigners peppered throughout the fleet were the weathered faces of ocean-racing legends like Australians Chris Nicholson and Andrew Cape, New Zealanders Stu Bannatyne and Daryl Wislang and Britons Rob Greenhalgh and Jules Salter.

Representing the new generation of aspiring ocean racing heroes keen to make their own mark on the Volvo Ocean Race was a fresh tranche of talented young sailors like New Zealand Olympic silver and gold medallists and Omega ambassadors Peter Burling and Blair Tuke – fresh from winning the America’s Cup with Emirates Team New Zealand.

Also taking on their first round-the-world race were Olympic gold medallists Támara Echegoyen from Spain and Brazilian Martine Grael – the daughter of Torben Grael, winning skipper of the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race.

Closest racing ever

The racing was often breathtaking in the previous edition of the race in 2015-16 – the first time it had taken place using a fleet of identical yachts rather than ones individually custom-designed and built by the teams. But the intensity of the racing stepped up several levels in the 2017-18 race where regularly the bulk of the fleet would race entire ocean legs spanning thousands of miles without losing sight of each other either visually or via AIS electronic tracking.

The yacht racing world had never seen anything as tightly fought as this, as passages across thousands of miles of open ocean – and sometimes from one hemisphere to the other – came down to mere boat lengths at the finish line. When the latest seven-boat fleet set off around the world from Spain in October 2017, many people believed the battle for the Volvo Ocean Race trophy would be fought between the two red boats: Mapfre and Dongfeng Race Team.

These two crews had been training and two-boat tuning together for many months prior to the start and each had a star-studded line-up that was the envy of the rest of the teams. Mapfre and Dongfeng quickly rose to the top of the rankings over the first three legs as they traded the lead back and forth between them.

By 2 January 2018, when the boats left Melbourne, Australia, bound for Hong Kong, China, only Vestas 11th Hour Racing looked capable of mounting a credible counterchallenge to the Spanish and Chinese campaigns. However, while battling for second place against Dongfeng on the final night of the almost three-week leg, the Danish/American-flagged boat suffered a collision with a private commercial vessel around 30 nautical miles outside of Hong Kong harbour. The impact sank the non-racing boat and badly damaged the Vestas 11th Hour Racing yacht. None of the racing crew were injured in the crash but one crewmember of the other boat had to be taken to hospital by helicopter and later died from his injuries. The accident devastated the Vestas 11th Hour Racing crew and shocked the entire Volvo Ocean Race community.

The team withdrew from Leg 5 (a non-competitive passage to Guangzhou in mainland China) and Leg 6 (from Hong Kong to Auckland, New Zealand), opting instead to ship their badly damaged yacht to Auckland to be repaired there.-- In the overall standings, Mapfre struck back on Leg 6 from Hong Kong to Auckland, finishing third – one place ahead of their rival Dongfeng after a complex passage that had seen the two overall leaders languishing at the back of the fleet for much of it.

Brunel joins the fray

The most daunting stage of the Volvo Ocean Race is always the leg through the Antarctic Ocean and around the infamous Cape Horn. It is a leg that the sailors – veterans and rookies alike – both anticipate and dread in equal measure.

In the 2017-18 edition, Leg 7 from Auckland to Itajaí in Brazil will be remembered for several reasons, including some of the toughest and most challenging weather the racers have encountered in many years. It will also be recalled for a brilliant piece of sailing from Bouwe Bekking’s Team Brunel who swept the board to take maximum points after rounding Cape Horn in the lead and being first to arrive in Itajaí.

Mainly though, it will be remembered for the sad death of British sailor John Fisher who was lost overboard from Hong Kong entry Sun Hung Kai Scallywag during a fierce storm on the approach to Cape Horn.

Despite a search by the Scallywag crew lasting several hours, Fisher could not be located. The team retired from that leg but re-joined the race in Itajaí, pledging to complete the round the world course in memory of their lost comrade who died fulfilling his long-held dream of competing in the Volvo Ocean Race. Team Brunel’s stunning performance in Leg 7 catapulted the Dutch-flagged entry into third place in the overall standings with four legs and 30 percent of the points still up for grabs. It was a remarkable turnaround from a team that had looked incapable of a shot at the podium prior to that. According to America’s Cup winning helmsman Peter Burling who was taking part in his first Volvo Ocean Race on board Team Brunel, the turnaround came after a straight-talking heart-to-heart team meeting in Auckland where the crew had arrived in last place.

“On that leg to Auckland we started well but ended up coming in last,” Burling said. “We had to have a pretty hard look at ourselves at that point and we made some good changes and figured out where to go from there. We realised we needed to come together as a crew and determine the best way of sailing the boat for us rather than the way others were doing it.”

The Leg 7 victory set Team Brunel off on a remarkable points charge over the next three stages of the race. It began with a second place for the yellow boat on Leg 8 from Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island, then back-to-back victories on Leg 9 across the Atlantic Ocean to Cardiff, Wales and Leg 10 from Cardiff to Gothenburg, Sweden.

It was a truly amazing performance that set up a three-way tie for the overall title between Mapfre, Dongfeng and Brunel with just one stage of the race to go – a 1,000 nautical-mile sprint from Gothenburg to The Hague in the Netherlands. This situation – unprecedented in Volvo Ocean Race history – meant that irrespective of their result in the fleet, whichever of these three crews finished ahead into The Hague would be crowned Volvo Ocean Race champions for 2017-18.

Down to the wire

No Hollywood script writer could have staged the finale any better than the thrilling real-life sporting cliff-hanger that played out on Leg 11.

Team Brunel appeared to have lost some of their sparkle in the first two days of the leg as they struggled back in fourth place, leaving the crews on Dongfeng and Mapfre to slug it out for first place – often separated by no more than half a mile. However, Team Brunel fought their way back into contention on the final night at sea after taking a more offshore route down the North Sea towards the finish line in The Hague than their two title rivals Dongfeng and Mapfre.

Forced to choose between the inshore and offshore routes for the last night at sea, Mapfre opted to join Brunel further out to sea, leaving the Dongfeng sailors alone on the inshore route with only the courage of their convictions for company.

When the sun rose over The Hague on the final day it looked like Dongfeng had blown their chances, and attention was refocused on Mapfre and Brunel as the pair match-raced their way through the final hours of the leg just boat lengths apart. Suddenly though, Dongfeng were back in the hunt. Their inshore route was finally paying dividends with stronger wind and a better angle to deal with the several knots of tide washing the boats away from the finish line. Dongfeng were closing fast but could they make it to the final turning mark ahead of Mapfre and Brunel?

The crowd in The Hague and the hundreds of thousands of sailing fans around the world watching online held their collective breath as, within only minutes of the finish line, Dongfeng Race Team powered across the bows of Mapfre and Team Brunel to snatch their first leg win of the race and secure overall victory.

It was an emotional moment for Dongfeng’s French skipper Charles Caudrelier, who won the 2011-12 edition as a crew member on Franck Cammas’s Groupama sailing team. “We always trusted each other. Nobody thought we were going to win this last leg, but I had a good feeling,” Caudrelier said. “I said ‘we can’t lose, we can’t lose, we can’t lose’… and we won!”

Although Omega ambassadors Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were both in the running for the overall trophy on the final leg, neither were able to become the first-ever winners of yachting’s ‘triple crown’ – Olympic gold, the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race. However, the duo say their first round-the-world race experience has left them hungry for more – perhaps in the form of their own Volvo Ocean Race campaign somewhere down the line, after the next Olympics and the 36th America’s Cup.

Tuke – who raced as a helmsman and sail trimmer on Mapfre – said racing a lap of the planet was incredible experience that he believed will make him a better all-round sailor. “We have always tried to take the opportunities when they came and for us this one came on different crews,” Tuke said. “I think we have learned a lot from our two teams and we will be able to bring that back to the sailing we do together in the future.” For his part, Burling said the race had lived up to every expectation he had of it prior to the start.

“We saw some incredibly tough and gruelling conditions down in the Antarctic Ocean and some really difficult equator crossings where at times we saw the water temperatures getting up over 35C/95F.

“This race makes the globe feel quite small when you consider that we are racing in a 65-foot boat that doesn’t go that fast compared to other modes of transport and yet it only takes you 20 days to get halfway around the world.”