A Glimpse of the Volvo Ocean Race

My husband’s love of boats have urged me to pay closer attention to what is happening in the world of sailing. The Volvo Ocean Race, held every 3 years, long ago captured my imagination, as it is hailed as one of the toughest events in sport today. The “Mount Everest” of racing, some say. With the race’s first stopover in the Middle East in the event’s 38-year history, we simply could not allow the opportunity to view the boats from up close to slip through our fingers. The stopover in Abu Dhabi was filled with exciting events, but we chose to visit on the day before they left for the next leg to China, and watch the in-port race. We arrived at the Race Village shortly before the boats left their berths for the start of the race, and joined in the palpable excitement of both visitors and team supporters who have flown in to spend time with their loved ones who are crew members.

As the boats left we marvelled at their size: from underwater keel to mast-tip, these Volvo Open 70’s are the equivalent of a 12-storey building! When these boats were first introduced in the 2005-06 race Curtis Blewett said: “It is a beast, a man-eater, whatever you want to call it. They will chew up crew. There will be a few injuries this race.” These boats are dwarfing their predecessors with a much bigger sail area and keels that can cant 40 degrees to port and starboard. They can travel at 11 knots in only 9 knots of true wind, and are being refined with every subsequent race into racing machines that aim to be lighter, stronger, faster and more agile than their competitors. In 1973 the fastest 24 hour run was clocked by Eric Tabarly’s Pen Duick VI at 305 miles. Today’s record is held by Torben Grael’s Ericson 4 which managed 596.6 miles in 2008.

Revelling in the warm weather and stiff breeze that promised exciting sailing, gobbling pizza and indulging in some serious people-watching, I settled in for the race, while Michael gave the simulator a try to see what it would feel like to be a crew member on one of these beauties. According to Abu Dhabi Tourism 20,000 visitors joined Michael and I on Friday in visiting the Race Village to participate in a slice of history-in-the-making.

Crew members on these yachts represent the cream of the crop, and only the most talented youngsters will be offered one of these coveted spots. One such youngster is the 23-year-old Emirati, Adil Khalid, Azzam’s trimmer. Being part of the winning team of the in-port race and experiencing the elation of the crowd must have been a treasured moment for him. Sailing in home waters Team Abu Dhabi also managed to clinch the first stage of leg 3, from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah, yesterday.

The race has come a long way since its inception in 1973-74 as the Whitbread Round the World Race. The yachts racing then were not much different from the ones that sailed the Med at the time, and the crew of the winning yacht of that first race, Sayula II, owned and skippered by Mexican self-made millionaire Ramon Carlin, drank their way through six bottles of wine a day, while feasting on fresh meat prepared by a full-time cook on board. Nowadays crew members get no whiff of wine and have to be satisfied with rehydrated powder food and protein bars.

Including Abu Dhabi as a stopover in this race around the world, that is scheduled to end in Galway, Ireland at the beginning of July, proved to be quite a challenge for race organisers. Between Cape Town and Abu Dhabi lies a huge chunk of ocean that is rife with piracy. The solution? Going into stealth mode, Volvo-Ocean style. In an undisclosed port in the Indian Ocean the yachts were loaded on a ship that transported them to Sharjah in the UAE from where they completed stage 2 of the second leg of the race, arriving in Abu Dhabi on January 4th. The same will happen again: the boats will once again be loaded on a ship in Sharjah where the 1st stage of leg 3 ended yesterday afternoon, to be taken to another undisclosed location from where they will race to Sanya, China.

We arrived home on Friday evening feeling tired, yet satisfied. The long drive to Abu Dhabi was worth it and after this brief glimpse into the exciting adventure called the “Volvo Ocean Race” I am sure to follow the progress of the boats by gobbling up a daily dose of news from their official website. What can I say? I am hooked.

* Watch an excellent documentary on the history of the race by clicking here.