It’s considered one of the world’s most grueling races: a nine-month, 45,000-nautical-mile marathon around the globe, with 11 stops including Cape Town, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Newport.
This Sunday, seven identical boats — each is a 65-ft. monohull with nine team members aboard — will set sail from Alicante, Spain, for the Volvo Ocean Race, now in its 13th edition. Lisbon will be the first stop, before the teams head south to Cape Town.
When the teams — from countries including Spain, the Netherlands, China, and even one from the U.N. — finish in The Hague next June, the boats and the sailors will be battered. This year, the race — which has been run since 1973 — is returning “back to our roots” and sailing the Indian and Pacific oceans in the Southern Hemisphere.
That means the teams will battle some of the world’s biggest waves and roughest waters, and contend with freezing temperatures and icebergs.
In past editions, boats have crashed, sails have been ripped to shreds and sailors swept overboard and killed. Yet the Volvo race remains one of the most prestigious in the world, attracting the best talent.
New Zealand produces some of the world’s finest sailors. Its teams have won this race twice before and the America’s Cup three times, plus multiple Olympic medals and world championships. But none of its sailors shines brighter right now than 26-year-old Peter Burling.
He’s won the world championships seven times. At the Rio Olympics last summer, Burling — who started sailing at age seven — won gold as helmsman in the 49er-class. This summer, he was the helmsman on board Emirates Team New Zealand, which swept Oracle Team USA aside to win the America’s Cup.
Now Burling, along with friend and fellow New Zealander Blair Tuke (they were Olympics and America’s Cup teammates), is aiming to become the first sailor ever to win the Triple Crown — an Olympic gold, the America’s Cup and a round-the-world race. This time, though, their long partnership is broken up: Burling is going for glory with the Dutch Team Brunel; Tuke is on a rival boat, sailing with the Spanish Team Mapfre.
In the days leading up to the race, the seven teams are out sailing, practicing, getting their maneuvers right. Though Burling only joined Team Brunel in early August — others have been practicing for two years — he tells NPR he is looking forward to a race he’s “always wanted to do and never had the opportunity to do before.”
There are nine of you on board. What are your duties? What might a typical day look like once you get going?
We do four hours on, four hours off. I spend a fair bit of time driving when I’m on watch and also trimming the sails. And hopefully, when not on watch, spend a little bit of time sleeping.
Yeah. [Laughs] When you do maneuvers, everyone’s up — reconfiguring the boats for either a different sail or a tack or a jibe, and that’s when you get really busy and go down on sleep.
So every time you’re maneuvering the boat, it’s all hands on deck, even if you’re in the middle of catching up on precious sleep?
Yeah, pretty much. Or any major sail change. Everyone will get up for it — just makes it all that more quick and smooth. Also, the equipment on board, we stack it all – the food you’re carrying for the leg, the sails, the gear, the spares – it all gets moved around because you get more speed out of the boat if you have everything stacked to one side. Above deck, the sails get shoved from side to side. So, it also involves a lot of heavy lifting, it’s all just a part of it — so that’s what we do.
So, lots of hard work, you’ll be consuming a lot of calories — who’s cooking?
It’s all freeze dried. Pretty simple to cook. You just add water. Boiling water.
So you’re getting little sleep, if any. The conditions, especially in the Southern Ocean, will be rough. The food sounds unappealing, your bunks are tiny, you’re sharing one toilet. Each leg is about a month long. Remind me — why did you want to do this again?
Mate, you make it sound way worse than it is! You get to go sailing, see some amazing spots, and be part of a pretty amazing race. But really, the food’s not that bad and when you get to sleep, you do sleep well because you’re pretty tired, and I enjoy the challenge of pushing myself really hard.
What’s the key to winning this?
The same as any other yacht race, really — you need to be fast. Make the right decisions, more correct decisions than the other teams, hopefully. A couple of the other teams have had really extensive build-ups and we’ve been more on the rushed side, but we’re really looking forward to it. We’re learning but we’ve also got some experienced people who’ve sailed this race before.
Your Dutch skipper Bouwe Bekking has sailed this race seven times previously.
Both him and our navigator, between them, they’ve definitely done the lap around the world a lot of times and I’m looking forward to learning from those guys. We’ve got some pretty good young guys as well, with America’s Cup background or high-performance racing background. They’re pretty good at pushing the boat and getting the most out of it.
Have you had to do anything differently to prepare for this?
Not really. For me, the preparation’s actually been pretty short compared to what we did building up to the Olympics or the America’s Cup. For winning the gold in Rio, we sailed the 49er for eight years; the America’s Cup was a good, solid four-year build-up. This is really kind of jumping in at the last minute.
I’m learning the whole time and this race gives you the opportunity to do that at the moment — it’s a one-design fleet so there’s nothing you can really change on the boat. It’s just learning how to get the most out of it. That’s something I hopefully bring a little bit to the team — trying to get the most out of the gear and the equipment. If we’re going to win this thing, we need to be fast in all conditions and that’s what we’re all working super-hard to be at the moment.