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A Chaotic World of Water

Leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race

photo by Ainhoa Sanchez, Volvo Ocean Race

The first leg of the Volvo Ocean race is really five different races rolled into one. The seven boats left warm and sunny Alicante, Spain, heading west across the choppy Mediterranean before sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar and out into the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Next they turned south along the coast of West Africa in moderately steady winds until they neared the equator. Then it was time to sail west across the spooky equatorial area of wind-sucking storms known as the Doldrums, over to a small island off Brazil, which they rounded like a buoy.
    The fourth race found the boats barreling down the lush South American coast, riding the gentle Trade Winds until they reached the Roaring 40s, where the cold wind and water racing north from Antarctica hit them right in the face.
    Then the final race began with the boats turning their bows to the northeast for the 30-knot roller coaster ride into Capetown, South Africa.
    This first leg is generally a four-week crash course in survival. There are rookies and old hands on each boat, thrown together in a 65-foot torture chamber where they are denied sleep and food while getting water-boarded for hours on end.
    In this chaotic world of water, moisture creeps its way into everything. Every little movement becomes complicated and threatening as sailors try to maintain their slippery balance while the waves smash against the hull. When you fall, there’s usually blood and nasty bruises, like playing rugby on ice in a room with rough edges. Equipment — toilets, rudder, the desalinator, electronics — break without warning; gear gets soaked; and the boats are steadily springing leaks. Sikaflex sealant literally keeps the multi-million-dollar boats afloat.
    The first week of this year’s race found the new one-design boats all sailing within sight of one another. Proximity made for an unprecedented and stressful ride. With windy waves constantly pounding the boats, the crews were running around changing sails, trimming and bailing, each trying desperately to grab the lead. No one slept for the first three days. Usually too tired to eat anything more than cereal and protein bars, seasickness brought some to their shaky knees.
    Round two was a lick-your-wounds cruise with the sand dunes of the Western Sahara on the left and the lights from small fishing villages twinkling in the dark. Mysterious volcanic worlds, like the mountainous Canary and Cape Verde islands, rose majestically out of the sea. Day and night, the boats dodged small fishing vessels and their rudder-snagging nets. Marvelous sea creatures like dolphins, whales and head-smashing flying fish followed the fleet.
    As the sailors sailed south, they constantly tacked, trying to be the first to find fresh winds. Every time they tacked — sometimes several times an hour — it was all hands on deck, including those who were off-duty and asleep, shifting several tons of food, sails and gear from one side of the boat to the other, often over 15 minutes.
    Brian Carlin on Team Vestas described the daily grind: “In the four hours you’re on watch, duties can vary from driving the boat, to trimming sails, making coffee, looking at other boats to spot changes in sail plans, navigating and watching everything — the way the waves might change direction, the clouds change shape, the moon breaking through the clouds to illuminate the competition under its light. Always watching.”
    At first, everyone was pretty wigged out by the close-order sailing more like a never-ending in-shore ocean race. But the novelty of being surrounded by the competition wore off as each boat established its daily rhythm: sunrises, sunsets and thunder-cloud storm cells of intense beauty and power; four hours on and four hours off; savoring some freeze-dried Thai green curry chicken, an orange or a melted candy bar; and trying not to get hurt.
    “We are nine, in a very small space, with all of our things, smells and snoring,” wrote Francisco Vignale, onboard MAPFRE on Day 7.
    The Doldrums brought a whole new set of obstacles as chronicled by Corinna Halloran on SCA.
    “This morning the boat was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Shortly after sunup we were honking along at 20 knots in a torrential downpour. By late afternoon we were sailing backwards. And who knows what tonight will bring.”
    The start of the first leg is always the infamous Southern Ocean. After sailing smoothly down the spectacular coast of South America, the Volvos reached the 40th latitude, where the whole world suddenly changed, as best reported by Armory Ross on Alvimedica.
    “As the boat careens through the night like an out of control freight train, carving a trench through the ocean while obliterating every bit of water in its way, it is constantly loud like the rumble of distant thunder. You can actually hear the speed, feel the speed. People on deck are yelling, bags down below are flying, and waves are shooting through the hatch.”
    And up on deck?
    Yann Riou, on Dong Feng, painted this violent picture. “Reaching in 25-30 knots of wind means that you’re sailing fast and crashing. On deck, you spend your time taking tons of water in the face. You don’t see the waves coming, so you cannot anticipate it. The heeling angle quickly becomes unbearable. To walk across the boat, you’re facing a mobile climbing wall. Three days like this and you’re knocked out.”
    And then, it’s over. After 25 days, and 6,487 miles, Abu Dhabi won Leg 1, finishing a mere 12 minutes ahead of Dong Feng.
    Nest stop: Abu Dhabi.

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