Hook Up with (Sailing) History

By Vern Penner 

          What do Alicante, Spain, Auckland, New Zealand and Galway, Ireland, have in common aside from being seaports? Give up? They are the start, midway point and finish line for the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012, the most famous round-the-world sailboat race. The 11th running of this event begins Oct. 29, 2011, with two days of in-port racing. Then, the first distance leg gets the gun Nov. 5, with the boats heading for Cape Town, South Africa. Subsequent legs go to Abu Dhabi, Sanya, China, Auckland, Itajai, Brazil, Miami, Lisbon and Lorient, France, ending in Galway in early July 2012. At each stopover, there will be two days of in-port races for shore observers to watch and toast. The longest leg, which will really test the crew and boats, runs between New Zealand and Brazil. It measures 6,700 nautical miles (nms); the shortest is 485 nms between France and Ireland.

          Six boats have entered and are being measured and qualified under the 69 pages of rules which govern the design and construction of the Volvo Open 70 monohull sailboat. Why “70”? Each boat has an overall length of up to 70’ along with a beam between 17’-18’ and a bulbed keel weighing close to eight tons at a depth of 15’. It might be your typical up-to-date, single-masted maxi racing sailboat competing in the Annapolis to Newport, but with some important modifications. One is a massive mast of 95’, which will carry a set number of allowable sails. Another difference explains why the sailboats are termed ”open,” because the cockpit is totally uncovered. There is only a miniscule roof and dodger covering the companionway entrance below where living conditions are Spartan, to say the least.

          Think shared berths, freeze-dried food, no showers and a tiny curtained-off potty. Then there is the unusual canting keel which will swing up to 40 degrees from side to side to keep the boat relatively upright and counter the force of wind acting on the huge sails traveling at breakneck speeds. Finally, the Volvo Open 70 rules allow a daggerboard on each side of the mast measuring the same length as the keel for added stability. Using all of the data drawn from the previous 10 races (five under the title of Whitbread Round the World), the Volvo Open 70 design stresses two things: maximum speed and maximum safety. Luxury and comfort are not included.

          Who are these people who commit themselves to hurtle around the world’s oceans in open boats at speeds over 30 mph in an open boat facing the constant buffeting of wind and water 24/7? There is no prize money and while corporate sponsorship pays the bills, obviously more than just a salary is involved. The Volvo Ocean Race is classic sailboat racing to the extreme. For those sailors attracted to the challenges of the sea in all weather conditions who are trying to continually maximize boat speed, there can be no better place. The race gets some of the biggest names in world sailing and remarkably, there is a large group of VOR veterans in the 2011-2012 competition. New Zealanders dominate in total numbers and there are at least several Kiwis in each boat’s 12-man crew, one of whom is solely responsible for media and not sailing.

          A US sailing legend by the name of Ken Read skippers the entry sponsored by the German sports conglomerate PUMA and it doesn’t hurt that Read is also the vice president of North Sails. The competition will be intense. Insiders say that at least any one of five boats could win the overall race based on total points awarded for the results of each leg and in-port race. Even the Chinese entry “Sanya” could be a real dark horse, although it is only a refitted version of a boat previously raced. The Sanya skipper, Mike Sanderson, is a two-time Volvo Race winner and has enough trophies to represent a real threat.

          Considering the adverse conditions that all the boats will confront, it is no wonder there will be heady celebrations at the start and finish of each part of the race and certainly the in-port racing will be worth watching live on location. Some of the racing results are bound to set new records in terms of time and speed. So if you are making plans to travel in the coming year to any of the VOR ports of call, try to align your trip with the timing of the VOR events. Who knows? You might hook up with history, sailing history, that is. See www.volvooceanrace.com for exact dates and details.

Vern, an inveterate sailor, participates in the Hospice Cup Regatta when he’s not sailing the seas around the Cape Verde Islands where he served as US Ambassador. His son Rob currently works in Alicante for VOR in TV media distribution.



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