Comfort takes a back seat to speed for Azzam at Volvo Ocean Race

Steve Elling is at Alicante, Spain for the start of the Volvo Ocean Race and goes inside the one-design boats for a glimpse of a sailor’s life below deck.

For the 66 men and women aboard the seven boats entered in the Volvo Ocean Race, to suggest that function trumps form below deck is the same as saying that sailing beats sinking.

Nine men on six boats, and the 12 women on the all-women SCA boat, will share the same quarters for three weeks on the first leg alone. Each crew will be in the sort of confines that could turn an agoraphobe into a claustrophobe before the crews exit the Mediterranean in the opening hours of a nine-month journey.

Docked side by side in berths along the Spanish coast, each of the €4.4 million (Dh20.2m) boats is floating testimony to space-age modernity in design, electronics and gadgetry.

Moving below, however, is to step back in time.

Outside of the navigator’s high-tech computer screens collected in a corner, it is like sailing in reverse, from the digital age to the analogue.

James O’Mahony of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR) team’s shore crew pointed out features aboard the team yacht, Azzam, but he offered a cautionary word of advice as visitors peered down into the boat’s netherworld.

“Watch that first step,” he said. “It’s tricky.”

Memorable, too.

Seamen live in a black hole; the boat’s entire framework is made of charcoal-coloured carbon fibre. Ribs of textured carbon fibre are everywhere, prompting a feeling a bit like Jonah must have had in the belly of the whale.

There was no attempt at beautification when the boats were ordered and built, beginning in late 2012. Visually and in terms of texture, the carbon-fibre hull resembles the hardened wrapping used in a cast placed on a broken arm or leg.

The interiors of all seven boats are identically and intentionally spartan.

Ian Walker, the ADOR skipper, estimated the below-deck area at about 100 cubic metres and, while the quarters are more spacious than they appear from shore, creature comforts can be counted on no hands.

First impressions are jarring, even for those forewarned about the practical nature of the design. Stepping below deck elicits conflicting states of sensory deprivation and overload.

It is both dark and dank. Air does not circulate and has already begun to take on a certain taint, an essence that falls somewhere between wet socks and splashes of dockside bilge water. This is before the race has even started.

“The smell can be pretty shocking as an outsider when you step on board,” said Justin Slattery, a veteran Irish sailor on the Azzam crew.

There are no windows and a diesel engine constantly hums.

As for the tactile, there are handles everywhere, because it requires two flexible legs and a pair of able hands to manoeuvre through the inside of the boat even when docked.

Small passageways between certain bulkhead sections require crawling or contortion.

Movement in any direction necessitates stepping around some crucial equipment, engine or store.

On tourist cruise ships, large items are bolted down. A different practicality exists in VOR sailing, where boats can plane along the surface at 40 knots an hour, almost like a skipping stone. Nearly everything but the physical structure inside Azzam is moveable, by design.

The inner sides of the ships are identical, with matching fold-down sleeping berths affixed along opposite walls. In rotating shifts of about four hours, sailors alternate using the berths and sleeping bags with a designated partner. Most of the time four sailors are sleeping or eating while four are on deck. The ninth man in the ship’s company is an on-board reporter who, by rule, cannot assist with sailing.

Whenever the boat tacks, the crew mobilise en masse, sailors are awakened and everything is moved over to what becomes the windward side of the boat. “Everything is ballast,” Walker said.

Sleepy sailors move themselves and duffel bags containing food go onto the sleeping berths on the opposite wall to help hold the boat into the wind. Those below deck are roused and the process takes perhaps 10 minutes. Preferably less.

So, while the two interior sides are close to identical so as to accommodate the fast redistribution of weight, the term “mirror image” is best not applied – a looking glass is conspicuously absent.

Just as well that there is no mirror aboard, because after three weeks at sea and days between baths and a change of clothing, the crewmen look more like stowaways.

“You don’t want to know” what you look like, Slattery said, laughing.

On boats built for speed and not comfort, even crucial amenities are minimalist.

Slattery points out the galley. Blink and it would be easy to miss. The kitchen, such as it is, consists of a plastic sink that measures perhaps a metre square, with two small water spigots and a tiny propane tank to heat desalinated water.

Nearly all the food stores onboard are dehydrated and sailors douse the freeze-dried packets with hot water to bring them to life.

The open latrine is a metre from the galley and the one-seat toilet features a roll-down privacy curtain, affixed by Velcro fasteners. Some sailors on deck heed nature’s call over the side, if seas are calm.

Four bulkheads are built into the Azzam hull. In the event of disaster, they can be sealed off to prevent leaks from flooding other sections of the boat, Slattery said. Another compact storage area will house mandated medical supplies, to be loaded before the race begins on Saturday.

With only eight sailors on board this time around – down from 10 in the last Volvo event – the crewmen could be more stretched and stressed than ever.

In previous around-the-world trips, Walker said going 48 hours without a wink of sleep was hardly unusual.

Back below deck, being able to sleep on demand in confined quarters is an occupational necessity. Sailors must tune out the cacophony of noise often taking place within arm’s reach of their bunk.

“I can fall asleep anywhere,” Walker said. “It’s rare when I’m on an airplane that I’m not asleep before take off.”

Sailing produces some of the most choreographed moments in all of sport, with moves often timed to the second.

But after a sailor’s shift is over, they must take care of themselves in quarters that hardly lend themselves to revitalisation. A dead battery in a sailor makes them useless to their mates, if not dangerous.

In the cramped quarters below deck, where seemingly everything is squeezed into a prescribed nook or cranny, no issue looms larger.

“Self-preservation,” Slattery said, “is absolutely huge.”

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