CAPE TOWN // Black Tuesday they called it. As the sun came up one morning towards the end of the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) Team SCA discovered, from a once-every-six-hours update that all boats received, that they had lost about 45 nautical miles on the Spanish Team Mapfre.
That left the only all-female boat in the race in last position, adrift and bereft. It was painful and frustrating. It was at that point, though, that 18 months of intense pre-race preparation came to mean something.
“All of us here, we’ve been working hard, training hard, living together, going to the gym together,” said Carolijn Brouwer, a crew member.
“We’ve gotten to know each other really well. We’re one element on the boat, shown in the way we managed to pick that up, keep spirits high.
“It helped us get through that tough moment.”
That led to one of the leg highlights: Team SCA overtaking Mapfre to finish sixth in the leg.
It was not a feat to be downplayed, as race chief Knut Frostad said: “There isn’t a single team out there that isn’t very, very good. The team that came last [Mapfre] has Olympic champions and super good sailors; so any team you beat in this race is a huge achievement.”
Another highlight: when they briefly led during the first week, a navigational hunch from Libby Greenhalgh taking them on a separate route through the Strait of Gibraltar to the rest of the fleet.
Then, on Saturday, they finished third in the Cape Town in-port race, after they had been second for much of it.
For the first all-female crew since the 2001/02 race, it has been a heartening start.
The level-playing field granted by the one-design Volvo 65 means there may be more gains in further legs, though there is no escaping the fact that they will be limited physically in what they can do compared to all-male crews.
Nobody is shying away from that. It is why SCA are allowed two extra crew and also why they have chosen to go with a larger squad, which enables them to rotate crew after each leg.
The recovery period in Cape Town has whizzed by. “It’s a massive thing, the physicality,” said Greenhalgh. “Yes, we’re only going to get as strong as we can get.
“We will never be as strong as the blokes. That is why we have a few extra hands and that just is what it is. You have just got to get on with it.”
In fact, more than anything else, for Team SCA the race is going to be a net balance between the amount of preparation time they have put in and the amount of experience they have.
The former they have a lot of: before the race began, across 18 months, they had done 22,000nm on the boat.
The latter, not so much. Only three of their 13-member sailing squad have sailed in the VOR before, and each of Abby Ehler, Brouwer and Liz Wardley has done so just once.
They will get to many unfamiliar situations that will be more familiar to more experienced crews.
Making the right call will be making a blind call effectively.
Greenhalgh pointed to the experiences of Groupama from the last race, which split from the fleet going to Cape Town and ended up arriving a couple of days after everyone else. They still went on to win the race.
“You have to get experience somehow,” she said. “We have to get it as we go along, and it’s hard because you can’t read about it and there’s only so much you can do in terms of research.
“Sometimes experience plays against you also because the weather is never the same. You can say last time I did this but if the weather is different, it can influence you in the wrong way.”
There is a whole extra burden on them in that, unlike the men (or most of them), they are being pitched as totems.
The sense is they are not just sailing as much as opening the way for more female participation in ocean sailing (at Olympic level, nearly 40 per cent of the competitors at the 2012 Games were female).
At sea, during a leg, it ceases to matter, but it may well begin to weigh more heavily deeper into the race.
So far they have worn it lightly; the work of their on-board reporter Corrina Halloran attests to that but, for now, Greenhalgh believes they can draw on that attention and responsibility.
“The biggest thing from me, learning from the London Games, was you need to lap that up,” she said.
“You need to get involved in it, feed off that buzz. Alicante [the launch port] was just nuts. This has been brilliant, all these people here, let’s use that. What else are you going to do? You’ve got to take it in and use the energy that comes from it.”
Greenhalgh is well-placed to talk wisely, given that she has worked with the British Sailing Team at youth and Olympic levels. She knows that the problem with female participation in sailing is not at youth level, but in the transition as they grow older, when education and careers take greater importance.
At age levels, in fact, as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker found in his experience growing up, girls usually did better than boys.
“Girls develop mentally quicker so if you take 12, 13, 14 year olds, very often girls would win the national championship,” Walker said.
Even Greenhalgh was almost lost to sailing (though in a family of sailors the suspicion always was she would get through).
“I went to university, got a degree, thought I better get a job and then thought, ‘hang on a minute’.
“In hindsight maybe I should just have gone straight into sailing because that is what I really wanted to do. Fortunately I was able to turn the circle back to where I want to be.”
In time, perhaps that will be where a lot more women want to be.
CAPE TOWN NOTEBOOK
Weight loss is a major concern for teams and a closely monitored parameter in the modern VOR. Antonio Zodio, Team SCA’s doctor, says that the first leg is always the worst from a body-metric perspective, since the sailors are suddenly thrown into the competition environment, despite the intense mental and physical preparation. Team SCA did pretty well, losing on average, only 2.3 kilograms in the race’s first leg. The lowest average weight loss was at Team Alvimedica, who lost 1.8kg a crew member.
More than many sports, sailing is a family occupation. When Julius Illbruck sailed with Team Alvimedica in the pro-am race on Sunday he was extending a distinguished family pedigree. His father Michael was the main sponsor of the Illbruck Challenge yacht that won the VOR in 2001/02. His grandfather Willi (Willhelm) was an industrialist and also a two-time Admiral’s Cup winner. Julius, who moved to Cape Town this year, is in advertising and not sure yet whether he wants to run an entire campaign.
The winner of the first leg navigator’s prize, as awarded by race sponsor B&G was – unsurprisingly – Pascal Bidegorry of the Dongfeng Race Team. Four competing navigators – from Team SCA, Alvimedica, Azzam and Vestas – awarded him their highest scores. “Despite a couple of setbacks through breakages and a difficult doldrums crossing, they did a great job of fighting back to be in contention at the end of the leg,” said Simon Fisher of Azzam.
Though the second leg from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi has been given the all-clear from the piracy threat, exclusion zones have been set up, although it is not clear what the penalty will be if boats stray into an exclusion zone. It has happened before, according to Will Oxley, the navigator on Team Alvimedica, below, who told of a boat that strayed into an exclusion zone near Sri Lanka, during their civil war. According to Oxley, it is likely that points would be docked.
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