Volvo Ocean Race has shed its era of amateur adventure

Osman Samiuddin examines the race's progression from joyous exploration to serious competition

Beneath the backdrop of Table Mountain, yachts competing in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race leave Cape Town, South Africa, on the second leg of the race to Sydney, Australia, on November 11, 2001. Mike Hutchings / Reuters
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To view the film of the first Whitbread Round the World Ocean Race, which took place in 1973/74, is to view a lark, an amateur adventure and not really a sport.

There are shots of men casually strumming guitars on deck, as if attending a music festival on the sea. On one boat, as recreation below deck, four crew members can be seen lounging on a leather sofa, playing cards. None of the crews are in uniform.

As the yachts arrived at the end of the penultimate leg to Rio de Janeiro, legend has it that a fantastic party took place.

The winning skipper, Ramon Carlin, was a Mexican businessman who had hired a full-time cook on board his yacht Sayula II, as well as taking his wife and one of his sons as members of the crew.

It was top-class cuisine all the way round and, when a group of journalists visited in Cape Town, they were amazed to find jars of caviar.

That first race captured the mood of the event’s inception, which was driven more by a desire to explore than compete.

The idea of a round-the-world race was first proposed in a pamphlet by a couple of British sailing journalists, Guy Pearce and Anthony Churchill, at the famous Cowes Week in 1971.

The pair had been inspired by the solo, around-the-world sea journeys of yachtsmen such as Francis Chichester, Alec Rose and Robin Knox-Johnston.

The idea did not find commercial traction at the time, but when Britain’s Royal Naval Sailing Association (RNSA) was approached soon after, a process was set in motion.

The RNSA’s Admiral Otto Steiner went to Colonel Bill Whitbread, whose eponymous brewing company had sponsored Chichester’s circumnavigation.

In July 1972, Whitbread announced the first race: 17 private boats of all shapes and sizes from seven countries were confirmed to race around the globe over seven months and 43,500 kilometres in four legs.

The majority of the 324 sailors to take part in the event conceded that they had no idea what they were getting into.

Ten races and 40 years later, the race is unrecognisable from that first, merry adventure; the change in sponsor from Whitbread to Volvo is probably the least significant.

Boats have gradually been standardised to the point where they are now all built exactly the same by one manufacturer.

The cost of entering the race has ballooned, though; one boat in the first race had crew who paid to be there and another entry cost its sponsor £10,000 (Dh59,000) in ­total.

By the 2001/02 race, the cost of entering had become as high as US$25 million (Dh91.8m). This year, with the introduction of the one-design Volvo 65 boat, entering the race will set back a sponsor (no longer private individuals) by between €9 million (Dh41.5m) and €14m.

It was, as Ian Walker, captain of Abu Dhabi's Azzam, points out, a different world.

“They used to have a day off in the watch system, they’d work six days a week and then have a day off,” said Walker, who is in his third VOR.

“Can you imagine that? But they were real adventurers. They wouldn’t know whether they were winning or losing, or where they were half the time if it was too cloudy to get a fix.

“Now we’re in a world where we have 15 GPSs on the boat. We know where we are all the time. It’s a completely different world.

“Obviously, when you professionalise a sport and get lots of sponsorship it alters how the sport is arranged, for better or for worse.”

Walker said he believes it is no coincidence that as the race has become increasingly professional, the number of participants has dwindled.

After reaching a high of 29 entries in the third race in 1981/82, the last five editions have, on average, had between six and eight boats.

One of the biggest transformations has been in the crews. In the inaugural race, the most professional of the entries, Adventure, had four crews for the four legs. Many other boats would pick up crew – or drop them off – along the way on the stopovers.

It is impossible now to imagine such a piecemeal strategy to such a gruelling challenge.

“The physical aspect now is much harder than before,” said Neal McDonald, the Azzam performance director who has competed in six VORs. “Our team is very fit and other teams will be, too. You can’t sail these boats well without being fit.”

Identifying a crew and getting them together as early as possible ahead of a race is now vital.

“That’s a very big change,” McDonald said. “We’ve been lucky enough to have six months hard preparation and, really, you’ve just got to have that. You feel very exposed without that now.

“It’s no longer the case where you can say, ‘Hey, how about sailing round the world for a couple of legs?’ You can’t do that anymore. You need good guys.”

This is not a unique story – in that time, many sports have had similar transformations.

The sanitisation of the race, the smoothening of the edges, is probably no bad thing. In the wild, slightly chaotic environment of the first race, there were three deaths.

Since then, there have been just two more. The last was in 2006, when Dutchman Hans Horrevoets was swept overboard. Safety has become increasingly important, even though the basic task remains as risky as ever.

“It is almost at the edge of sensible seamanship,” McDonald said. “That’s why we do it. It’s unbelievably exciting to be sailing at the level these guys sail at, in those conditions. It’s why we all do it.

“We are on the edge of being sensible. The boats are strong, but they’d be easily broken in the wrong hands. There’s a really fine line between pushing really hard and breaking them and that’s part of the skill in this race.”

That is the core that has not changed. Give or take a little global warming, the seas and oceans are no less immense now as they were in 1973/74.

It still boils down to, as McDonald points out, “a sailing boat on which basic sailing skills have to be strong”.

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