Volvo Ocean Race is ‘one of the last true human adventures’

Imagine all the logistics that go into a sailing event with a global sport property and Mother Nature’s constant presence, writes Osman Samiuddin.
Out in the open water, there is nowhere to hide and Mother Nature can be cruel. Just ask the crew of Puma Ocean Racing, shown here after the start of leg 5 from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. Ian Roman / AP Photo
Out in the open water, there is nowhere to hide and Mother Nature can be cruel. Just ask the crew of Puma Ocean Racing, shown here after the start of leg 5 from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. Ian Roman / AP Photo

“It’s one of those few events that has managed to keep, almost its integrity, I would say.” That is Knut Frostad, about the place in the modern world of the Volvo Ocean Race. He used the word integrity, but that may have the wrong implication.

The word that may have been more appropriate is purity, untouched by the creeping, mould-like fungi on sport of commercialisation and technology. In itself that sounds disingenuous, because few sporting events benefit as much from – or rely on – either as the VOR.

Frostad, the race chief executive, was reaching at a deeper core, however, at the outermost edges of what we consider competitive sport and into what we consider basic human endeavour. Sailing is sport insomuch as we have yet to define an accurate genre for it, that captures those elements in it that makes sport feel trivial.

Sailing, and sailing around the world, is a human impulse as much as anything, an expression of man’s wonder about the world he lives in as well as the world within him. It is appropriate that in one blog, an associate professor of philosophy chose to see sailing around the world as man’s infliction of psychological violence upon himself.

“It’s clearly a much wider dimension,” Frostad agreed. “If you have to deal with yourself, manage your own fear, and then you have to live with other people, then Mother Nature and all this at the same time … for me it’s one of those very last places where a human has this immense challenge. There is no support from anyone; you’re on your own.”

That sense of the solitary: in how many other competitive sports can you go days without seeing a competitor? In the first few stagings of the event, boats got weekly updates of where everyone else was.

Out in the oceans, untethered, all the encroachments into modern sport are gone – the advert breaks, the money obsession, the pampered stars, the celebrity. There is only nature’s wrath, or its kindness, and in the volatility of that idea is an inherent brutality.

Nobody can control what happens out there, as was evident in the very first race, then called the Whitbread Round the World Race, in 1973/74. Three sailors died during that. A few more have perished since. And that self-infliction of violence? In 1981/82, one skipper, the “Flying Dutchman” Cornelis van Rietschoten had a heart attack deep in the Southern Ocean, on his way to Auckland.

Van Rietschoten, who helped take sailing to greater professionalism, refused to call a cardiologist on a rival yacht for help, gutted it out and ended up winning the race. That is what it can take from a man.

“I think this is one of the last true human adventures,” Frostad said, “one of these spaces where you cannot make it, like you can never put this race indoors you know? You can never make it easier because Mother Nature is going to be as challenging as always.

“It’s a bit like Mount Everest. Everest is still a challenge for climbers today as much as it was 100 years ago. Even with all the technology you have today, people still die there simply because when the weather comes and takes over you cannot do anything about it.”

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Frostad is an accomplished yatchsman himself, having sailed in four VORs. He skippered Innovation Kvaerner to fourth place in 1997/98 and Djuice to sixth place in 2001/02. He began sailing, he says, because of hay fever.

“As a kid I couldn’t survive on land. I had to go out on the water. I was lucky to have some friends who had a boat, but it was terrible to be on land. Much better to be out on water.”

Part of the attraction was that he could not imagine anything more difficult than sailing. Keeping together a team of eight to 10 sailors for nine months, keeping yourself together for that long, and then having to deal with Planet Earth itself; could anything be tougher?

As it happens, yes. Frostad took over as chief executive for the 2008/09 race and this year will be the third race he has overseen. “I always used to say, when I was a sailor, one of the reasons I took that challenge was because it is one of the most difficult things you can do. But actually organising it is even more difficult.

“First, it is a very global event. We are the most global sport property in the world, the only one that stops in all continents. We work with 10 different cities and countries.

“Then, we are a sport event that happens in the middle of Mother Nature. You have to really respect that. It’s not like an F1 track where the worst that happens is that rain clouds come. We have storms, hurricanes, cyclones, icebergs, pirates, that list is very long. We never know when they are going to arrive. That is one of the nice things about this event, that it is completely unpredictable.”

Quite apart from those micro-issues (and they are pretty macro), there was also a more prosaic but potentially fatal reality to deal with: the world economy. The race is an anachronism in many ways. One is that, though we want our sports to be shorter, here is one that stretches out over nine months.

The costs of participating are a barrier. In 2001/02, for instance, each team spent on average US$20-25 million. In the economic climate of the past few years, that kind of investment became, as Frostad acknowledged, a huge problem.

The last race, in 2011/12, could have been The Last Race. “We had a situation where we saw that the costs for the teams was going significantly up. The cost in 2011/12 was sky-rocketing.

“Technology costs a lot of money and we had an economic crisis in Europe hitting very hard. A lot of the sponsors in the race said no, this is game over, we cannot be part of this anymore. We had to make a significant change so we sat down with the sponsors and said how radical do we have to be? It was very critical.”

The solution was to bring in the one-design Volvo Ocean 65 yacht. Every team now has the same boat, which not only levels the playing field, but also reduces the costs significantly. This time, it is estimated, costs will average out between 6-7.5 million euros ($8.2m to $10.2m).

“That changes a lot, not only because of the boat but it changes the way we operate the team on land,” Frostad said. “They don’t have to spend as much money on spare parts, tools, maintenance because they can share all these things. It brings the starting and technology cost down significantly.”

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Sailing has always known that more than the yachts, or the race itself, it is the stories of the men and women participating that are gold. It is a way of dealing with another conundrum at its centre: you cannot really watch VOR as you might another spectator sport. Today, when we want to burrow deeper and deeper inside sport, here is one, anachronistically, we cannot even really see most of the time.

But the race has always been smart about this. Each edition has been captured on camera and packaged together into a neat documentary-style overview, and has inspired a few books, as well. It has been an important way to relate what happens where nobody can see to those who want to see.

Over the years interaction with crew on-board has been enhanced and this time the race will be as attuned to modern demands as it has ever been. Each boat will have wifi, allowing the crew to live-tweet when they can.

Frostad is especially excited that they have better on-board audio recording equipment. Biometric data, crew heart rates, their thoughts, their actions, their emotions: all of it will be available to us when we want.

“What makes it interesting as a mass-audience sport is that it has a very good story to tell about these people who do this crazy trip around the world and what they experience between them,” Frostad said. “The more technology we have, the more skills we have in communicating them, the more interesting it is to watch and follow.”

If that sounds, on paper, like a TV reality show, do not be alarmed. Out on the seas, nothing can be contrived.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

Follow our sports coverage on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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