Volvo Ocean Race sailors are getting used to the breakfast of champions

There is no five-star dining for these around-the-world sailors as running out of food is always a big concern and keeping up with dietary requirements while out at sea is a must, writes Osman Samiuddin.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Chuny Bermudez savours one of the last packets of Nutella from the shore lunch bag between watches. Courtesy Volvo Ocean Race
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Chuny Bermudez savours one of the last packets of Nutella from the shore lunch bag between watches. Courtesy Volvo Ocean Race

A packet of freeze-dried food does not make the saliva glands kick into gear. It might be enough to put you off the idea of eating altogether.

The primary source of sustenance for the Volvo Ocean Race crews, freeze-dried fare looks like something that, in a best-case scenario, could have been solidified gruel. Or in the worst case, a chunk of brown, grainy cement.

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As the teams prepared for the Leg 2 of the race, one particular pack of dehydrated grub in Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s food stores contained porridge and strawberries, team logistics coordinator Alex Wardall said.

“It’s made with powdered milk and as you can see, it’s really lightweight – which is really important,” she said. “It’s very small and doesn’t take up any weight, and so you rehydrate it by pouring hot water onto it. It’s had all the moisture sucked out of it, then you pour water on it and it magically turns into a meal.”

It does not look so magical.

For Leg 2, Wardall’s job was to put together 14 duffel bags of food. Each bag contains two days worth of food for nine sailors. So in total there was enough for 28 days at sea. Each bag cannot exceed 25 kilograms.

If it sounds like a lot, it is not, really. The men and women burn roughly 6,000 calories a day. That kind of effort requires serious refuelling.

Especially, as Simon Fisher, the Azzam navigator says, if you are Luke Parkinson, the boat’s young, hulking bowman and helmsman.

“Parko” counts for three people, Fisher joked. “Most guys eat quickly, so they can sleep more, whereas Parko gets up in the middle of his sleep to eat more,” Fisher said. “He wakes up and says, ‘Can’t wait, got to eat’.”

Like the rest of the fleet, the bulk of Azzam’s on-board supply is freeze-dried food of all kinds: chicken curry, beef stew, various types of pasta, all waiting to be transformed magically into edible form with the simple application of hot water.

Wardall has regular suppliers for the freeze-dried fare, which is transported in vast containers to port sites around the world by the on-shore team. The quality and range has improved over the years, especially in terms of the nutrition it provides but, ultimately, Gordon Ramsay is not going to be particularly impressed. It is food of utility and function.

“It is good, but it all kind of starts tasting the same after you’ve been eating it for 30 days,” Wardall said. “It all looks the same. There is not a lot of texture there. I think food becomes a real hot topic as they sail.”

Azzam’s crew have a solution to the sameness. On the first leg, they carried along three tubs of chilli flakes and three bottles of Tabasco sauce. A similar strategy is in play for the ongoing second leg.

It is hardly novel, but it does the trick, pepping up the food a little and giving it much-needed flavour.

Beyond this is the relief, the fun food, that fuels the crew through the day. Eating routines on the boat are, predictably, hardly routine, and meal times depend on watch times and watch times can depend on the weather and well, that is the battle.

This easy-access food assumes greater importance in the event.

“Lots of protein bars, chocolate bars, cereal bars, we make a trail mix – which is nuts and chocolates and peanuts and things,” Wardall said. “That is really high-energy, really high-fat. We try and get a balance of food they really like and they want to eat, but also the right stuff going into them.

“As it goes down the line, we have things like coffee refills, powdered milk, bottles for coffee and tea. They are big coffee drinkers on the boat. We have caffeine chewing gum – it tastes horrible and I think it was confiscated from [skipper Ian Walker], because he gets quite revved up on it.”

Adil Khalid, the sole Emirati on Azzam, is a gummy bears fan.

“He will eat that all day,” Wardall said, so plenty has been packed.

On the second leg, Parma ham as well as Parmesan cheese was packed. Spanish sailor Chuny Bermudez is, not surprisingly, a connoisseur. A few packs of tortilla wraps were loaded aboard in the hopes of providing a quick, easy-to-make snack while on watch.

Typically, these are the items that will be sourced at each stopover, a process that Wardall begins as soon as she lands at each far-flung port destination, ahead of the boat’s arrival.

“It’s quite fun to do it, as you go around the world, getting different chocolate bars or protein bars different from those that you are used to,” she said. “It’s quite a long process, packing all the stuff up.”

It is a relative luxury, of course. It does not come close to matching, for instance, the menu for Ramon Carlin’s Sayula II in the inaugural round-the-world race in 1974/75: steaks, hamburgers, chicken, caviar and a chef for it all. Though it does outstrip the “Age of Sail” diet, which frequently was limited to salted meat of indeterminate age, biscuits and dried peas.

Ideally, the bags should come back empty. A big concern is how much weight – and strength – sailors lose while on a four-week leg. It is why they overcompensate on stopovers and put on extra weight, to burn off when at sea.

They will always lose weight, but the key is to keep it to a minimum. During the first leg, Team Alvimedica claimed they lost, on average, the least weight of all the teams (1.8kg).

“They don’t always come back empty, but if they do, I am a very happy lady, because it means they eat everything they should do,” Wardall said. “Hopefully, they are stepping off the boat looking nice and chubby still, and not skinny, but there’s always stuff that comes back.”

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Published: December 7, 2014 04:00 AM


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