Water, water everywhere, but not a lot to drink

Quenching thirst onboard a round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race boat is just one more challenge for Ian Walker and his team.

Sailors competing in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race face many dangers during the nine-month challenge - storms, icebergs and high seas, for starters. But the greatest concern? Keeping the on-board water desalinator in working order. "Sailors tend to get a bit twitchy when the water-maker plays up," said Ian Walker, who will skipper the Team Abu Dhabi boat in next year's race. "You can live without food for quite a long time, but not without water. So it is vital the machine continues to work properly."

The yachts do not carry water supplies during the voyage of 39,000 nautical miles because of the excessive weight it would require. The crew converts sea water into drinking water with a desalinator that is as vital to their survival as any of their navigational instruments. In the last Volvo race, in 2008/09, Walker and his crew mates on board the Irish yacht Green Dragon had to manage without adequate food during one leg. They misjudged the time it would take to cover the 12,300 nautical miles from Qingdao, China to the Brazilian port of Rio de Janeiro.

"It was a really long leg," Walker, a 40-year-old Englishman, said. "We were at sea for 43 days but only took enough food for 39 days. We lost quite a lot of body weight on that leg, although I never really saw it as life-threatening." The food is all freeze dried and is rehydrated for consumption with the desalinated water. It is not exactly gourmet quality when it is served up. "Newcomers to the race - like I was last time - tend to be a bit fussy, but you soon learn," Walker said. "By the end of the race you'll eat anything because your body needs the energy.

"The race veterans do that from the start and tend not to lose too much weight on the trip." Food and water are major concerns on the round-the-world journey known as the "Everest of Sailing", but Walker said there are countless more dangers awaiting the intrepid mariners. "You are always at risk in the Southern Ocean because of icebergs," he said. "You can't see them, especially at night when you are sailing blind. We don't stop when it goes dark; you are hurtling along 24-hours a day.

"You could hit anything: trees, half-submerged containers, other vessels if it's foggy. That's when it really preys on the mind but it is amazing how quickly you get used to those dangers and learn to ignore them." In the last race, the Green Dragon hit something in the water during the first leg and smashed the front of the keel. "That was quite scary," he said. "Then we broke a boom in a storm off South Africa. We got used to sailing without it. It wasn't life threatening but it was major.

"You can make for dry land to undergo repairs if you really need to but that is often easier said than done. "On some of the legs you can be over a week from the nearest port, so you have to battle on if some of your equipment is damaged." Different parts of the race present different challenges, Walker said. "Going round Cape Horn [the tip of South America] is always on the mind of any sailor," he said. "But, ironically, we took our biggest pounding last time in warmer waters off the Philippines.

"There were 50-knot winds, 14m seas and very strong currents. That was a very difficult period in the last race but we managed to keep going." When word gets round that a boat has been damaged, there is a tremendous camaraderie among the sailing fraternity. "The other boats in the race are your best source of help and rescue," Walker said. "It doesn't pay to fall out with your fellow competitors too much because they might be the ones pulling you out of the water. The rule of the sea is that you drop everything to help someone who is in danger."

He said because many of the crews have raced with each other or against each other, they have a mutual respect out on the ocean. But in the build-up to the race, as teams are going through preparations, "everybody is very competitive", he said. "At this stage there is a lot of cloak-and-dagger activity," Walker said. "Everybody is trying to guard their own designs and ideas from their rival crews."

He said a balancing act is needed for the three phases of preparation for the race, which next year will start in Alicante, Spain to Galway Bay in Ireland. Sufficient time must be allocated to design considerations before the racing boat is constructed, and there has to be plenty of sailing time available to train properly for the exhausting event. "It's quite tricky because you need input from the sailing crew to help the designers but we haven't put together that crew yet," Walker said.

"I think it will be several more months before we know the 10 names who will be sailing with me." wjohnson@thenational.ae