If you went up to someone random on the street and asked them what they thought Australia’s top five most successful sports were, they would not mention sailing.
More than 38,000 nautical miles, 11 ports, five continents and four oceans. On October 11, 2014, seven teams will set off from Alicante on Spain’s Costa Blanca for what is the longest, but also one of the most arduous, professional sporting events in the world.
The 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race starts with a near 6500-nautical-mile run to Cape Town, followed by a further eight race legs to Abu Dhabi, Sanya, Auckland, Itajai, Newport, Lisbon and Lorient, before finally finishing in late June 2015, in Gothenberg, Sweden.
For many Australians the only contact they have with ocean racing is part of the traditional Christmas holiday fare when they watch the start of the Sydney to Hobart on Boxing Day.
But that is a sprint in comparison to this marathon. In fact, the shortest leg of the Volvo Ocean Race from Lisbon to Lorient, at 647 nautical miles, is 17 nautical miles longer than our own blue water classic.
Although the main race begins on October 11, the teams have already had one warm-up race and will take part in another this weekend. They are the first runs the crews will have sailed together, and will importantly give them a chance to get to know their crew mates. After all, they will be spending a lot of time together over the next nine months.
In addition to the main race, each host city will have an in-port race, prior to the start of the next leg of the race proper. This gives interested spectators the only opportunities to view the competitors up close, and it gives the crews the chance to bed down any repairs and get into the groove again after spending some time ashore.
So how does it all work? Well, for the first time in its 40-year history the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread Round The World Race) is a one design event. One design means that all the yachts are theoretically identical, so that the only difference between winning and losing is down to the crews themselves, and the weather gods.
As the yachts are identical and are equipped with the same sail plan, there is no handicap system as we see in the Sydney to Hobart, so first past the post is the winner.
The yachts themselves are Volvo 65s designed by Farr Yacht Design, and manufactured by one of four boatyards – Green Marine in the UK, Decision in Switzerland, Multiplast in France and Persico in Italy.
Sixty-five feet long at the waterline and weighing 12500 kilograms, these yachts are capable of hitting 40 knots (74km/h), twice the speed of traditional yachts of the same size. This extra speed is achieved through their advanced design and materials, as well as a few engineering tricks that traditional yachts do not possess, such as a canting keel, daggerboards and ballast tanks.
These devices can all be used to wring every knot of speed out of the yacht in any given conditions.
Taking part in this 12th edition of the race are seven crews. Team SCA (Sweden), Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (UAE), Dongfeng Race Team (China), Team Brunel (The Netherlands), Team Alvimedica (USA/Turkey), Mapfre (Spain) and Team Vestas Wind (Denmark), which is skippered by Australian Olympic sailor Chris Nicholson.
Each crew consists of eight sailing and one non-sailing crew members, with the exception of Team SCA, which is an all-female crew with 11 sailing and one non-sailing crew members permitted. The non–sailing crew member is an addition that makes this event unique in the world of ocean racing.
On board each yacht is a reporter responsible for all media going in and out of the vessel. Each yacht has five remote controlled cameras and two uplink points, which can be combined to give media coverage from all angles. The yachts are out of sight of land for most of the race, but with modern media technology we can expect to see some exciting on-board footage and crew interviews almost in real time.
In addition to Chris Nicholson on Vestas Wind, there are eight other Australians competing this time. Alongside Nicholson on Vestas Wind is West Australian Tom Johnson, taking part in his first Volvo Ocean Race. On Abu Dhabi is another West Australian, Luke Parkinson, and a previous winner of the event, Phil Harmer from Sydney.
Team Brunel and Alvimedica both have Australians on board, with veteran of five previous races and Americas Cup winner Andrew Cape on Brunel, and two-race veteran Will Oxley on Alvimedica.
Best of all it is fantastic to see that Australia is represented by three sailors on the all-female Team SCA crew, Liz Wardley, Stacey Jackson and Sophie Ciszek. All three have extensive ocean racing experience competing in multiple Sydney to Hobart races, while Wardley is also competing in her second Volvo Ocean Race.
As regular readers on The Roar will know, I have previously made predictions pre-race as to how I think the race will pan out, with varying degrees of success. This race is much more difficult to predict.
The yachts are identical, there are varying degrees of experience in the crews, but most importantly the crews have had very little time to gel together. How the crew gels will be crucial to the outcome, as any rift between personalities will be cracked wide open by weeks together at sea in the confined spaces of an ocean racing yacht, with little sleep.
Cape Town will give us a much better idea of how they will fare overall, and don’t be surprised if one or two people find themselves replaced at the end of Leg 1, just as the experienced Australian navigator Adrienne Cahalan was in the 2005 edition of the race.