2018-04-12 / Around Town

VOR is One of Sailing’s Biggest Events

By Rob Duca

The Whitbread Round the World Race (1973-74) was the start of what is now known as the Volvo Ocean Race. The Whitbread Round the World Race (1973-74) was the start of what is now known as the Volvo Ocean Race. The Volvo Ocean Race is considered one of the world’s most punishing, hazardous and intensely competitive events in any sport, stretching over eight months and spanning six continents. And yet, there isn’t a dime in prize money.

For the professional sailors who devote nearly a full year in the pursuit of victory, leaving their family and their homes for months at a time, subsisting on freeze-dried food and braving treacherous seas, it’s all about etching their names into one of the trophy’s silver rings.

“It’s freezing cold, boiling hot, and every once-in-a-while you have a nice day of sailing,” says Newport’s Ken Read, who skippered the Puma Ocean Racing Team in the 2008-09 and 2011- 12 editions, finishing second and third, respectively.

“It’s the Mount Everest of our sport,” Read says. “The Volvo Ocean Race is mentally grueling and physically taxing. It beats you up, tears you apart and makes you smile. In the course of a day, you go through every emotion you could imagine.

“The bottom line is that it’s the most competitive off-shore race there is, and it features the best of the best. You have to be tough, a little bit crazy and a hell of a good sailboat racer to even be included on a crew.”

It began in 1973 when 19 teams sailed four legs over 27,000 nautical miles that took them from Portsmouth, England to Cape Town, South Africa to Sydney, Australia to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and back to Portsmouth. More than 150 boats have competed in the subsequent editions, which were held every four years until 2008, when the cycle was reduced to every three years.

Only seven boats will sail into Newport Harbor sometime between May 9 and 11, completing the eighth of 11 legs in a competition that now encompasses 45,000 nautical miles and stops at 12 host cities. This edition will reach a cumulative television audience of more than two billion people worldwide. Clearly, the VOR is bigger than ever.

“When I got into it [in 2008] it had just started to become very commercial,” Read says. “The further back you go, the more it was about individuals and a cast of characters. Now there is a traveling road show that goes to each stopover, and you’re taking care of sponsors and private donors, while making sure your crew is in one piece.”

Legendary tales abound about the race’s early days, none more remarkable than when Flyer won the 1977-78 edition, only the second time the race was held, even though skipper Conny van Rietschoten suffered a heart attack midway through a leg. “He told the crew, ‘Keep going. We’re not stopping. We’re going to win this race,’” Read says.

The enormity of the race, and what Read was about to embark upon hit him before the opening leg in 2008. “I went down to the boat, looked around and all of a sudden understood what I was doing, which was to sail around the world,” he says. “I ran up the dock, went behind some containers and threw up.”

Originally called the Whitbread Round the World Race after its initial sponsor, the British Whitbread Brewing Company, the first race course followed the route of the square riggers who had carried cargo in the 19th century.

Volvo assumed sponsorship in 2001, changing the name of the event. The one-design Volvo Ocean 65s replaced the Volvo Open 70 in 2014. The largest number of entries was for the 1981-82 competition when 29 boats competed. Since 2001, there have not been more than eight entries in any edition.

This year’s VOR began last October in Alicante, Spain and will conclude in The Hague next month. After Newport, the boats will journey to Cardiff, Wales and Gothenburg, Sweden.

The crews work on three- and four-hour cycles, known as “watch systems.” They burn up to 6,000 calories per day and some will lose 25 pounds during a single leg. They travel with one change of clothes, and only rain brings the luxury of a shower when they are competing off-shore.

“The feeling of seeing land after a tough leg is of massive relief and knowing you’ll have real food, a shower and a soft bed for the first time in however many days,” Read says. “But there’s also the competitive side. How did you do on the leg?”

Crew members are more than sailors; they are also trained in medical response, sail-making, diesel engine repair, electronics, nutrition, mathematics and hydraulics. There is also an embedded onboard media member on every boat.

“With the crew, you’re looking for strong people, agile people, brute force people, a little bit of everything,” Read says. “At the end of the day, you learn a lot about yourself; what you can take, what you can’t. It’s a life lesson.”

Through the past five decades, the Volvo Ocean Race has become one of sailing’s Big Three events, alongside the America’s Cup and the Olympic Games. But even with all the pageantry, it remains true to its roots.

“The evolution of the race is staggering,” Read says, “but one thing today’s event has in common with the early days is that it’s still the most competitive off-shore race on the planet and it will continue to be for a long time.”


WHEN: May 8-20
WHERE: Fort Adams

Return to top