I would like to pose a question, one that I know in advance will not have a suitable answer. Here is the question; which is the tougher event. The Whitbread Round the World Race or the Volvo Ocean Race?
Yes I know they are both the same event, but are they really the same race? The Whitbread ran from its inception in the early 70s until Volvo came on board as title sponsor in 2005, and the race has evolved from a raw adventure to the world’s premiere, fully crewed offshore ocean race. The reason I say that I am not expecting a suitable answer is because the two events are now so completely different it’s hard to compare. In order to really understand how tough things were, or are, you need perspective. You need to have done an early race to fully appreciate what a pioneering event the Whitbread was, and you also need to be doing the current race to get an idea of what it’s like to be at the cutting edge, racing a machine the likes of which could not even have been imagined back then.
I am posing this question as someone who participated in three Whitbread races in the 80s. In 81/82 I raced aboard the American entry Alaska Eagle, or Alaska Beagle as the rest of the fleet called us because the boat was a dog. Four years later I raced aboard Drum with Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon, and in ’89 I raced the first leg aboard Fazisi, the first, and by happenstance last Whitbread entry from the Soviet Union. By the time Fazisi finished the race the Soviet Union had collapsed and some in the media speculated that it was global sporting events like the Whitbread that played no small part in bringing down that monolith.
When I joined Alaska Eagle I was a wet-behind-the-ears 23-year-old. I joined for the adventure and I figured that it would be a good way to meet girls, and it delivered on both counts. We had a multinational crew of 10 mostly inexperienced sailors with the exception of Skip Novak, our skipper, who had done the previous Whitbread as navigator aboard Kings Legend. We slept in cabins, yes cabins with bunks and lee cloths, and we had wine with dinner and I don’t mind saying that we had a lot of wine with dinner. It was a different era. We weren’t truly sure that the word wasn’t flat and that we wouldn’t find ourselves on the area of the chart labeled, ‘Here Be Dragons’. The wine with dinner was good, as were the Sunday roasts, but there was a massive downside to having so much alcohol on board, aside from the very obvious. Our chef (yes he was a real chef hijacked from a restaurant in Ibiza) was a raging alcoholic, as were a number of the crew, and it all started to unravel when somewhere in the Southern Ocean we discovered that the chef had drunk all the supplies. The following two weeks were drying out hell for a number of the crew. That was definitely no way to race a boat, but as I said, it was a different era. To make matters worse New Zealand threw party after party for all the Whitbread crews and that was all fun until Christmas morning, the day before the start, when we discovered that one of our crew had literally lost his mind. The drying out period, followed by excessive imbibing once on land did a number on him. We found him pacing the boat giving a political speech to a nervous yet somewhat intrigued audience. He was foaming at the mouth. Luckily it was Christmas morning and there were few people around. We rushed him to hospital, he was later transferred to a mental hospital, and finally came around long after Alaska Eagle had finished the race back in England.
There is, I think, a single sentence that marked the turning point of the event from a race for a band of adventurous misfits, to a full-on professional event. It was New Year’s Eve and a New Zealand radio interviewer asked Grant Dalton, the hard driving skipper of Fisher & Paykel, what the crew were going do to celebrate. Dalton answered tersely, ‘Nothing, we will celebrate when we get to Auckland’. Dalton meant business, the stakes were high, and Peter Blake and the red-hulled Steinlager were just a couple of miles ahead. There would be no time for frivolity, only time for trimming and tweaking, and the event was forever changed.
Aside from the living conditions and the attitude toward racing there were many stark differences between the early races and the one taking place right now. I have not sailed a VOR 65 (I did get in the virtual one at the Race Village in Alicante but I don’t think that counts) so I don’t have any first-hand experience just how brutal and tough those boats are to sail. From the amazing onboard footage piped back via satellite it’s clear that life on board is harsh, wet, full-on and frightening. The sailors are very different animals. These are hardened professionals whose livelihood depends upon how well they perform. There is a gym routine during the layovers, strict clothing requirements and a mental focus that is all about winning. Long gone are the days when thick black coffee and a couple Gauloises cigarettes would be a good way to start a watch.
Despite the amenities we enjoyed (like a freezer) we were sailing in relatively unchartered waters. The boats were OK, most of them, but the gear and the engineering was not. Winches were routinely pulled from the deck, halyards snapped at will and the sails were brutal to deal with. The race was raced under the old IOR rule which permitted (I think) an unlimited number of sails. We had dozens of headsails, spinnakers, bloopers and staysails which had to be moved from side to side each time we tacked. The working sails were Dacron, many of them two-ply, and when wet (which they were most of the time) they were heavy and unwieldy. On Alaska Eagle we opted for a foil on the headstay and luff tape on the headsails for the up and down legs, but for the two Southern Ocean legs it was hanks; brass hanks which I sewed onto each sail in Cape Town and removed in Punte del Este. Luff tape was such a new idea that we didn’t trust it for the southern legs opting instead for hanks which at times were so cold that your fingers stuck to them just like the kid licking the lamppost in the middle of winter. In order to unhank the sail you had to remove your gloves and the cold was brutal. I guess the most terrifying thing that modern VOR sailors don’t have to deal with were the wire sheets. There was no fancy light and flexible Dyneema; it was wire and the after-guys on Drum were half-inch wire stretched bar tight. To ease the sheet you had to get a firm hand on the wire on the drum, loosen it slightly and coax the wire which in many cases had creased the drums from being under so much load, and then brace yourself as the boat shuddered as the sheet was eased. If your bunk happened to be directly under one of the primary winches you were treated to a sound no less frightening than the screech of a demented pig being slaughtered.
The races back then were four legs and each leg took around six weeks. The layovers in Cape Town, Auckland and South America were long, four weeks or so, and they were a lot of fun. There was time for a safari or a beach holiday. By contrast the course of the modern day Volvo Ocean Race is almost twice as long and is series of frantic sprints, both on the water and on land. It’s business 24/7 with very little time for R&R. In other words it’s a brutal schedule dictated in part by the high demands of the sponsors who have invested a lot of money. Money in, return out, or you are off the boat. I am almost certain that the 23-year-old version of me, or even the 27 or 31-year-old version of me would not willingly subject myself to that kind of rigor. But then again, these VOR sailors are actually getting paid for their efforts. We were doing it for room and board and for the love of adventure. I am certain that knowing there was a paycheck would make dragging a tired and battered body out of a warm bunk a little easier.
One other thing about the course. In the early races there were no restrictions on how far south you could go on the Southern Ocean legs. The great circle course from Cape Town to Auckland runs pretty close to Antarctica and any savvy navigator knows that the great circle route is the shortest distance between two points. It was a very fine line between shaving off distance and getting too deep into iceberg territory. Which do you think is tougher? Constantly gybing along the southern limit line imposed under current race rules, or having to boil a kettle to melt the ice that had formed in the winch handle socket before you could wind the sail in? I am not sure which is worse, but I do distinctly remember an iceberg picked up on the radar directly ahead and the panic that ensued when we realized that the spinnaker sheet and guy were frozen solid to the winch and a quick gybe or spinnaker drop was not an option. I can’t remember how we got out of that one, it was one of many near misses, but I do remember Skip giving us a bollocking for napping on watch and not noticing that we were going into a deep freeze.
Clothing was also a challenge. Granted we were past the days of genuine oilskins where your wool or cotton clothing was waterproofed with oil, but we were not that far ahead. There was not much on the market. The top wet weather gear makers like Henry Lloyd and Musto were just getting a handle on what was needed. Before them there was Line 7, plastic and non-breathable which left you soaking on the inside from sweat rather than salt water, and I am not sure which was worse. The clothing worn by the current VOR sailors is highly engineered, designed to breath, light and durable, but even so there is still the same problem faced by all sailors; how often to changed clothing. Gear is heavy and heavy is slow so changes of clothing are kept to a minimum. Weight was not as critical an issue back in the early days but the dilemma remained. In order to change clothes you had to get undressed and it didn’t make that much sense to put clean clothes on a dirty body, but the only way to clean said dirty body was chuck a bucket over the side and scrub with icy cold Southern Ocean water. Many crews simply opted to douse themselves with Johnsons Baby Powder and we had a number of crew on Drum that admitted wearing the same underpants when they arrived in Auckland as they had on when they left Cape Town.
I think that one of the things that make the Volvo Ocean Race a lot easier is the amount of very accurate weather information the teams receive. It allows them to position themselves ahead of a front to take full advantage of what the system had to offer. We received faxes that, depending on where they came from, were either quite detailed or looked like a toddler riding in the back of a bumpy pickup truck had drawn them. I remember as we approached the equator on Fazisi. We had a fax but the faxes we were getting had very little information. On the well-funded boats they had computers which could pull in satellite imagery and the skippers and navigators hunkered below doing their best to decipher what they were looking at. Without anything of any value on Fazisi we did what most sailors would do. We looked out the window and played the puffs. In doing so we went from fifteenth, where we had languished since the start, to fifth.
The Volvo Ocean Race will continue to evolve, designers will innovate, sponsors will demand more, the sailors will deliver more and the gap between the early races and those still to come will continue to widen. There are two major differences between now and then and for us old timers one is a plus and the other a minus. We were racing incognito; family and friends barely had any clue where we were and that was how we liked it. The amount of (necessary) communication that these sailors are putting out is unreal. There is no escape. The phone can ring at any time and the demand for high-quality material is only going to increase. But for them the route is well worn. They know what to expect, they know what to wear, they know what to eat and they know what’s expected of them. The first Whitbread was held in 1973/74. It really was a pioneering event. Navigation was by sextant, weather information non-existent. The crews were a mixture of sailors and others there for the fun and adventure. There were men lost at sea and boats with broken masts, booms, rudders and occasionally, hearts. If Grant Dalton’s terse comment about not celebrating New Year was a marker that changed the way the race was sailed, there is an anecdote about Claire Francis, the skipper of ADC Accutrac back in the ’77/78 race that speaks volumes to how it used to be. Claire apparently liked to gab on the phone, or in her case, the single-sideband radio. It was the only means of communication but there was no privacy. It was an open line and any person tuned in on the same frequency could hear the conversations. Claire was married to a Frenchman who was racing on board with her. One evening Claire was experiencing a bit of congestion and was constantly clearing her throat. ‘Sorry’, she announced to all tuned in, ‘I have a frog in my throat’. I am told that there was collective laughter floating across the Southern Ocean that evening.
Commentator to OGR