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All at sea: on board with CAMPER

The pinnacle of offshore yacht racing, the Volvo Ocean Race got underway in November.  Outdoor Fitness joined up with Emirates Team New Zealand as they prepare for the 40,000-mile odyssey

True to form, the world’s toughest ocean race has already claimed a couple of casualties, with two of the six-boat fleet forced into retirement by extreme conditions in the Mediterranean.  Within 48 hours of the start in Alicante, Team Sanya struck an underwater object and smashed a gaping hole in her hi-tech carbon-fibre hull, while the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing boat was dismasted off the coast of southern Spain.  All this before the six-strong fleet even reached the gale-force winds and battering-ram waves of the roaring forties and Southern Ocean.  Later, the much-fancied Puma boat was dismasted in the middle of the South Atlantic and had to limp into the remote island of Tristan Da Cunha, from where she was ferried to Cape Town on a container ship.  By the time you read this, the fleet should be back at full strength and converging on the finish of Leg 2 in Abu Dhabi.

Along the way, they will deal with 60mph gales, mountainous seas, permanent sleep deficit, perpetual damp, foot rot, desalinated water and dehydrated food and the threat of piracy.

The fleet is side-stepping the piracy risk by racing to an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean before being trans-shipped under armed escort to the Gulf, from where the teams will race into Abu Dhabi.

Ocean racing is as full-on as yachting gets.  Forget blazers and G&Ts on the aft deck: the Ocean Race circumnavigation is an eight-month marathon, requiring nine legs at sea of between 10 and 25 days.  The boats race 24 hours a day, seven days a week, reach speeds of 45mph and cover up to 600 miles a day.  The 11-man crew drives the boat in four-hour shifts – four on, four off – in a relentless routine that means they sometimes snatch just a couple of hours’ sleep in 24.  The boats are stripped to the bare minimum, with zero concession to creature comforts.  The crew sleep in simple cots beneath the cockpit and each crew member is restricted to one holdall weighing just 5kg.

Modern ocean racing is an endurance sport played out in some of the most extreme environments on the planet.  As such, it’s as much a trial of mental stamina as physical fitness.  So just what does it take to survive, let alone win, the Volvo Ocean Race?

How do the crew make big decisions when they’re in a state of permanent sleep deprivation?

In theory, the shift system aboard Camper, the Team New Zealand yacht, means each crew member should get 12′ hours downtime in every 24, but factor in eating, washing, boat maintenance and repairs and it’s usually much less.  Major sail changes require the whole crew on deck, so the off-duty shift may be roused from their slumber at any time.
Each crew member will burn around 5,000 calories a day, so eating is important, but trying to product food for five blokes quickly on a simple two-ring gas burner while the boat is pitching and bucking in a big sea is not the easiest of tasks.

“When you’re over-tired and the sea’s rough, it’s hard to sleep anyway, so if you get three hours kip during your watch below that’s a good result,” says co-skipper Stu Bannatyne.

Bowman Mike Pammenter adds: “You just get used to the broken sleep.  It’s hard for the first few days, but you get into a rhythm quite quickly and then it’s just as hard to get a full night’s sleep when you finish a leg and get back ashore again.”

After a few tough days at sea, exhaustion is more or less permanent, so before making critical decisions, navigator Will Oxley will always tries to get some shut-eye.  “If I know there’s a big call to be made, I will try to shut down before making that call,” he says.  “I can feel much more refreshed after even a 15-minute nap.  Then he decision is likely to be a better one.”

The biggest calls – especially where crew and boat safety are at stake – are generally collective decisions, with the skipper, two co-skippers and the navigator all involved.

How do they keep fit in such a confined space?

In preparation for the race, the crew are in the gym six days a week, focusing on cardio and strength.  They do a lot of work on core muscles to minimise the risk of a back or should injury and lessen their risk of falling on a constantly moving platform.

At sea, the crew are doing more than enough exercise to maintain fitness.  The race requires the stamina of a long-distance runner combined with the explosive power if a rugby player.  For example, the boat has two pairs of two-man carbon fibre winch-grinders.  Even with six men grinding together, the grunt required is like pedalling up a very steep hill with your arms on a three-speed bike.  It very quickly saps arm, shoulder and abdominal muscles, and the cardio rate rockets.

Some members of the crew will spend up to three and a half hours of their four-hour watch on the grinders – especially on a downwind leg, when the fleet is closely spaced at the start of a race and the sails require constant trimming.  The huge 500-square-metre A2 spinnaker takes at least two men just to lift it, around 90 seconds of winching to hoist it and six men to gather it in on the drop.

The only muscles that don’t see much action at sea are the legs.  Bowman Mike Pammenter explains: “your legs don’t get much of a workout and you do lose muscle mass over the course of the sail.  When you get ashore and walk any distance, you really feel the weakness for a while, so we try to do squats and stretches while on board.”

How do they decide when to push on into a storm and when to run for shelter?

Camper’s shore-based meteorological officer Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham, who has also forecast the weather for Formula 1 motor racing teams, is uncompromising: “There’s no such thing as safety.  You’ve just got to make the boat go as fast as you bloody well can.  Winning is the only game in town.  Sea state (the size and speed of the waves) is the major concern in yachting, but that comes with wind, so it’s a trade off.

“Obviously you wouldn’t want to sail through a cyclone – which is possible on the Sanya to Auckland leg, and you’d route round that.  But in the Southern Ocean, you have to deal with huge seas and 60-knot winds and the boat and the crew just have to take it.  There isn’t any shelter to run for down there.”

The view from on board is slightly less gung-ho.  Co-skipper Stu Bannatyne says: “in order to finish first, first you must finish.  There are plenty of examples in this race of boats self-destructing, and you can wreck the boat in just 15 minutes by pushing it too hard.

“We’ve put 11,000 sea miles on the boat pre-race, so we think we have a pretty good idea of her limitations.  We try to sail as fast as we can within the conditions, so good seamanship definitely comes into it.  You have to look after the crew and the boat – and if that means sacrificing a bit of speed, then it’s the right decision.”

ETNZ in their custom made MUSTO HPX

What kind of kit is needed for a round-the-world marathon?

Because the race is split into nine legs, the crew’s wardrobe changes according to the local climate.  In the Southern Ocean between Auckland and Itajai in Brazil, for example, the crew will spend most of the time in thermals, fleeces and full drysuits, but in the tropics, fast-drying shorts and T-shirts are standard issue.  Each crew member will only change his base layer once during each leg, so these are impregnated with anti-bacterial agents to maximise hygiene.

Co-skipper Stu Bannatyne says: “Breathability is a big issue, as you have periods of intense activity, when you sweat, followed by periods of relative inactivity.  If the moisture isn’t ported out, you get cold very quickly.”

Each man has access to an entire wardrobe of balaclavas, smocks and salopettes, but there’s one item none of them would be without: “Once your feet are wet, they don’t dry out until you’re back ashore,” adds Bannatyne. “The MUSTO Gore-Tex socks have been a revelation.  Without them, your feet are wet on day one, destroyed by seven and by day 20, you’ve got full on foot rot.”

All the wet-weather and technical clothing is from UK-based sailing specialist MUSTO.  Aside from that gear, each crew member is restricted to just 5kg of personal effects, so apart from underwear, a couple of family photos and maybe an iPod, there’s very little scope for luxuries on board.

(Originally published in Outdoor Fitness magazine)


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