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Volvo Ocean Race fleet Pro Am wows Auckland

by Jeni Bone on 16 Mar 2012
Look like a sailor? Jeni Bone
A brilliant, sultry day in the 'City of Sails' saw thousands of tourists and locals head to the Viaduct marina for the Pro Am race day for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet. Jeni Bone marvels at her luck to be on board Camper Emirates Team NZ.

Praying for gentle weather, I was taken literally by the Gods and five of the six VOR boats set out this morning for a race around Auckland harbour – for them a day for practising starts and limbering up ahead of the next leg to Brazil starting Sunday, and for the handful of ecstatic media and VIPs on board, an experience of a lifetime.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing had its mast in for repair and would sit this one out, but the panoply and excitement were not diminished. I was smiling like a loon and trying not to be the proverbial 'boobs on a bull'.

The crowd around the Viaduct precinct and VOR Village was phenomenal - and on a Friday too! This is true Kiwi hospitality and testament to their claim to be the boating capital of the Asia Pacific. I dof my cap. It's a superb backdrop for marine festivals, racing, cruising and fun. The seafood is second to none. You can't get a bad feed in Auckland and the bluff oysters are on.

As ring-in Camper crew, we looked the part, in caps, weather gear and grippy shoes all branded with the distinctive 'rocha' hue of Spanish brand, Camper - some of us waving to the crowds and feeling quite special. Most of the lifedstyle and mainstream journos had never been on a performance sailing craft of the calibre of Camper.

'This is like playing a game of tennis with Roger Federer,' our host pre-empted the in-port experience. 'You will be hands on, working hard today. Listen to what you’re told to do and you won’t lose any body parts.'

Once onboard, we realised ocean racing by definition means not one thing on board extraneous to 11 men, their meals, kit and equipment.

By way of a safety briefing, our skipper Chris Nicholson explained the gory consequences of getting our extremities, hair or ID tags caught in whirring and grinding equipment, showing us then evidence of his own broken nose, pointed out the Jon Buoy and other rescue apparatus, then herded us up the front of the boat to shift our ballast. Competitive even for a play race.

While our knuckles were white gripping the stainless in anticipation of the start, the lack of wind made progress difficult. It was a superlative day for a lazy sail, which is what we ended up enjoying.

Fortunately, chatting with the crew was not a distraction for them, as they waited and watched for signs of wind.

The VOR is no place for a lady. Women are not in the running, explained Nicholson, somewhat apologetically. 'It’s nothing to do with whether women are competent sailors,' he continued, admitting there are probably women who would like to attempt the race and quite probably are up to it. 'But it’s purely a matter of assembling the best 11 sailors you can as crew. It’s heavy work and hard enough for men to handle.'

The fifth leg - Auckland to Itajai, south of Rio, Brazil - is the one they have all been looking forward to.

'So far, the Race has been centred on our weak areas, tight reaching. It's not that we have misjudged the weather, but it hasn't been on our side. The conditions of the next leg will suit our strengths - fast, hard running and we are up for it,' said Nicholson, veteran of four Volvo Ocean Races, two-time Olympian and six time sailing World Champion.

Back onshore, Chief Operating Office, Kevin Shoebridge had said at the Pro Am welcome that 'if ever the record would be broken - 600nm in 24 hours - it will happen on this leg'.

For this newly minted crew, we tried our hands at grinding alongside America's Cup recruits who were taking the strain for Camper team members resting, we sprawled on the deck as the $100,000 jib captured the breeze, then wrestled its hefty form back to the deck, learned about life on board (no days off, 4 hours sleep in 'hot beds' they take turns in sleeping on, freeze dried food, pub trivia games to fill in any spare time) and felt utterly useless even as our Camper booties gripped. The sun was hot too. Thank God it wasn't rough.

Daryl Wislang, Bowman and one of the six Kiwis on Camper, is a sail maker by trade. This is his third Volvo Ocean Race. He has been sailing since he was 10 and loves the ferocious competition and the challenges of the next leg, each and every time.

'It was pretty special coming in to Auckland,' he said of their arrival earlier in the week. 'Our families and friends and seemed like all of Auckland were waiting for us. It was a terrible day and there were heaps of people out to greet us. We nearly came in third, so it was pretty thrilling there at the end.'

The calm conditions today were disappointing for the crew. 'It would have been great to show you all how we do it.' At sea, while waves can reach five to six metres, it's the small chop at the top of the waves that causes the grief.

'But these boats are constructed with safety at the forefront,' said Nicholson. 'There are so many measures and appendages just for keeping us afloat.'

And they will likely need every one of them. The next leg through the Southern Ocean is 6,700nm that promise waves up to 12m high and winds to 60 knots.

'It's one of those places where you have to respect the weather,' said Tony Rae, with four VORs under his belt. 'The air is so much colder, the water is colder, it hits you in the face, you have more gear on so it takes longer to get in an out of and it's harder to things done. It's tough sailing.'

The threat of ice breaking off from Antarctica has forced organisers to bring in an 'ice line' to stop the fleet sailing too far south.

After tackling the Southern Ocean, the fleet will have to round Cape Horn, which Nicholson said is the sailing equivalent of 'summitting Mount Everest'.

'It is certainly all it's made out to be - one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world.' One million tonnes of ocean are forced through a 400 mile gap between South America and Antarctica.

'We are all looking forward to it,' he said. The next leg, which Nicholson hopes to complete in 18 days, will show 'who's fast and who isn't'.

'We can win,' he added emphatically.

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