What keeps sailors coming back to a race that offers no prize money for winning, nothing but hardship when it comes to life on board and an ever-present risk of physical harm?
The Volvo Ocean Race fleet sets out on Saturday along its longest ever course, a 39,000-nautical miles haul through four hostile oceans, where they will face 15-metre waves, hurricane force winds and the potential threat of pirates and boat-breaking icebergs.
There is no room for fear of anything other than failure in this high-stakes sporting contest, but no one is unwise enough to ignore the very real dangers in a race that has claimed the lives of five competitors in its 38-year history.
The death of Hans Horrevoets in the 2005-06 edition was a shocking reminder of exactly what’s on the line when the men -- all sons, many husbands and some fathers -- take to the seas.
The 32-year-old Dutch sailor was washed overboard on May 18 when ABN AMRO TWO nosedived in heavy seas while racing from New York to Portsmouth. Forty-five minutes later Horrevoets was retrieved from the surging sea and despite the crew’s best efforts to resuscitate him he died.
The death of Horrevoets, who was a married father with a second child on the way, hit the tight-knit sailing fraternity hard. Team Sanya skipper Mike Sanderson, who led ABN AMRO ONE to victory in the 2005-06 race, described the event as one of the most emotionally charged of his life.
'My biggest fear is not getting everyone home safely. Having lived through that, albeit on our sister-ship, getting everyone home safely is top priority. At the end of the day sailing is a sport and we need to remember that.'
But Sanderson, who will be competing for the first time as a father, said the moment that fear gets the better of you, you have to get out.
'One of the things I have been quite apprehensive about is what it’s going to be like being back at sea doing 30 knots downwind, huge waves, water rushing down the deck in dangerous conditions. Will I still enjoy it now I’m a dad?
'But I think the day it makes you more cautious, you have to get out.
'It’s definitely different. It’s incredibly hard leaving the family. But for sure you have to go out there with a clear head. You can’t take your foot off the throttle worrying about things like that when you’re racing the Volvo.'
For young father Michi Mueller, 28, it was witnessing the birth of his first child that was at stake in the 2008-09 race. Instead of being bedside, Mueller was racing on board PUMA’s il mostro from Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro during Leg 5.
Huddled around the navigation station at night Mueller received notice via Inmarsat satellite communications and saw his daughter Mia Carlotta for the first time in a photo on an onboard computer.
'If you’re not there you miss something for sure,’’ he said. 'I thought about being there, but the Volvo was planned and we made the decision that my wife would handle the birth and I would race.'
Despite all the challenges of the world’s longest and toughest ocean race, sailing’s best -- Olympic gold medallists, America’s Cup winners and world champions -- keep on coming back.
It’s not prize money that lures sailors to compete, as just like the Olympics only a trophy is up for grabs. It’s much more than anything tangible.
1989-90 race winner Sir Peter Blake famously said: 'There’s nothing like it. It gets into your blood and you can’t get rid of it.’’
Ahead of the 11th edition of the race, Ken Read, skipper of PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG, said it was the hunt for victory in the Everest of the ocean that had drawn him back for the third successive time.
'It’s long, it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s no wind, it’s too much wind, you’re always wet, the food is horrible, there’s not enough of it -- it just wears you out,’’ he said.
'But we’re here. You keep coming back to it because it is pitting the best against the best: the best boats, the best people, the best programmes, and the best event. You win this race, you’ve done something.'