Volvo Ocean Race veteran Tony Rae, Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand crewmember, has experience with the race that dates back more than a quarter-century. Rae now salutes the tough new era of sailing where sailing teams and shore crews have become so professional that just one mistake can decide everything.
The five-time Volvo competitor reckons sailors are more experienced, boats are lighter and faster, the racecourse is more varied and shore crews have upped the ante to be comparable to a Formula 1 pit crew.
'Everyone is pushing these boats extremely hard so there are bigger differences when someone’s got a knot more breeze or someone has a slightly different angle,’’ he said. 'The boats are so fast, they make bigger gains and bigger losses.’’
The Volvo was a different proposition when Rae, 50, first competed in what was formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race as a 24-year-old nipper on board Peter Blake’s Lion New Zealand in 1985-86.
It was a mixed fleet competition with just four ocean legs and no in-port racing. Sailors were not full time employees of the campaign, and they would go to sea without restricting limits to their food or clothing.
Tony Rae the mainsail trimmer who works with the helmsman to control the boat CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Cape Town, South Africa to Abu Dhabi, UAE. - Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©
Rae recalled that his family held fundraising events to help buy his sailing gear. The team also raced with a cook and a doctor on board.
It was Rae’s second campaign in 1989-90 again with Blake but this time on board Steinlager 2 where he was arguably a part of the birth of professionalism in offshore racing, which was more often considered an adventure not a sport. Rae was one of 15 crew who worked full-time on the campaign, winning every leg.
'The whole professionalism stepped up on that campaign,' he said. 'It was probably the first time there was a true full time campaign on a Whitbread.'
Since then, the race has 'stepped up another notch', Rae said.
Race management have introduced a single class of yacht, crews are limited to 11, including a dedicated media crew member, and racing is a mix of offshore and in-port racing.
As for the sailors, they earn a wage comparable to other professional athletes and teams often have their own doctors, nutritionists and physiotherapists on staff.
The wave of professionalism has had a knock-on effect that has raised the standard of competition, Rae said. It is also the reason why Rae is confident his team is still in with a shot at being overall victors despite Telefónica winning the first three legs -- the first team to do so since Rae’s Steinlager 2.
Tony Rae enjoys the moment of opening a christmas present onboard CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Cape Town, South Africa to Abu Dhabi, UAE. - Hamish Hooper/Camper ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race©
'They’ve won three legs but it’s a nine-leg race,' he said. 'We’ve got a lot more legs in this race yet, and they’re tricky legs, they’re all very different to the legs we’ve had.'
'The points system is different as well, so it’s quite a different set up when you consider the in-port races as well.'
'But it still comes down to the end of it. A lot of things can happen between now and the end -- you still have to keep it all together, you still have to chip away.'
'Even if you’re Telefónica in the lead, they’re still thinking 'we’ve got to keep it together' because one small loss could cost major points and then the gap is going to close up very quickly.'
'No one’s going to be comfortable until we get to the end at Galway. It’s a matter of pushing hard the whole time, whether you’re in the front or the back. You just have to keep sailing really hard and keep it all together.'
Volvo Ocean Race website