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Two great ocean races prepare for their biggest offshore challenges

by David Schmidt 12 Mar 08:00 PDT
Team Alvimedica was first boat to round the fabled Cape Horn in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 © Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica

While snow continues to plague the front lawns of plenty of yacht clubs and dinghy parks across large swaths of North America, our friends who are competing in two great ocean races - the Volvo Ocean Race and the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race - are experiencing far different antipodean realities, especially as the clock ticks down to the start of two massive legs that will take both fleets across the Pacific Ocean, albeit on different rhumblines and to different finishing lines. For fans of ocean racing who are still forced to shovel out their driveways, chip ice off of windshields and generally dodge this winter's last gifts of black ice, both of these legs could provide the necessary lift needed to clear March 20 and spring's official start.

Some backstory. The Volvo Ocean Race began in late October in Alicante, Spain, and features a fleet of seven one-design boats that are being crewed by teams of fully professional sailors who press their steeds and their teammates to their limits as they race from port to port in a wild, round-the-world ride that will end in late June of this year in The Hague, Netherlands.

Simply earning a berth with any of the seven teams competing in this high-adrenaline race takes serious skills, but to head out to sea aboard a boat that defines the term "wet ride", without any hope of dry socks for weeks at a time, takes a different set of gears than most fair-weather sailors can possibly muster.

Volvo Ocean Race teams are currently in Auckland, New Zealand, preparing for the marathon, 7,600-mile Leg 7, which starts on March 18 and will take the fleet to Itajai, Brazil, by way of Cape Horn. (Did I mention that Volvo Ocean 65s are wet rides, with almost nowhere to escape the constant torrents of Southern Ocean brine that will be barrelling down the decks for weeks at a time?)

While the Volvo fleet raced to Auckland down one boat, Vestas 11th Hour Racing will rejoin the hunt after a new port bow section was surgically installed in New Zealand, following a collision on January 20 with a fishing vessel that tragically claimed the life of one of the fishermen.

"That was an experience that's still very fresh in my mind," said Charlie Enright, Vestas 11th Hour Racing's skipper, in an official team press release. (N.B. Enright was not aboard during the accident as he was dealing with a family emergency back in the USA, however he has stated that the outcome would have been no different had he been calling the shots.) "It was a hair-raising leg, with lots of maneuvers and heavy conditions. We'll have to be on our toes again because the Southern Ocean demands respect. I imagine once we get a couple of days out of Auckland we'll settle into the normal pattern of life at sea."

While all teams will likely be feeling the telltale pangs of excitement-cum-anxiety when they walk down the docks on March 18 to engage in a serious Southern Ocean battle, odds are good that Enright and his Vestas 11th Hour Racing will be approaching this next leg with a bit more on their minds than their competitors, as they get back on their metaphorical horse and sail her around sailing's most iconic landmark.

On the other side of the offshore-racing spectrum is the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race, which was the brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail non-stop and single-handed around the world during the Golden Globe Race of 1968-1969, which he won. The Clipper Race pairs one professional skipper with a team of paying amateurs of varying experience and skill levels in order to create and foster a supportive, hands-on learning environment while boldly crossing oceans.

The 12-strong fleet of Clipper One-Design boats are built with significantly wider margins of safety compared to the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, however the adventure is just as real for Clipper sailors, especially given the pronounced differences in crew experience levels between the two races. Volvo sailors might have the faster steeds, but this becomes irrelevant at 0200 hours when the skipper orders a team of relative greenhorns to change a headsail on a dark and pitching foredeck.

The Clipper Race is currently completing Leg 5, which is taking the fleet from Sydney, Australia, to Qingdao, China. Once in Qingdao, teams will have roughly ten days (depending on when they finish Leg 5) to prepare for their own marathon Leg 6, which begins on March 23 and will take the teams to my hometown of Seattle, Washington, a distance of some 5,528 nautical miles.

While Clipper Race teams will steer well clear of Cape Horn, they have spent plenty of time in the Southern Ocean since departing Liverpool, England late last August. I was personally on the docks in Seattle in April of 2016 to greet the Clipper fleet, which arrived bruised, broken and exhausted after sailing a leg that featured huge wind and seas and that pressed all sailors to their edge.

So, while Mother Nature seems to be holding tough with winter's calendar dates here in North America (especially in New England), sailing's bigger-picture stage offers plenty of online sailing opportunities as we patiently wait for our own races to begin in earnest.

Sail-World wishes all teams the best of luck as they prepare to take on their biggest challenges of their respective races, and the Seattle satellite office is certainly looking forward to welcoming the Clipper Race fleet to the Pacific Northwest in mid-April.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, North American Editor

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