ITS A SCORCHING HOT DAY in Rio de Janeiro and I’m crouching down the roasting bowels of il mostro, a Volvo Open 70 monohull bathed in the red and black insignia of its sponsor, Puma. A state-of-the-art racing yacht and one of the world’s fastest, it leaves me a little perplexed as to how, if it’s so damn cutting-edge, it does not have an ultra-modern A/C system to boot?
The answer, I’m soon to discover, is that this is no pansy pleasure boat. Its sole purpose in this world is to race – and win – the Volvo Round-the-World Ocean Race. The contest is a 60,000km slog around the globe from Alicante to St Petersburg – the long way round – in a three-yearly event that’s hailed by sailing enthusiasts as the Everest of the sport. Any considerations for the comfort of its innards or conveniences for its crew come a very distant second to il mostro’s one goal: speed. In the words of Matias Wolff, Puma’s Latin America marketing manager, “It’s not people sipping champagne on deck; this is extreme.”
Extremely hot, for starters. Sweat is running in rivulets down my forehead and back as I’m given a tour of the spartan carbon-fiber interior of the boat that is home to a crew of 11 men for the 9-month period of the race. Lurching around the low-ceilinged space, I’m frankly astounded by the thought that anyone could spend more than five minutes in this murky inferno.
Even just calmly floating on the glassy waters of the Baía de Guanabara, I’m getting some idea of the intensity of the crew’s experience. Inside the stuffy cabin, their beds, upon which they sleep a maximum of four hours at any given time, are nothing but aluminium frames attached to the wall like shelving with stretched elastic nets for comfort. Less than a metre away are the blinking screens, knobs and dials of the navigation station and a nearby two-hob gas stove, while the front cabin, used for stowing sails, contains one tiny cubicle with a curtain for a door that is the ship’s ‘head’, or toilet, as we landlubbers call it.
And that is quite basically it. Maintaining a low overall weight is of the essence in long-haul ocean racing, and every tiny detail of the boat is designed with lightness in mind. Which means that air conditioning units, personal possessions, fresh food, and even a coat of paint to brighten the place up a bit are stoically foregone in favour of greater performance and speed at sea.
il mostro’s Brazillian pad is the Marina da Gloria in Rio de Janeiro which it shares with the six other racing boats competing in the Volvo race, all of whom arrived here a week ago after a gruelling 41-day journey from Qingao in China that turned out to be one of the longest legs in the race’s history.
The setting couldn’t be more perfect: Rio’s dramatic undulating landscape and vast Guanabara Bay are the ideal location for the In-Port races that take place during the stopovers and give the public a taste of what the boats are capable of.
The city is the 6th on a list of 11 exotic stops on the course of the race which have so far included South Africa’s Cape Town, Kochi in India and Singapore. Every place the boats dock the sailors are treated as visiting kings, despite cutting an unlikely royal ensemble. Puma’s crew arrived in Rio on 30th March grizzled, weathered and unshaven, only to face an ecstatic flourish of waiting press, fans and family members. The sail had been arduous to say the least, long and stormy, resulting in a broken boom. The crew hadn’t washed for 7 weeks (a bathroom on board would, after all, be an unnecessary luxury), and had each lost an average of 7kg after getting by on an exclusive diet of freeze-dried sustenance, the rations of which had to be cut a few days before the end of the sail.
I’m handed an example of the on-board nourishment, a 32g packet of rather aptly named ‘Gu’; a sickly-sweet strawberry and banana-flavoured energy paste weighing in at around 100 calories. But man cannot survive on Gu alone – if he did he’d need to eat it in gargantuan quantities; every crew member has to ingest between 6,000 and 7,000 calories per day to compensate for the massive physical strain of ocean racing. Each four-hour shift requires constant trimming of the sails and grinding of the winches as well as the energy-draining effort of bracing one’s body against the force of the movement of the boat, a process that continues even while the crew are asleep.
These guys are hard; hard to their bonkers cores. Reading about their experiences before I actually met them, I imagined a band of 11 titan barbarians approximately resembling the cast of the movie ‘300’. So you can imagine my suprise upon boarding il mostro on the day of the Pro Am races in Rio to find that in addition to being world-class sailors and colossi of endurance, they were also an extremely affable, lovable bunch; courteous and gentlemanly; staunch and robust; practical and down-to-earth. These, I absent-mindedly mused, while drifting into a cheesy, soft-focus reverie inspired by the sight of tanned muscular arms hauling ropes around deck, these are real men.
The sound of a pistol firing brings me back down to earth. It’s five minutes to the beginning of the race and the boats need to get to the starting line. Today’s heat is a friendly – a Pro Am event when the professionals invite amateur sailors aboard to help them navigate the course up and down the Baía de Guanabara from the Rio-Niteroi bridge to the Pao de Azucar and back.
Despite the congenial nature of the day’s racing, the spirit of competition is nonetheless rife, as the boats begin to jostle around the starter line for the best kick-off position. Every second counts in such a short race, and getting off to a good start is an essential part of forging ahead for the rest of the heat.
Will Oxley, the ship’s navigator for the In-Port races, counts down the minutes and seconds to the starter horn. He’s clutching a computerised portable navigator the size of a small laptop and reading the prepared course from its cracked digital screen. The gadget is the 21st century alternative to sitting below deck with maps, charts and a pair of compasses, and is one of an ensemble of on-board technologies that have transformed ocean racing’s erstwhile periods of mysterious absence out at sea to something resembling a spectator sport.
It is the sole charge of one of the eleven crew members on each of the competing boats to be entirely responsible for the team’s media output. Puma’s guy is sailor-cum-media whizzkid Rick Deppe, who spends his days on the high seas photographing and filming his fellow crew members as well as posting blog entries on the team’s website. il mostro can be followed on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, by RSS feeds and podcast, as well as through a rather impressive 3D real-time race simulator on the Volvo Ocean Race website. Top-notch satellite technology means the racers can not only beam their position directly to the watching world, but they in turn can also be reached by email, whatever the weather. Never was this technology put to such good use as when the Puma boat’s bowman Michi Mueller received the first jpegs of his newborn child as the team were hurtling through the waters of the South Pacific, passing somewhere near Fiji. A very rare feast of cigars and rum reportedly ensued.
The ship’s skipper, 47-year-old Rhode Islander Ken Read, is poised at the helm. Graceful and debonair with an impish twinkle in his eye, in appearance at least he’s the antithesis of the ruddy sea-dog. Ken hand-picked his crew, whom he frequently refers to as his ‘children’, from six different countries worldwide, and much like a father, he considers the men’s physical and psychological wellbeing his top priority.
Conditions at sea can get pretty bad after all: I’m regaled by tales of the infamous ‘Fireman’s hose’, the nautical phenomenon of extremely high water pressure created by boats lunging into oncoming waves so fast that instead of sailing over them, they actually tunnel through them. The force of the water hitting the decks at these times is roughly equated with that of a fireman’s hose, and can sweep an unharnessed sailor from his feet and into the water at the drop of a hat. In fact, 32-year-old Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets was killed in similar conditions in 2006 as he was swept off the ABN Amro 2 boat in the Atlantic Ocean, a tragedy that lurks at the back of Ken and all the other skippers’ minds as they work to end the race with their crew entirely intact.
Then there are the psychological pitfalls. Ken talks of the peaks and valleys of moods and morale aboard il mostro during the longer stretches spent at sea: “When you see a high or a low, you have to confront it head-on,” he explains. “If you let bad feelings linger, they’ll spread through the crew like wildfire.” Like a school councillor, the captain has to keep a very watchful eye on the humours of his crew in this extremely compact living space, and ensure a sense of harmony to sail his boat on an emotionally even keel.
From a distance, the Volvo Open 70s appear to glide effortlessly through the water as if carried by an unseen mist, so what I’m not prepared for are the terrifyingly loud creaks and thuds il mostro makes as her sails are raised and ropes are hauled and tightened. The sheer power of the vessel is manifest as the gentle breeze in the bay fills her sheets and the giant black puma bellows outward with a sound equivalent to the crack of a hundred whips. Looking up, I’m dizzy from the sheer height of the mast – 30 metres in total, with a special rigging system to eliminate as much extra weight as possible. To give you some idea, il mostro is approximately 10,000kg lighter than the current America’s Cup-class vessels. However, the most important and impressive feature of this generation of Volvo Open 70 boats is hidden from view and lies below the surface of the water. Spoken of in hushed and reverent tones by sailors worldwide, the canting keel is the key to il mostro’s lightning speed: with the ability to swing to an angle of 40 degrees on the windward side of the boat, it allows the vessel a great deal more stability at high speeds.
The crew are at their stations, apparently oblivious to the harsh beating of the sun on their shoulders. Antiguan hunk Shannon Falcone applies a little white sunscreen on his lips before readying himself at the winch grinder next to muscular Joe Fanelli, also known as Joe-rilla for his larger-than-life stature. The winch grinder’s sleek black surface has been embellished with a few pieces of tape upon which is hand-written the sombre warning ‘DON’T SLEEP’. Ken laughs, “I put that there for Erle, to keep him alert.” Kiwi Erle Williams is the boat’s 51-year-old driver and trimmer. A former winner of the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, he is one of many sailing heavyweights aboard il mostro which can count among its crew a slew of Olympic gold medalists as well as Volvo, Whitbread and America’s Cup winners. Here I know I am in the presence of sailing royalty.
A heightened sense of anticipation is running laps around the boat until finally the gun sounds and we’re off. There’s a general hive of activity on deck, with ropes of different colours and sizes being pulled, spun, tied and tightened. I decide to observe the scene from a safe distance at the stern of the boat from behind the captain, far from the hazards of swinging booms and fast-moving lines.
Ken calls out the command to jibe and turns the boat’s angle so quickly that the foresail switches sides with vehement thunder and the boom swings across the deck, narrowly missing the tops of the quick-witted sailors’ heads by about 5cm. Almost ripping off the satellite hub in my enthusiasm to hang the hell on, I can only begin to imagine the potential of the steed when really put to the test in ocean conditions.
The next jibe is even more hair-raising: bowman Jerry Kirby calls me from my comfort zone at the back and directs me to the bows, as that’s where we need the weight in order to move faster through the water. Picking my way through the tapestry of coiled lines and folded sails on deck, I make it to the front just in time for Ken’s next jibe call. The boat tilts violently from its right side to its left as I throw myself to the ground in a most un-sailorlike way, and feel the ferocious woosh of the foresail whip over me as it changes sides. I rise shakily from the beating seconds later only to find the rest of the crew calm as Hindu cows, strapping ropes into place and squinting silently at the horizon.
For sailors accustomed to 12-metre ocean waves, today’s calm waters at the Baía de Guanabara are a picnic. But for this landlubber, with her hulking camera and notebook, they are enough to induce mild sensations of abject fear followed by exhilerating surges of euphoria produced by the skill and minute accuracy involved in sailing such a gargantuan vessel.
While zig-zagging our way across the bay, we casually pass the other boats with such butt-clenching closeness as to make it a marvel that these racers don’t collide with eachother the whole time. At one point, Ericsson 3 is cutting a perpendicular path across our course and as we both lunge forward towards what seems like an inevitable common crash site, we appear to be engaged in some nautical game of chicken. My visual-spatial capacities are screaming that we will at best clip them at the stern, at worst finish our lives in a disaster of jagged carbon fiber and wrangled sails. Not even the lilting keels can save us now.
Meanwhile, Jerry Kirby calmly surveys the same scene from the bowsprit, and with seconds to spare calls to Ken. “It’s OK,” he shouts, “we’ll make it.” Containing my inner mix of incredulousness and fear with a monk’s self-possessedness, I can only watch as Ericsson 3 comes surging towards us, whooshing ahead of our bow with a magnificent fluster of sails, and we in turn cross its path within centimetres of its stern, missing the several-million-dollar baby by a very well calculated hair’s breadth. Just as I was mentally reviewing the smallprint of my health insurance.
il mostro rounds the marker at the end of the course and performs a swift 180º turn to retrace its criss-cross course back down the bay. Around an hour later, we sail over the finish line and come in fourth. If the result is a disappointment for Ken and the crew, they don’t show it: their performance in the overall race so far has been outstanding. It’s Puma’s first time to enter a boat in the Volvo Ocean Race, an undertaking that is costing the company somewhere in the region of $35 million Euros in equipment, logistics and marketing, and it seems to be paying off.
When the brand initially approached Ken to skipper the boat, the first question they asked was “can you win this race?” Ken jokingly recounts that he lied and said yes, and yet his superb team pick and unfailing mastership of the boat have landed Puma overall second place in the race so far, with a fighting chance of coming in first when the boats finish their final leg into St Petersburg in June.
But, as they tell you at primary school, it’s not the winning that counts. To even finish the race is a undeniable achievement, and it’s clear on the faces of the guys in the Puma team that despite the tough conditions, extreme endurance and absence from their families, they are living their lives’ dreams. Ken got his first taste of the round-the-world race in 2006, and has been hooked ever since. He recalls: “We hit a terrible storm in the Atlantic, and I thought to myself, ‘Is there any normal sailing in this race?’”
Normal? Firemen’s hoses and 12-metre waves? A broken boom and a cut-ration diet of Gu? 9 months at sea in storms, winds and blazing sun? Normal? Apparently not, Cap’n.