The race to the horizon
The history of the Volvo Ocean Race
Today, images of the Volvo Ocean Race depict streamlined, state-of-the-art boats cutting through the waves in a death-defying race against time. But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, for sailors who took part in the first incarnation of the race, setting foot onboard the modern boats of today would be like setting foot on an alien planet.
So how did the Volvo Ocean Race evolve from its humble and somewhat amateurish beginnings to become the most extreme off-shore sailing event in the world? To find out, let’s hoist the mainsail and travel back to 1869.
Gauloises 3 racing in the Whitbread Round the World Race 1981.
The route to adventure
The birth of what was to become the Volvo Ocean Race can be traced back to two important events: the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. These two miracles of modern construction represent two of the greatest maritime shortcuts in history. Not only did they make trade routes shorter and more accessible for the huge, square-rigged ships of the time, they also made previously perilous journeys less dangerous.
Sailors would no longer have to navigate their way across the unforgiving waters of the Southern Ocean to deliver their cargo between Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. But not everyone was looking for accessibility and ease; some sailors were still fully focused on finding adventure. One of these men was the English sailor, Sir William Robert Patrick “Robin” Knox-Johnston.
A great ambition
In 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and became the first man to complete a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Exhilarated by his adventure he convinced two sailing journalists, Guy Pearce and Anthony Churchill, of the potential of a round-the-world crewed race following the routes taken by the old square-rigged ships.
Together, they hatched a plan that would soon see sailors return to the same challenging waters and routes used before the construction of the Suez and Panama shortcuts – but this time, they would return in the name of sport.
Jerry Djkstra, navigator and watch leader on Cornelis van Rietschoten’s Flyer’ when she won the 1977/8 Whitbread Round the World Race.
The race is born
A sailor’s life has always attracted those with a sense of adventure, so finding people willing to accept the challenge was the easy part. Finding a sponsor, however, proved a little more difficult. It wasn’t until Pearce and Churchill approached the Royal Naval Sailing Association in 1971 that their plan began to come together.
According to legend, Otto Steiner of the Royal Sailing Naval Association met with Colonel Bill Whitbread – whose family brewing business would become the first sponsor of the race – to discuss the proposal over a drink in a pub in Portsmouth. And it was in these humble surroundings that the first incarnation of the Volvo Ocean Race was born.
The first Volvo Ocean Race, or Whitbread Round the World Ocean Race as it was then known, set off from Portsmouth on September 8th 1973. 17 private boats of varying shapes and sizes from seven different countries took part in the competition that lasted seven months and covered 43,500 kilometres over four legs. The race began by heading for Cape Town in South Africa before travelling to Sydney, stopping off in Rio de Janeiro and then starting the long journey back to Portsmouth.
It’s probably fair to say the majority of sailors taking part in the 1973 race would not really have known what was waiting for them out on the oceans. And photos from the time certainly paint a very different picture to the ruthless professionalism and meticulous preparation we associate with the race today. Shirtless men sit on deck strumming guitars and playing cards, while others smoke pipes and chat amiably. It looks more like the start of a jovial summer cruise than a serious nautical challenge.
A home from home on the waves
For teams competing in the Volvo Ocean Race today, sacrificing comfort for the sake of success is simply part of the job. But in 1973, the emphasis was very much on creating a home from home. It was not uncommon to hear tales of fine wines, fridges stacked with fresh meat and full-time cooks being an essential part of the crew.
But despite the seemingly amateur approach and focus on frivolous home comforts, the race was driven by an admirable pioneering spirit and fearless sense of adventure. This was a chance to overcome the unpredictability of the elements, survive journeys to far-off destinations and tame treacherous waters. And these pioneers grabbed it with both hands.
To win and be the best
Now, 45 years on and with huge leaps in technology, the Corinthian spirit of the early races has been replaced by a ruthless professionalism and a steely determination to win. The Volvo Ocean 65 boats currently used are more like Formula One racing cars than the original yachts that set sail from Portsmouth all those years ago.
The separate cabins, fine wine, fresh meat, on-board cooks and fresh water are now a thing of the past. They have been replaced by shared bunks, GPS systems, desalinated water, rehydrated powder food and protein bars. The crews consist of World and Olympic champions, while the yachts sponsored for millions by world-famous brands have replaced private entries.
Thanks to modern technology, a global audience can now enjoy unprecedented access to the crews during the race in the form of live Twitter and Facebook updates, on-board video link-ups and up-to-the minute reports filed by the crews’ very own embedded reporters who witness the action first-hand. Making a full-time reporter a fully-fledged member of each team allows spectators to experience what could only be imagined through a sailor’s personal account a few years earlier.
But despite all the advances in technology and changes to the route, even sailing purists cannot deny the Volvo Ocean Race remains the toughest endurance event in sport. These are the finest yachts available, driven to extremes by the finest crews, all bound by a single goal – to win and be the best.