Reality hits the Volvo Ocean Race fleet

What a difference a day makes.

Just yesterday, this race was all about searching for the big breeze – today, it’s all about surviving in it.

If the boats had been tempted to say a little prayer to the weather gods as they stumbled and slowed in the light winds of the Gibraltar Strait , then they might want to be careful what they wish for in future.

Storms and rain battered and bruised the hulls of the boats, soaking skin and stinging eyes – and the sailors were left breathless and weary after a long night of wrestling the waves.

“You know you’re in trouble when you see all red on the charts,” says Team Vestas Wind tired navigator Wouter nervously, bleary eyes blinking and squinting in the warm, emergency glow of his computer screen.

And it was all red. Red enough to highlight his faded, fatigued face and his lips, giving extra weight and emphasis to his words. Alongside his skipper Chris Nicholson, he has hardly slept a wink. Well, there’s no time to rest.

As the teams escaped the Med and spilled into the Atlantic Ocean, they were given an instant, sharp reminder of the perils of offshore life.

“What’s pretty amazing is that we’ve seen everything today – dead calm, a water spout, a steady breeze, and a full on frontal system,” Team SCA’s Libby Greenhalgh says.

Just 72 hours into Leg 1, and the teams have already been through the ringer. Offshore, the weather can change at the drop of a hat – or should that be the blow of a hat.

After all, the fleet was ravaged and wrecked by whistling and wicked winds of over 30 knots, rain relentlessly knocking at the door, and jagged seas chopping and changing.

Libby’s team mate, OBR Corinna, admits that life onboard is twice as difficult now. “New bruises and aches show up, our stomachs aren’t 100%, and we’re all somewhat exhausted.”

Maybe the extreme conditions were a not-so-subtle nudge from nature. A show of who’s boss.

One thing’s for sure, if the teams were beginning to get comfortable, complacent, or having delusions of power, that has just been knocked right out of them.

Reality hits – and it hits hard. Time and time again, whacking and kicking and pummeling the boat.

Spanish boat MAPFRE “didn’t sleep for the third consecutive day”, writes OBR Francisco, and his inability to produce a meal due to the restless weather has seen the crew existing solely on cereal and protein bars.
But nevertheless, enthusiasm isn’t dampened. In truth, it's probably the only thing that isn't.

All of the sailors have embraced the conditions, as the teams tack south towards the Canaries. This is what they’re here to do.

“We just had a bit of bad wind swell,” says Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker, all business as usual, without taking his eyes off the competition for a second. “But we’ve closed 0.4 miles on Vestas.”

It sounds almost easy, but don't let his calmness fool you. Aussie bowman Luke Parkinson winces and examines his hand at the other end of the boat, he can certainly feel the full extent of his teams' efforts.

Meanwhile, the crystal waves continue to crash over the carbon-fibre deck of Dongfeng – drenching the crew who are slipping and sliding over a sail change.

Frenchman Eric Peron takes shelter, every hair on his head soaked. “It’s really tough,” he says, out of breath and taking in the carnage around him. Then, a knowing smile. “Life at the extreme, I guess.”

And just across the water, Team Alvimedica’s Dave Swete, whose Team Sanya boat didn’t even make it this far in Leg 1 of the last edition, chuckles with disbelief as he checks the wind speed. “35 knots upwind? Yep. Feels like a Volvo to me!”

– Jonno Turner/VOR Media

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