The best Volvo Ocean Race boats run like well-oiled machines, each cog and gear working in tandem with the next.
But when adrenaline begins to run dry, and hunger sets in, it’s important that there is enough fuel to keep things ticking over – and that’s ultimately what food to a modern, round the world sailor is: fuel.
Thousands of miles from a mid-afternoon slump, and oceans away from overindulgence, having the right food, at the right time, is much less of a luxury.
Quite simply, it very quickly becomes a matter of life or death. Survival, or surrender.
Out there, the hunger comes in waves. Wave after wave. Rumbling, rolling and reverberating. Intense, throbbing and turbulent.
Let’s face it – life onboard is no picnic. It’s physically exhausting, mentally draining and super stressful. So sailors need fuel to keep the muscles strong. To keep the mind sharp. Morale high, and weight-loss low.
Sports nutrition is a science now – but it hasn’t always been. Roll back the clock some 40 years to the earliest editions of this race, and sailors could be seen boarding the boats overflowing with boxes of roast beef, baked beans, and beer.
Oh, what our modern day crews would do for just a sniff of that, as they face the unenviable prospect of nine long months of freeze-dried fare.
But according to Dr Stefan Branth, who has been studying the impact of nutrition on the Volvo Ocean Race for nearly 20 years, that approach to nutrition served up severe consequences, with the lack of adequate food intake affecting performance considerably.
Indeed, he noted in a study of the 1993-4 edition that a sustenance shortfall ‘caused a state of negative energy balance during all three legs, as weight loss occurred in almost all crew members’.
Nearly a decade later, in 2001-2, Branth returned to the race – studying sailors for five months, and noted that the long-term metabolic and mental stress they were under had major implications on their health.
With a lack of the right fuel going into their bodies, muscle tissue wasted to fat, and the crews began to display abdominal obesity. On top of that, insulin and heart rates increased – signs that their cells were desperately having to work harder, and break down other substances in order to create energy.
Today, as with any elite athlete at the top of their game, their diets are carefully tailored to suit their specific needs – and monitored by experts, using highly sophisticated systems, to make sure that no vital ingredients are lacking, and keep them in peak physical condition.
And that’s important, because each sailor in the Volvo Ocean Race burns around 6,000 calories per day. That’s nearly three times the amount of you or I.
To put that into perspective, it’s the equivalent of about a dozen rump steaks, 35 jacket potatoes, or 78 hard-boiled eggs.
But it’s not just about stacking up the calories like syrup-laden pancakes. There’s far more to nautical nutrition than that.
It’s all about weight, you see. The weight of the boat, the weight of the body. Pound by pound, kilogram by kilogram.
Teams can cleverly and strategically use the weight of food stocks to their advantage.
Making them lighter by sucking the moisture out and freeze-drying, or stacking them heavy at certain points of the boat for better balance, can save a crew valuable seconds and inches – seconds and inches which could make all the difference when it comes to the endgame.
Freeze-dried dishes such as Spaghetti Bolognese, Chili Con Carne and Chicken Curry have all featured on this marine menu, re-activated using desalinated sea water, of course – and they are backed up with protein shakes and power bars to keep pangs at bay.
It may have spectacular sea views, and an ambience like no other – but you won’t find customers queuing to eat at this restaurant.
Every sailor in the Volvo Ocean Race knows that they will face potentially deadly situations day in, day out – and giving up the home comforts that we take for granted on a daily basis is just another sacrifice they make to the sea. To their dream.
But with science and modern technology, at least we can ensure that the only hunger burning a hole inside them is that insatiable desire to be the best.
– Jonno Turner