Battling Nature in the World’s Longest Race

Mj 618_348_the worlds longest race
Photograph by Brian Carlin

Since October, seven elite sailing teams have been competing in the longest — and quite possibly toughest — professional sporting competition, the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race. Starting in Spain and finishing in Sweden this June, the race will cover 46,000 miles of open ocean. Between stops in 11 ports, including Cape Town, Abu Dhabi, and Auckland, racers spend up to 25 days at sea, tacking and jibing every knot of speed out of their $5 million, 65-foot sloops. “There’s a lot of focus on pushing the boat as fast as you can, 24 hours a day,” says Chris Nicholson, the skipper of Denmark’s Team Vestas Wind. “It’s all manual labor.” The daily toil of working four-hour shifts on deck, while eating mostly freeze-dried food and making do with a single change of clothes (and no showers), is minor compared to the nearly constant physical risks. Five sailors have died since the first race was held in 1973; the most recent death came in 2005, when a 15-foot wave swept 32-year-old Hans Horrevoets of the Netherlands overboard in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In November, Team Vestas Wind ran aground on a coral reef 230 miles off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. “There was no warning,” says Nicholson. “It was like running into a glass door.” He and his crew spent “an awfully long night getting hit by waves” before they safely abandoned ship near dawn. “This racing is the toughest thing I’ve seen in sport,” says Nicholson. “Everyone gets worn down. And it’s a long race.”

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