The Volvo Ocean Race, one of the toughest sailing races on the planet, has come to a thrilling conclusion.
The DongFeng Race Team sailed to victory on Sunday evening, finishing the around-the-world race just 16 minutes ahead of the pack.
It was the closest the race has ever been, and also the first time that a team that included women took the trophy.
Held every three years, the nine-month, 40,000-mile race is a gruelling test of will and ability for some of the world’s best sailors. Along the way, the teams visit six continents, cross the equator, and experience temperatures ranging from below freezing to burning hot – all with as little gear as possible to keep weight down on the boats.
The race has been called the ‘Everest of sailing’ because of the difficult conditions teams face.
But the payoff is worth it, the competitors say.
“When you think about that sense of achievement when you get to another country, it’s incredible,” Brian Carlin, an onboard reporter that Volvo Ocean Race pays to sail with the competitors, told Business Insider. “It’s a pretty unique event and certainly very, very unique experience.”
The winner of the race is determined by a points system. Teams earn points by pulling into ports first, second, or third at the end of each of the race’s 11 legs. Double points get awarded for the most difficult legs, and the team with the fastest overall time receives bonus points.In the end, the group with the highest overall total wins the trophy.
Here’s what it’s like to sail thousands of miles through the open ocean with the fleet.
Only the toughest, most experienced sailors are capable of participating in the race. On the longest legs, competitors spend close to a month at sea, running the boat 24 hours a day.
The boats are designed for speed — not comfort — so it can be a wet, bumpy ride when the weather isn’t cooperating. Each boat is 65 feet long and built to withstand punishing ocean conditions.
“It’s an experience,” Carlin said. “It can be pretty bleak and if you’re on deck, you’re getting hosed by waves and the salt water gets into your skin and you get calluses and you get rashes and it’s… Yeah, it’s actually not that appealing when you think about it.”
This year’s race started in Alicante, Spain in October 2017.
The fleet completes the journey in 11 parts. The sailors just completed the final leg, finishing the race in The Hague.
The teams experienced favourable sailing conditions during the Atlantic crossing – one of the toughest legs – hitting speeds of over 35 miles per hour and smashing records for distance sailed in 24 hours.
If you want to see what it’s like to sail at almost 40 miles per hour in the middle of the ocean, check out this video:
Team DongFeng clinched the victory, finishing just 17 minutes ahead of the team’s chief rival, the Spain-based Team MAPFRE.
It was the closest finish ever in the Volvo Ocean Race, and team DongFeng also made history as the first team with women to lift the trophy.
The 2017-2018 edition of the race was the first time it required women to be included on each of the sailing teams.
The event is highly competitive. The boats are often just minutes apart from each other at all times as they travel over 15,000 miles and spend weeks at sea.
The boats can reach speeds of up to 32 knots, or over 35 miles per hour, in prime sailing conditions. The vessels can also “surf” down large waves, breaking 30 knots.
The ships can cover around 500 nautical miles in 24 hours in good sailing conditions if the crew is “sending it,” Carlin said.
On each boat, the 10 members of the crew have specific job functions.
The navigator’s job is to set the route to maximise optimal weather and wind conditions.
But the skipper, or captain, always makes the final decision, Carlin said.
An onboard reporter like Carlin is assigned to each boat to document the trip for the Volvo Ocean Race organisation. They live and sleep with the crew but aren’t allowed to help sail in any way.
The reporters train their pens and cameras on the sailors at all times — even when the team is grumpy and exhausted, Carlin said.
Leg 7 of the race requires the sailors to round Chile’s infamous Cape Horn, a peninsula that has proven to be a graveyard for ships for hundreds of years. That’s where teams experience some of the most vicious weather.
“It’s a pressure cooker environment where every sail change, every decision, every little movement on the boat counts for winning or losing,” Carlin said.
But that’s all part of the challenge. Many sailors see the race as a test of will between them and sea.
Life on board the ship isn’t easy. The sailors bring minimal clothing — just what they need to stay warm in cold and wet conditions. All the food they eat is pre-packed and freeze-dried.
There’s nothing resembling bedrooms or even traditional beds on the ships.
The sailors usually only sleep for 3 or 4 hours between shifts, Carlin said.
“I suppose the best way to describe it is sitting in a one-bedroom apartment with 10 people, a bucket for a toilet, your freeze-dried meal comes out of a bag, and then you go to sea for three weeks,” Carlin said. He added that most people just go to the bathroom off the back of the boat.
“It’s either freezing cold or super hot,” Carlin added. “There’s no windows you can open, the smells get pretty funky, and you’re always tired, and you haven’t slept that much.”
In the area near the equator, there’s not much wind, so the sailors get a lot of downtime to rest and do repairs on the ship. They refer to it “the doldrums.”
With little wind in that area, the boats can usually only travel around 60 miles in a day, a pace Carlin said can feel “pretty painful.”
While life during the race is mostly gruelling, the sailors still find time to have fun.
One of the rituals that sailors practice when they cross the equator is a sacrifice to King Neptune, the god of the sea. Teams’ approaches differ, but the ceremony usually involves the skipper dressing up as Neptune and covering a rookie sailor — or other team member — in food, paint, or something else gross.
As hard-core sailors, each competitor lives for the race’s sublime moments on the open ocean.
But the Volvo Ocean race is a team sport. “You cannot be an individual on these teams,” Carlin said. “You’re not gonna survive, you won’t be accepted.”
“This is about being a team and working together and getting the best out of it,” Carlin said.
The next Volvo Ocean Race will be held in 2020 and 2021.
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