UK Stopover Unveils Secrets of Volvo Ocean Race

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Massive racing sailboats sail from Spain for the international, annual Volvo Ocean Race.

As we walk down the pier at Gosport, one of England’s less salubrious coastal ports, we face the Azzam, a towering racing boat, stretching 70 feet, with sails like skyscrapers in a color of pirate’s black.

The boat, made entirely of carbon fibre (except the sails), is crucial to the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team’s chance for a win in the Volvo Ocean Race, one of the toughest around the world competitions, held every three years.

The race begins next October in Spain and finishes nine months later in Sweden. But, Azzam’s captain, Olympic medallist Ian Walker, is already auditioning the last two members of his team, and a small group of us get to come along for the ride.

The Volvo is a gruelling sailing race with a nine-leg journey. Each entry has a team of 11 professional crew who spend day and night racing in four-hour shifts. Two crew members are trained as medics, and a broadcaster is on-board to capture and report the team’s progress.

If you’re thinking a nine-month, round the world trip on a 70’ sailboat sounds luxurious, think again. The lighter the boat, the faster it goes, so conditions below deck are a bit like a third-world prison – netted sleepers, like narrow hammocks are bunk-bed style. I’m told the top bunk gets the drip of condensation, but the bottom bunk gets the drip of sweat from the top bunkmate. And this is no place for a claustrophobic.

The “bathroom” is a wraparound curtain with a zip, and a hole in the floor. In lieu of showers, the team allot three wipes per day for each crew member, no change of clothes I didn’t want to ask about underwear. And the food? Forget about it. The crew purify water to make their freeze-dried fare just about edible. Stopovers are a few weeks to a month, allowing crews to reunite with their families, and, more importantly, maintain their vessels, not to mention fatten up on decent food. Host cities create Olympic village style compounds to welcome crews and tourists.

azzamAbu Dhabi will host next year’s Christmas and New Year’s stopover when teams arrive from Brazil, and begin preparations for the leg to China. Abu Dhabi’s tourism board are already making big plans.

A bounty of water sports are will be on offer – from sailing and yachting to kayaking, diving and snorkelling, and the more adventurous, like flyboarding, sort of like snowboarding on water, propelled by jet-ski’s.

Corporate and tourist hospitality packages are being built around Destination Village, which will open from morning until late at night, with major headliners (Coldplay played last time), sailing festivals, water sport and sailing clinics, dragon boat races, and best of all, racing simulators which replicate the onboard experience of a Volvo Open 70 yacht at speed.