The Volvo Ocean Race has been called the ‘last great adventure’ and with the world getting smaller every day in many ways it is. Even with today’s modern conveniences, it’s still a test of human will that spans 9 months and nearly 40,000 nautical miles.
It’s compelling in a way few other races are as a marathon chess game on the water, with larger than life sailors, sexy fast boats, exotic destinations and yes, danger.
The tagline for the race is ‘life at the extreme’ and there is a strong element of living on the edge. There have been five fatalities in the history of the 41-year-old race.
So who are these extreme sailors? Frenchman Eric Peron of Dongfeng Race Team, winner of Leg 6 to Newport, was one to push the limits from an early age. Enrolled in sailing classes at 8 years old, he was initially frightened of the waves, but overcame the fear to go on to a successful inshore sailing career including Olympic trials.
A reoccurring childhood dream followed him into adulthood, it featured competing in two iconic offshore races, the Volvo Ocean and Vendee Globe. Eric threw himself into offshore racing and caught the attention of Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier.
At age 34 he has achieved one of his two big dreams, racing in the VOR. His proudest moments to date are winning the Leg 6 to Newport and Leg 3 to Sanya. The China arrival was particularly sweet for the French-Chinese team. Dongfeng has the added responsibility of training the first generation of Chinese off shore sailors.
So what’s next for Eric after the VOR? Two things, achieving his second big dream, a Vendee Globe challenge, and also trying a new extreme sport. This time he’ll be taking to the air with his beautiful BASE jumping girlfriend Svetlana. BASE jumping is significantly more dangerous than skydiving, its parachuting or wingsuit flying from a fixed structure or cliff.
These sailors impart an energy that is contagious. The Volvo Ocean Race Village is teaming with it. There is a feeling of taking part of something very special while watching the races and touring the many tents and exhibits.
Fans from all over the world visit and a wonderful mosaic of accents greets you. There were more than 130,000 visitors to the Volvo Ocean Race Village during the two week stopover in Newport.
I was happy to see the West Coast represented by Justin Kromelow, skipper of San Francisco’s iconic J/70 Loose Lucy. He planned a guys weekend with his 14-year-old son Kirby. “I actually had an ulterior motive, “ he said. “I’m on a secret mission to get Kirby excited about sailing again,” he said.
It was a success, the passionate sailors and sleek Volvo 65s worked their magic. Kirby said, “After seeing this I think I want to get back into sailing.”
The VOR also offered an opportunity to meet one of my all-time sailing heroes, Ken Read, of Stars and Stripes, Ericsson Racing and more recently Puma Ocean Racing fame. He’s also the president of North Sails. I asked if he missed his VOR days.
“I’m a fan, though I don’t miss the day-to-day grind of this race,” he said. “I’m working on some great projects now [Comanche one exciting example] and I’m content to watch them battle the Southern Ocean from the comfort of home, glass of wine in hand.”
Ken makes an excellent point. With the race’s stellar onboard reporting, it’s almost like being there – but without the extreme cold, heat, freeze-dried food… It offers a peek into their adventure without the discomfort. I’m particularly a fan of the online coverage the In-Port and Leg Start Races, it gives you a front row seat.
But for those that can experience a leg start first hand, it is rather extraordinary. In Newport, more than 15,000 people came out to cheer the racers. Many of the several hundred spectator boats gave chase as the competitors departed.
It was a special day, there was electricity in the air… First as the racers bid farewell to dear ones, watching some of the finest sailors match wits and then when an armada of boats gave chase out to sea.
In that moment, wind whipping our faces as we chased the fleet back into their life in the extreme, we too shared in their great adventure.