Volvo Ocean Race: A $20 Million Test Of Sailing Endurance

At some point next year, Charlie Enright will be seriously rethinking his mission in life. He’ll be at the helm of a 65-foot carbon-fiber sailboat hurtling through the violent seas between Antarctica and Cape Horn, instinctively ducking his head as waves fly toward his face with the strength of a fire hose. At 40 knots, or close to 50 m.p.h., there’ll be no room for error as the boat charges forward, hour after hour.

“In parts of the Southern Ocean we’ll be doing everything we can to slow these things down,” said Enright, skipper of the 9-man crew sailing Team Alvemedica around the world in the latest edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.

The Volvo has long been a dream for Enright, 29, a champion sailor at Brown University who had a role in Roy Disney’s 2008 documentary “Morning Light.” He also happens to be the grandson of famed boat builder Clint Pearson, who introduced thousands of people to sailing in the 1960s and 1970s with then-newfangled fiberglass yachts. Along with fellow Brown alumnus Mark Towill, 25, Enright put together a crew and got funding from a Turkish medical-device manufacturer to mount a challenge in the race that Alvimedica Chief Cem Bozkurt calls “the Everest of sports.”

“In 2011 we decided this was an idea we wanted to commit to making a reality, and now here we are with a boat and a team,” Enright told me on the docks in Newport, shortly before he set off on a shakedown cruise across the Atlantic.

Charlie Enright at the helm of Team Alvimedica (Photo credit: Sam Greenfield/Team Alvimedica)

On October 11, the fleet of identical 65-foot ocean racers will set off from Alicante, Spain on the first leg of the 40,000-mile race, which has been held every three years since 1973. For Enright and his young crew, it’s a chance to prove themselves in one of the toughest endurance contests in sailing. For Alvimedica, it’s an opportunity to raise the worldwide profile of its growing business selling drug-coated stents, catheters and other cardiac devices.

The boats will race from  Alicante to Cape Town and from there to Abu Dhabi; Sanya, China; Aukland, New Zealand and around Cape Horn to Brazil and Newport before finishing in Gothenburg, Sweden. The race is expected to take 10 months and will cost the average team about $20 million, including the cost of shore crews who will move a pair of shipping containers full of supplies in leapfrog fashion in front of the boats.

“The boats actually move faster than the containers,” Enright explained.

To drive down costs from previous years, the 65-foot, carbon-fiber boats are all the same – “down to the toothbrush and sunglass holders” Enright said – so teams have few opportunities to compete by spending more money on better technology.

The dart-shaped boats have broad, flat surfaces underwater so they can quickly rise to the surface and plane. The cabin tops have been redesigned to throw waves up and over the helmsmen standing on raised platforms near the stern of the boat, although Enright says the water now tends to hit right about forehead level.

Traditional sailboats have a solid keel with lead weight to hold them upright. Volvo 65s have canting keels, hinged arms with a lead bulb that can be swung 40 degrees from side to side to provide more stability at the cost of a complex system of hydraulic rams to move the keel. After years of tinkering, the hydraulic rams and swing joints  appear to be durable enough to survive a circumnavigation of the globe.

Accommodations are sparse; sailors sleep in narrow berths when they can, eat prepared meals, and the head, or toilet, is a simple carbon-fiber bowl just ahead of the mast with a handheld spray nozzle to flush it.

Teams share a single repair crew to cut down on costs and are limited in the number of sails they can buy. Each team must make it around the world using a single mainsail, a huge, computer-shaped slab of synthetic  fabric covering 1,700 square feet, or the floor area of a modest suburban home.

Since the equipment’s the same and the crew members are evenly matched in muscle power and endurance, one of the key differentiators will be navigation. The oldest crew member on Team Alvimedica is Will Oxley, 49, an Australian marine scientist who’s competed in four round-the-world races including guiding Camper to a second-place finish in the last Volvo Ocean Race in 2011-12.

Oxley will spend most of his time in the navigator’s station belowdecks, a dark space directly beneath the cockpit equipped with laptops and communications gear streaming in constantly updated weather forecasts he will use to chart the best course to make it to the next port.

(Photo credit: Dan Forster/Team Alvimedica)

Ocean navigation is a lot like financial management. Navigators rely on weather forecasts much like investment managers rely on earnings projections. In both cases those forecasts start out highly inaccurate and get more precise as they move closer to real time. Within a few hours, they’re spot-on, but by then it’s too late for a boat moving at 20 knots to exploit a fast-moving weather system 200 miles away. So much like a commodities trader or a bond manager, Oxley must develop a point of view long in advance about where the best winds will lie, then position the boat to take advantage of them as they develop.

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