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Volvo Ocean Race 2014: Once in A Lifetime

Legend has it, that it all started over a beer in a Portsmouth pub; 40 years later, it is still all about gale-force winds, mountainous seas and sleep deprivation. In 1969 Robin Knox-Johnston won The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and history was born on two fronts. He had not only become the first man to complete a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the planet, but he had also put an idea in the minds of two men that would ultimately change the face of offshore yachting. Guy Pearce and Anthony Churchill were fascinated by Knox-Johnston’s feat, but, more pertinently, they were convinced the idea of a crewed race following the old square-rigger routes around the world had great potential. Nothing of its kind existed at the time and skippers were drawn in by the promise of such an adventure.

Finding a sponsor and an organising club proved difficult until Churchill and Pearce took their plan to the Royal Naval Sailing Association, who they wanted to run the race. Something clicked and, so the story goes, in 1971 in a smoky pub in Portsmouth Colonel Bill Whitbread, of the brewing family, and Admiral Otto Steiner, of the Royal Naval Sailing Association, met to enjoy a beer and discuss the proposal. The first race would be held in 1973. The adventure came from the challenge of taking on the oceans and the elements at their most unpredictable and surviving enormous journeys to far-flung places. Tragically, three sailors were lost in that first race and a further two sailors died at sea in the nine editions that followed. But the lessons learned have been part of the continuing evolution of the sport. In the four decades since Pearce and Churchill’s brainwave, there has been a quantum leap in development. Today the yachts are built from the materials that are used in space shuttles and the speeds quantify the improvement: in 1973, Eric Tabarly’s Pen Duick VI did the fastest 24-hour run, clocking up 305 miles; in 2008, Torben Grael’s Ericsson 4 managed 596.6 miles. The most expensive, advanced technologies have gone into the transformation, leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of greater speeds. And yet the lifestyles of the crews could not be more primitive. While some sailors dispute the often told tales of sawn-off, weight-saving, shared toothbrushes, the attention that goes into making a light boat has bordered on obsession. One race legend of the 1997-98 event told a story of the winning skipper yelling at his crew because three pairs of sunglasses had been placed on the leeward side of the boat. The cabins, wine, meat, cooks and fresh water have long since gone, replaced by shared bunks, desalinated water, GPS, rehydrated powder food and protein bars. The crews are world and Olympic champions and only the most talented youngsters get a foot in the door.

Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 begins on the 4th of October 2014, from Alicante, Spain

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