Ripped sails, enormous waves, exploding masts, and sailors gone overboard are among the reasons the Volvo Ocean Race has been called the Everest of the sea.
Those challenges have filled the 2017-18 version of the sailboat race around the world – which checked into Newport, R.I., last week – with drama, adventure, and tragedy.
Even the race’s arrival in Newport had a compelling storyline. Team MAPFRE, the overall race leader, rode a light breeze to squeak past three other boats just 500 yards from the finish off Fort Adams to be the first boat to finish in Newport. This came after Team MAPFRE’s main sail ripped in half in the Southern Ocean in March.
“It’s my first Volvo Ocean Race and as it turns out it’s the roughest in years,’’ said Blair Tuke, an Olympic gold medalist and member of the Spanish team. “We had issues with mast track pulling away from the mast and this created a small hole in the sail, and with the big winds off of Cape Horn, the entire sail shredded in two.’’
Skipper Charlie Enright of the American team Vestas 11th Hour Racing said the race, which began in October, has been quite an ordeal.
“This race has been brutal. [There has been] average wind speeds of over 40 knots with gusts as high as 60 m.p.h., two Southern Ocean crossings, rounded Cape Horn, crossed the Equator four times, raced two legs over 5,000 miles each, sailed through the Bermuda Triangle, and navigated the biggest waves I’ve ever seen,’’ Enright said.
Newport is the first leg Enright’s team completed since Leg 3 because Vestas sustained massive boat damage during the race. On Leg 4 from Australia to China, as they entered the waters off of Hong Kong, one of the busiest ports in the world and known to be cluttered with fishing vessels and shipping containers, Vestas was within 30 miles of the finish when it collided with a fishing vessel at night. The fishing boat sank and one fisherman died.
On Leg 6, racing from Australia to Brazil across the Southern Ocean, Vestas’s mast exploded and they had to seek shelter in the Falkland Islands.
“It’s been a very challenging race for us and you can never foresee what nature will throw at you,’’ Enright said. “Nature is relentless, we are racing in a wild and untamed place and even with all of the technology and resources we have tragedy and accidents still happen.’’
The Chinese team of Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag has also had its share of difficulty. In January, crewmember Alex Gough fell overboard and his dramatic rescued was captured on video.
In late March, 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn, Scallywag was sailing in 35-40 knots of breeze with 15-foot waves when team member John Fisher was washed overboard. Rescue efforts continued for more than eight hours, but conditions made it impossible to find him.
Fisher was a lifelong sailor and deeply respected, and his loss has been devastating to his family, team members, and Volvo Ocean Race organizers.
“Our playground is a very dangerous place,’’ said Emily Nagel of team AkzoNobel. “John was a mentor to me and many others. He had a calming nature and was always willing to share his knowledge. It’s hard to think about his loss.’’
Nagel is in her early 20s and is the youngest women in the competition. She’s also a newcomer to ocean sailing.
“I certainly had no idea what it would be like to be sailing such remote areas of the globe. We have had hail, snow, and seas so rough its impossible to describe,’’ Nagel said. “At times all you can do is hold on and hope for the best. Sometimes think I never want to be at sea again, but a few days on land and I’m like let’s go, I want more.’’
Enright, who is from Rhode Island, has his team in fifth place. Vestas received no points – the race uses a scoring system based on points awarded during each leg – for the portions of the race it missed because it needed repairs.
Racing in Newport starts on Saturday with an in-port race, and on Sunday at the boats head out for a trans-Atlantic crossing to Cardiff, Wales that will take until around June 4.
A week later, the fleet is expected to arrive in Gothenburg, Sweden, and then finish in The Hague in the Netherlands around June 24.
“You can’t loose sight of what this race is about. It’s a nine-month grueling grind around the world through desolate and violent seas,’’ Enright said. “The Celtics may be in the NBA playoffs, but the biggest international sporting event in New England is here in Newport at the Volvo Ocean Race.’’
Mapfre, 53 points
Team Brunel, 42
Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, 27
Turn the Tide on Plastic, 22