Logistically, it’s a rat race

It takes a village, literally, and lots of Volvo time and money to get Volvo Ocean Race crews around the world
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The Volvo Ocean Race boats pass under the Newport Bridge at the start of Leg 7, bound for Lisbon, Portugal.

The Volvo Ocean Race boats pass under the Newport Bridge at the start of Leg 7, bound for Lisbon, Portugal.

Sure, you’ve got some marketing challenges. But how about picking up and moving your shop to the middle of the Indian Ocean? That’s essentially the challenge Volvo Group faces when it runs its Volvo Ocean Race around the world every three years.

Volvo Group service manager Magnus Gedda is the man who travels to each port to service the sailboats and their power systems, and he can confirm that the experience is all-encompassing.

The cameras that provide viewers with the full experience from their living rooms not only are operated by a journalist embedded aboard each competing boat, but they also can be maneuvered by a team of engineers and maintenance workers in “The Boatyard,” which is part of the pop-up Race Village — virtually a small city that travels from port to port.

They are checking to make sure no one does anything less than virtuous aboard the boats to decrease weight by the slightest amount or to conserve power, Gedda says. The sailors “do everything you can imagine to make the boat light,” he told reporters aboard Team Brunel’s boat during a tourstop on May 16 in Newport, R.I., as a team member looked on to be sure nothing was tampered with.

The cameras also function as safety tools. When Team Vestas Wind struck a reef at 19 knots, race officials knew everyone survived because of the live feed. “When Dongfeng’s mast broke, we needed to bring the boat to harbor,” Gedda says. “We watch the boats 24/7.”

On-board reporting

Gedda gave media representatives a tour of Team Brunel’s boat during the Newport stop. (Volvo Penta sponsored Trade Only’s participation.) It’s striking how Spartan the boats are. But in a place where lights are considered too heavy to carry, they have equipment to shoot and send footage around the globe. A journalist is embedded on each team’s boat to push out content — video, photos and everything else — to the world.

The footage is thrilling, to say the least. And it’s getting even better. When the race returns in three years, viewers will see 360-degree video that will give people in their homes a glimpse of what everything is like from the sailors’ perspective in what’s considered one of the world’s most grueling sailboat races, said Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad during the Newport stopover. “There’s a lot of new technology, and it will do more for us than any other sport,” Frostad says. “The challenge is to bring the content to you.”

YouTube recently announced a streaming video service that lets viewers look in any direction, not just where the camera is pointing. “You can point your phone in any direction and see what the sailors are seeing during the race,” Frostad says. “You can see the wave coming up and crashing over you. In no other sport can you do what you will be able to do with this sport. You will see the people around you. You’ll see the ocean, the waves, the sky. Those kinds of things help us more than they help football because it is such a 360-degree experience.”

The video already is exciting, pushed out from aboard each boat. All of it is available for viewing in an app. Inside each boat is a media desk, five on-board fixed cameras and several handheld cameras, two microphones and two satellite domes.

Team Alvimedica stages an impromptu parade on the docks for spectators before the start of Leg 7.

Team Alvimedica stages an impromptu parade on the docks for spectators before the start of Leg 7.

Managing the boats

Gedda says that in past Volvo races, no boat tours were allowed for competitive reasons. Now, because the boats are one-design, they are slightly more accessible than they used to be. Gedda has worked hard to earn the trust of the sailors; still, some want to know exactly what he is doing to the boat at all times.

The first thing he does when the sailors arrive in port is avoid the boats altogether. Crewmembers jump off and are checked by doctors before they go have a beer, Gedda says.

The boat is emptied and disinfected. “The boat really smells,” he says. “And then I see if something needs repair. Time is the issue. Like in Newport, the stop is just four days. We contact a local dealer, who is on call 24/7. We have a lot of spare parts prepared. Normally the boats are picked up with cradles, and the crew will clean and polish the boats.”

There are 2,455 spare parts for the boats waiting at each stop, and 10 pavilions and tents. Visitors can imagine that the boats smell, especially when they’re told that no fresh water is used to shower. Sailors use only wipes or rain to clean themselves during the legs of the race. They only have one change of clothes in their cold-weather outfit and warm-weather outfit per leg.

The sailors know everything about the boats, which are built of carbon fiber — even the exhaust pipes. They have to be able to repair many parts but cannot do so without permission because the boats are one designs. When a spreader on one yacht broke, the crew repaired it without permission. “So they got a penalty,” Gedda says.

Below deck is a bare-bones galley, where the crew prepares freeze-dried meals. They produce 50 liters of drinking water a day with a desalinator. A nutritionist carefully counts the meals to make sure they’re bringing enough. Some crewmembers will go hungry and skip a few meals to save a gram of weight. They bring meals equivalent to 5,000 calories a day, but will lose as many as 25 pounds during a single leg. They take as many as 20 vitamins a day.

They are required to bring two life rafts, one life jacket per sailor, one safety harness per sailor, one AIS transmitter per sailor, one radar, two man-overboard buoys, three medical cases, one satellite phone and six VHF radios — all equipment that must also be carefully checked. At least two crewmembers must be trained medics and hold a communications certificate.

“We are very careful about the fuel system. The fuel is very pure. We have to be on top of everything to lower the risk at all times,” Gedda says. “It gets a full service before a start. We fill the tank with a strainer to make sure we don’t get particles.”

What he calls the most expensive toilet ever made is entirely carbon fiber. It is not modestly placed, and it is not enclosed in any way — not even with a sheet. There are mesh “cots” in tiers, and Gedda says the sailors with the least seniority have the bottom bunks. That means on hot nights, sweat from the sailor above will land on the sailor below during the sleep shift.

Male crews in the race consist of eight sailors and one non-sailing reporter. Team SCA, the only all-female crew, is allowed 11 sailors and one reporter.

They take four-hour shifts — four hours of sleep, four hours on duty and then four hours of standby. Sleeping and standby sailors often are called for emergencies. “When they get back from a 2-1/2-week leg, they sleep for three days,” Gedda says.

Press from the stopovers

It might be Volvo’s enormous investment in the Volvo Ocean Race that helps give the company a 55 percent market share in the 20- to 60-foot sailboat market in Europe and a 45 percent share of the 40- to 60-foot U.S. sailboat market. The company touted those numbers, as well as its enormous foothold in construction and industrial markets, such as power generators — which powered Race Villages around the world — at a press conference during the Newport stopover to talk about propulsion on the 65-foot sailboats that teams use to circumnavigate.

Volvo Penta supplied the D2-75 diesel engines, drives and power generation systems for the one designs in the race. The Volvo Penta system provides electric power for the watermaker, lights, heaters, navigation electronics, satellite communicators and other on-board systems, as well as propulsion for emergencies at sea and in-port maneuvering.

“It’s the first time they’ve had identical boats with identical engines,” Volvo Penta for the Americas president Ron Huibers said during a press conference in the Race Village. “We’re all about integration.”

In the past, the boats had a backup power system, but those have been done away with. “The sailors have to do training to learn how to take the Volvo Penta engines apart,” Huibers says. The boats must sail 2,000 nautical miles nonstop before competing in the race.

Volvo CEO Björn Ingemanson says those types of integrated systems are making sailing and powerboating more accessible. “Joystick docking, there is demand coming from sail there, too. Not for racing but for family sailing.”

The systems that power the Volvo Ocean Race boats are much more efficient in powering the enormous consumption it takes to run the cameras and other media in the heart of the 65-foot boats, Frostad says.

The events

Generating excitement at port stopovers might be as comprehensive as the race itself. Volvo Group held nightly events in Newport, inviting nearly 700 guests to the Marble House mansion, once owned by the Vanderbilts, for dinner one night. Another night there was a lobster dinner at the Newport Yachting Center’s Sunset Terrace.

During the Volvo Ocean Race Summit on Marine Debris, spouses of guests were treated to a tour of the cliffs or winery. A luncheon at Castle Hill was catered with lobster rolls and barbecue and offered spectacular views of the in-port ocean race.

Around Newport there were Volvo diggers and other equipment stationed in medians and next to containers that were covered with race billboards. Volvo Group did not put a dollar amount on how much these stops and all the messaging costs the company, but it was clear the money spent on the race was not the entire expense.

From trucks to equipment to generators, Volvo’s name was so prominently seen that it was easy for visitors to forget the company was ever associated with automobiles, although it sold that arm in 1999. The company continues to be a major producer of trucks and other commercial equipment.

The United States is the single biggest market for Volvo Penta, although the company has a presence in more than 130 countries, Ingemanson says. The company’s leisure marine business is larger than its commercial marine business, but growth in the commercial segment is closing the gap. The generators not only power the Race Village, but they also power World Cup stadiums, for example.

It takes a village

About that pop-up city: There are actually two that leapfrog from stop to stop around the world for a year because the raceboats are so fast, the shipping transport can’t keep up with them. Containers are everywhere, but they are cleverly disguised or even made functional during the stops, serving as support structures for sailing team towers, for example. There are 220 110-by-40-foot containers that get shipped on 11 to 14 ships.

The home team at race headquarters in Alicante, Spain, consists of only 30 people. That’s where a NASA-style room tracks boats via the Inmarsat satellite network with Cobham technology. Boats send information to Race Control every 10 seconds, and duty officers monitor the fleet and the weather nonstop. They deliver and receive positional data and communications. The room has an independent power supply and can operate without Internet service, using Inmarsat. The weather data alone that boats receive daily is so comprehensive that it amounts to about 10,000 typewritten pages.

The traveling team, of which Gedda is a part, consists of 120 people who follow the race around the world and stop in 11 cities. The total staff — plus sailors’ families, logistical teams, shore crews and sponsors — is a thousand strong. High-value equipment, such as TV broadcast and IT infrastructure equipment, is shipped by air. There are 654 banners, seven team towers, 136 flags and 22 backdrops. A full-size VOR 65 model is toured by visitors each day at the Race Village. Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers help boats in trouble at sea, in liaison with Race Control, from centers located around the world.

The race was known as the Whitbread Round the World Race from its inception in 1973 until 1998. In 2001, Volvo Group began to sponsor the race. The race mascot is Wisdom, an albatross meant to bring awareness to the fact that 17 of 22 species of the bird are threatened with extinction. The birds are often caught on hooks of long-line offshore fishing vessels or found with garbage in their bellies. The race has raised funds for the Save the Albatross campaign since 2005 and has contributed to the Albatross Task Force.

The one-design boats are 65 feet and designed by Farr Yacht Design. They require 36,000 hours, or 20 full-time employees, a year to build one. The builders include Multiplast, Decision, Persico and Green Marine. The boat is built around the idea that equipment for a journalist will be integrated on board, and the vessel costs 4.5 million euros, or nearly $5 million — a price tag that has reduced the cost of the entire campaign by 50 percent. The one-design approach also levels the playing field and ensures that the contest is won or lost by the sailors. The boats have eight structural bulkheads, twice as many as previous models, resulting in better strength.

The sailors cross four oceans during the 267-day race — the Atlantic, Pacific, Southern and Indian — covering 38,739 nautical miles. The longest leg this time was the fifth, which was from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil, and and took the fleet 6,776 nautical miles.

The boats weigh 12,500 kilograms — not a gram more or less, Gedda assured reporters. The keel and bulb alone weigh 5,241 kilos, and the sail is massive — 420 square meters. There are eight sails for the race, but there are only four replacement sails, and that means the teams baby their sails, carefully wrapping them and taking them out of the weather during stopovers.

And when it’s finished, it starts again, Gedda says. “Our one-design project started two months after the race finished last time” three years ago. “We’ll do the same boats next race. We will make improvements, but not huge changes.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.

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