The Volvo Ocean Race is certainly among the toughest races around the world. The first race took place in 1973 and was formally known under the name of Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, after England’s Whitbread company and the British Royal Naval Sailing Association agreed to sponsor a globe-circling regatta. In 2001 the ownership was taken over by Volvo which renamed it to Volvo Ocean Race.
Today this yacht race is the longest professional sporting event in the world and a nine-month marathon through four oceans and around five continents in the most extreme conditions of any sailing event. The teams and yachts battle each other across the freezing and mountainous seas of the Southern Ocean, the roasting heat close to the equator and the record extremes of conditions in the Atlantic.
The teams are composed of the best sailors in the world pushing themselves to the limit of human endurance over periods as long as 25 days at sea on board a Volvo Open 70 racing yacht; the fastest monohull in the world. The number 70 stands for the overall length in feet of the yacht, 70ft (21.8m).
The Volvo Ocean 70 is an impressive yacht made of carbon fibre with 31.5m (103.3ft) height of mast, 21.5m (70ft) overall boat length and top speed exceeding 40 knots (45.98mph/74kmh).
Three members of the onboard sailing team must be aged 30 or under to allow young sailors to gain Volvo Ocean Race experience and to help to secure the legacy of the race.
The 2011-2012 race is the 11th edition of this sometimes grueling but exciting event. It started in Alicante, Spain on October 29, 2011, passed Cape Town (South Africa), Abu Dhabi (UAE), Sanya (China), Auckland (New Zealand), Itajai (Brazil), Miami (USA). From there it was a straight shot to Lisbon (Portugal) arriving Mai 31, 2012. The In-Port race was scheduled for Saturday June 9 on River Tagus.
Sunday the yachts headed out for leg 8 towards Lorient (France) and will be there for another in-port race Saturday, June 30, 2012 and will finish on July 7, 2012 in Galway, Ireland for another in-port race as the grand finale.
The Volvo Ocean Race covers the greatest distance of any professional sailing event, 39,270 nautical miles in total. The sailors in the teams count 8 Olympic medals between them, 4 gold and 4 silver. Team Telefónica have 5 medal winners while Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing have 3.
The race is decided on a point system with each offshore leg (course between two ports) weighted to be worth five times more than the in-port races:
Lisbon is a melting pot of cultures, history and architectural treasures spread across several hills which are enhanced by the Tagus River. This was the first time the Volvo Ocean Race was hosted by the seafaring nation of Portugal.
The river offers a natural amphitheater ideal to show the outstanding performance of the Volvo Open 70 yachts to a wide public spread along the shores between Algés, the racing village, and the strikingly familiar bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril, built by the same company that built the San Fransisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
I was most fortunate to happen to be staying in Lisbon for business purposes during the week and planned to shoot landscapes in the area during the weekend. When I heard about the in-port race of the Volvo Ocean Race, I presented my International Press Association press card on behalf of IMPress and was accredited as a photographer. Unfortunately, I was not aware of the event when leaving home and the camera equipment was selected for city sightseeing, a Pentax K-5 together with DA*16-50/2.8 and DA*50-135/2.8. I especially regretted being a bit short on the focal length for real close up action photos. At least the equipment offers weather sealing which it had to prove under these very wet conditions since I followed the race from the first row on the press zodiacs!
The competitive nature of the Lisbon in-port race could hardly have been more intense. The finish of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 was just one month away as the race concludes the weekend of July 7-8, 2012 in Galway, Ireland. Yet, this famed around-the-world race has never been closer in its 39-years history. With three in-port races, two offshore legs and a maximum of 78 total points still to be made, the scores of this 11th edition have never been closer on record:
Just 21 points separated the overall leaders Groupama sailing team from the fourth-placed CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand. The Volvo Ocean Race never before had four teams with a realistic chance of winning this close to the finish. The four teams still in contention for offshore sailing’s most prestigious prize, the end game, were all about the pursuit of perfection with less than two weeks of sailing left and no more margins for error. This must certainly not have been an easy task under the effects of seven months of battle on the world’s toughest oceans knowing that any slip-up in the five remaining scoring opportunities is likely to be extremely costly.
The Volvo Ocean Race put together a sequence marking the highlights of the Lisbon Stopover:
In addition to confronting completely different types of sailing maneuvers, one of the goals of the in-port race of the Volvo Ocean Race is to bring the action as close as possible to the spectators, without being on board one of the race boats. The races are short and action packed in order to give not only the teams an opportunity to gain valuable points for the overall leaderboard but also providing a great spectacle for fans.
All of Europe must have been in Lisbon as well as many from the rest of the world as Lisbon was in its glory at the Volvo Ocean Race Village and shore of the Targus River. In-port races are the most exciting for the spectators as this is the closest that they can come to the race action, the yachts, the sailors, the celebrities, and the festivities.
Winning the start is essential in an in-port race. As these races are 45-60 minutes long, there is very little time to recover from a poor start. The sailors will do their best to be the first off the starting line, as the gun fires. Being at the tactically favored end of the line is crucial too but there is only one ‘best’ place to start, so look for aggressive jockeying for position ahead of the start. In fact, this fight for position in the final minutes before the start can be one of the most fascinating moments of these races. Teams will attempt to squeeze out the competition, forcing them into a poor start, or even pushing them onto the wrong side of the starting line. A boat starting early will have to return to the other side of the line, or if many of the boats in the fleet are early, the Race Committee will make a General Recall to re-start the entire fleet. A team starting early in the subsequent start may be disqualified from the race.
The crew for the in-port race will consist of crewmembers who sailed the previous leg or who will start in the next leg, with any changes having to be approved by the Race Director.
In Lisbon, this in-port race took place on the Tagus River between the race village in Algés and the Praça do Comércio just in front of the city center of Lisbon; offering probably one of the closest in-port race to the public of all stops during this competition.
At around 12:30, we headed out on board the press zodiacs. We followed one or another Volvo Open 70 during the start preparations. I was surprised how close we were getting to the boats. The zodiac driver had to remain aware of all what was happening around us not to get into the way of one of the teams while as photographers we tried to concentrate on the yachts. After having seen these large yachts tranquilly moored in the harbor, they presented a whole different world now. Highly maneuverable and dynamic, they presented a formidable perspective from such a low level over the water in the zodiacs.
As the gun fired at 13:00, it was Groupama who enjoyed the best start, avoiding getting tangled up with their rivals to rocket down towards the first mark in 10-15-knot south-westerly winds. Despite exchanging leading positions several times with CAMPER as the fleet blasted down the Tagus River past Lisbon’s iconic 25th of April Bridge, Groupama rounded the first mark ahead and never looked back, holding onto the front spot for the remainder of the 11.6nm course.
On TV, these boats do by far not give the same speed impression than when experiencing them from a zodiac. Even with the very powerful motors of the zodiac, we struggled to keep pace with the front runners. We had to stop in order to be able to take photos, but we could not afford to stop longer than a few seconds if we wanted to follow the race. With continual sprays of salt water shooting over the zodiacs, one hardly stayed dry. All I could do to protect the camera was to hold it in the opposite moving direction to avoid water drops on the front lens. At the end of the race, the camera had an unusual touch; a thin layer of dried salt covered everything. The weather sealing of the Pentax K-5 and the DA* lenses also proved to be working really well as the equipment survived the races within the press zodiacs without any additional protection for two days and is still in perfect working condition.
French Groupama sailing team extended their overall lead to eight points with a crucial victory in the In-Port Race. American-entry PUMA Ocean Racing kept their hopes of an overall win alive and moved to the top of the in-port series rankings with a strong second place, while CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand could also take heart as they took the third podium place. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing was fourth, followed by Sanya. Telefónica were left licking their wounds after a penalty turn for a start-line rule infringement on PUMA which relegated them to the back of the pack. Telefónica’s fate was sealed when the rope holding their spinnaker to the top of the mast broke, dumping the huge sail in the water.
The race started out much the same way as on Saturday. The track first left Algès along Lisbon’s Tagus River to the Praça do Comércio to offer the large public a last chance to see these boats in the hands of the most experienced sailors around the world. Then, they returnd to Algès and left the port sailing toward Oeiras located at the end of the Tagus River. The Volvo Open 70 headed towards the Azores Islands before Sailing East to Lorient, France.
With the size of the waves increased while leaving the coast, the water sprays over the zodiacs increased as well; photographers and equipment were getting soaking wet. We were not able anymore to keep the pace of these boats looking like they fly with ease over the waves.
It was the very first time I have covered a sailing event. I was highly impressed at the speed these boats reach even in pretty low wind conditions. It was for me a unique opportunity that is rarely available when one lives in land-locked Switzerland.
Some comments from the teams:
Victoria Low, communication director of Camper:
We all thoroughly enjoyed the stopover in Lisbon. In terms of a comparison to other stopovers, we would probably rate it amongst the top stopover ports. But specifically the conditions for sailing for both the In Port Race and the Leg Start were superb and made for exciting racing for both crews and spectators.
It is very difficult to try and explain the power of these boats when they are far away from land, so it was great that so many people were able to appreciate the speed over the inshore course.
Ian Walker, skipper of Abu Dhabi Racing Team:
I must thank the city and people of Lisbon. All I can say is that we love your city, we appreciate your kindness and we will have fond memories of this stopover for a long time to come.
More photos of the event under www.pbase.com/tcom/volvo2012
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