You Simply Cannot Be Big Enough: Simon Fisher on the Volvo Ocean Race

For The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges, authors Richard Hoad and Paul Moore interviewed a range of endurance athletes for their perspectives into their chosen competitions – ultra-triathletes, cross-continental cyclists, transalpine hang-gliders, rowers of the Atlantic, bedraggled saunterers of the Sahara, the Amazon, Patagonia, Antarctica, and of course long-distance Arctic huskie mushers. All provided an amazing glimpse into the wonder and madness of racing at the limits of human biological capacity. Some naturally had so much to say it had to be edited back. Simon Fisher’s account of the globe-circumnavigating Volvo Ocean Race is one such. But in this instance, especially considering his moving recollection of fellow sailor Hans Horrevoets’s death, it seems appropriate to reproduce the unabridged answers to two of the authors’ questions.

Volvo Ocean Race1_Ainhoa Sanchez

How did you prepare mentally and physically for the Volvo Ocean Race?

Typically preparations for the Volvo Race begin as much as one to one-and-a-half years in advance.

On the physical side you simply cannot be big enough or strong enough, so inevitably there are plenty of hours that need to be spent in the gym. Most of the sails on board weigh upwards of 100kg. In total there is about 800kg of sails sitting in bags on the side of the boat and downstairs there is around 1000kg of food, spares and equipment. All of this needs to be moved from one side of the boat to the other when you go from one tack to the other and at times this can be as frequent as every 20 minutes, so physically sailing these boats can be very demanding. Also the biggest sails are approaching 500m2, so trimming them requires you to put a lot of power through the winches. You honestly cannot be strong enough. However, time in the gym needs to be balanced with time on the water so it is impossible to spend every hour of every day smashing big weights in the gym.

On board we run a watch system which means typically you will do four hours on then four hours off and in that off time you eat, sleep, get your gear on and off (which can take up to 15 minutes if you are sailing in the southern ocean where temperatures are close to freezing). All being well, you get some rest, but if sails need changing or something happens on deck you may well have to get up in your off watch. If you are unlucky this can happen on consecutive watches so in some 24-hour periods you can quickly find yourself pretty short on sleep! I can speak from experience in saying that it sucks when you have finally got all your gear off, your head has touched the pillow, you are exhausted and then 10 minutes later you are called back on deck! To combat this lack of sleep good cardio fitness helps – the fitter you are the quicker you recover and the less sleep you need.

It is pretty common to lose quite a bit of weight, especially in the first legs of the race as your body gets used to the increased workload, lack of sleep and fairly bland diet of freeze-dried food. I have lost up to 10kg on legs before, so it is arguably good to pile on a few pounds before the start of the race. However, carrying extra fat around tends to slow you down so you have to strike a balance.

It is pretty hard to simulate the 25-day legs in the run-up to the race. It is more efficient for training to do shorter trips, which allows us to develop the boat, do repairs and work on other aspects of the campaign that can only be done on shore. We tend to do lots of shorter trips of two to ten days and that gives us a chance to learn about the boat, what we need on board and find a watch system and setup that works for the team, as well as developing the boat, rig and sails.

There is also a strong technological element to the race, and together with the design team it is up to the sailing team to make the right design choices with respects to the boat, sails and equipment on board to ensure the boat is as fast as possible. Some of these decisions need to be made as much as a year in advance of the race – these choices can define your campaign. If you are slower than the others then it makes for a very long and difficult nine months. The only way you can get around being slow is taking more risk tactically, which comes with its own ups and downs, so I guess you have to be confident and strong mentally, and this comes by doing thorough research and making well-considered decisions. Sometimes you only know if you have made the right decisions several weeks into the first leg so you have to be confident in your preparations and the path you take early on in the campaign.

Volvo Ocean Race6_Ian Roman

Were there any issues that you faced during the race, and how did you overcome them?

One thing with the Volvo you can always be sure of is that there are going to be issues. Often it is the team that deals with the issues the best, or at least minimises them through good preparation, that comes through to win in the end.

These issues can range from breaking something such as a sail, which you have to fix on board without losing too many miles to the opposition, a crew member getting injured, which the on-board medics have to deal with using the limited gear they have, to something more serious that forces you out of the leg and unleashes a whole load more logistical challenges just to keep the campaign on track and ensure you are in a position to start the next leg.

I have to admit I have seen my fair share of issues in the race. As I write this we are just coming to the end of a saga, which began on the first day of the first leg out of Alicante. After a good start, six hours into the race our mast came crashing down around our ears, a part of the rigging failed and we found ourselves motoring back to Cape Town rather than sailing on a course to Cape Town. We then had to get the spare mast to Alicante, get new parts made and fix the damage to the boat and sails that had been caused by the mast coming down. All of this took a massive effort from the whole team, both the sailors and the shore crew, to ensure we were in a position to restart the race three days later. Sadly when we set off again we quickly came to the realisation that in order to be in good shape for the rest of the race our best option was to retire from the leg and put the boat on a ship to Cape Town. It was a tough decision to make, in our hearts we all wanted to carry on to Cape Town and finish the leg as we had originally set out to do, but our heads told us the smart option was to pull out, regroup and come back stronger. By putting the boat onto the ship (which of course presented its own set of challenges), we were able to gain ourselves the valuable time we needed to replace the rigging for the mast to ensure we were at 100% again and could race the boat hard out of Cape Town and into the Indian Ocean.

The last race had its fair share of issues too. With the Telefónica team we faced a number of breakages that probably cost us a higher step on the podium than the third we eventually walked away with. We also hit a rock in Marstrand, which personally was very tough for me: as the navigator on board it was my responsibility to keep us away from exactly that sort of stuff, so it was a tough thing to bounce back from mentally. It was pretty horrible to see the fleet sail off into the distance as I faced the reality that repairing the boat would mean finishing that leg in last place several days after the others. Despite the wave of support that came from all corners of the sailing community it took a few days before I felt like leaving the hotel room and starting the race again irrespective of whether the blame fell entirely in my lap or not.

That said though the toughest thing I have faced in this race happened sailing on board ABN AMRO TWO in the 2005–06 edition of the race and to be honest it puts all of these other issues well into perspective.

Losing someone at sea is the worst thing that can happen to any sailing team. It was a dark night, the wind was getting up quickly and the crew on deck were one by one leaving their posts on deck to quickly get the life jackets and harnesses on to carry on with things on deck. Sadly, before Hans got his chance to pop down and grab his life jacket a freak wave broke over the boat washing him off the sail stack. We were already over a mile away from where he fell in by the time we were in a position to turn the boat around; this was good given that the speed of the boat in these conditions is easily over 30 knots. However, we were all acutely aware of the fact that in the cold waters of the North Atlantic time was working against us and we would be lucky to find Hans in the confused seas, let alone find him alive. Thanks to some great seamanship by the crew we were able to find him, but he had received a blow to the head when he was knocked from the boat and despite 40 minutes of CPR from the medics on board we were unable to revive him. That night we lost a team-mate and a good friend, something that no amount of training can prepare you for.

We had to slowly make our way towards the UK and face what we knew would be a media storm when we hit the dock and face the world – until then we could come to terms with things on our own terms. Either way it wasn’t easy. However, things didn’t end there, and as we were nearing the coast of the UK we were forced to turn around and head west again to rescue another boat in the race that was sinking. After locating Movistar and following them for a number of hours, it became clear that their boat would soon be taking on too much water for them to manage and they would have to get off. We had to organise a transfer mid-Atlantic. Turning around when the crew were finally coming to terms with getting the leg over with was difficult, however hard the arrival was going to be. I think though when those guys stepped on board our boat we were all very pleased to see them, and of course they were pretty happy to see us too! It was good to see some friendly faces and share the ordeal of our last few days. It also marked the end of a very stressful 48 hours in which I got no sleep as we organised the rendezvous with the stricken yacht, and both teams on board our now busy boat shared an interesting 24 hours as we headed for land.

The welcome in Portsmouth when we finally arrived, having dropped off the Movistar crew and the body of Hans in Falmouth bay still to this day was one of the most powerfully emotional moments of my life. I can feel the hairs on my neck standing up as I write but struggle to put it into words. The whole of the Volvo Ocean Race – sailors, shore crew, the Volvo event management – had surrounded the marina to welcome us in and show their support. I remember several days after, a sports journalist said to me that in all his years it was the most emotional thing he had ever seen in sport. This is maybe why this race is so unique – one minute you are competitors, the next the guys you are racing against may be the ones who save your life. Losing someone to the sea, however hard, showed how close knit the sailing community is.


About Nick in Nets

Senior editor, Bloomsbury Sport & Fitness * Goalkeeper, Red Star White City * Scrabble nut
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