On November 5, the 2011-2012 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race will begin. Those who possess a refined, preppy idea of sailing will be disappointed that the sailors are wearing spray gear instead of Sperrys.
The Volvo Ocean Race has been around since 1973, when it was called the Whitbread Round the World Race. Sailors of all capacities came out in their respective boats to sail more than 27,000 nautical miles around the world. It was a rough around the edges race, which pitted even the savviest sailors against the unforgiving oceans. To this day, the race -- now named for its sponsor, the Volvo Group -- is still referred to as the Mount Everest of Sailing.
The race has become a bit more refined over the years. The Volvo Open 70 is now the boat of choice, and most are sponsored by big-name companies, including Spanish telecom giant Telefonica and German apparel provider PUMA. Sponsors spend tens of millions of dollars on their team, and, in this edition, every boat except for one is a brand-new build.
Why do sponsors drop an exorbitant amount of money on a sport that most dismiss as elitist? Because most of them reap the benefits. Take PUMA for example. In the 2008-2009 edition, PUMA took a risk sponsoring PUMA Ocean Racing, a syndicate headed by Ken Read, then-president of sailmaking giant North Sails. To offset sponsorship costs, PUMA created a portable container building, PUMA City, which traveled to each port and sold PUMA merchandise. It was a huge success. I can personally testify to the fact that PUMA City was mobbed 24/7, at least at the Boston port of call. There were constantly people buying gear, attending parties, and hobnobbing with the sailors and company bigs. For PUMA, it was a huge victory.
Just the prestige of having a world-class sailing team is enough for a sponsor to pay up to support a syndicate. The Volvo Ocean Race takes nine months to complete, and from the time the sailors leave the docks in Alicante to the time they pack up in Galway, they'll have traversed four oceans around the world and sailed more than 39,000 nautical miles. The racers get to see the world, as the race circuit lands on every continent except for Antarctica.
The ocean is unforgiving, and the conditions can sometimes be unbearable. But the allure of sailing is that it's as much a mental game as a physical one, a game of figuring out your opponent before they figure you out. And for the sailors, that mental chess is what keeps them going.
The Volvo Ocean Race starts with an in-port race on October 29 at the Race Headquarters in Alicante, Spain. The first leg to Cape Town, South Africa begins on November 5. After Cape Town, the Race will visit Abu Dhabi, UAE; Sanya, China; Auckland, New Zealand; Itajai, Brazil; Miami, Florida; Lisbon, Portugal; Lorient, France; and will finish in July 2012 in Galway, Ireland. The American entry into the race is PUMA Ocean Racing powered by Berg Propulsion, headed by Ken Read, a native of Boston.