Ever since man started exploring the world under sail, the notion of circumnavigating the globe has been the pinnacle of achievement — forty thousand miles of churning swells, monster waves, gale force winds and the odd rogue shipping container are a tough match to beat. Even in this modern age of carbon fiber hulls, satellite navigation and Gore-Tex, it’s still a daunting task. If your mast breaks while rounding Cape Horn, you might as well be back on the deck of a three-masted schooner in the 19th century, because help is a long way away.
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And yet every two years a few high-tech sailboats and small crews set their wills to sailing around the world as part of the Volvo Ocean Race. First conceived in 1973 — then called the Whitbread Round the World Race — this extreme regatta has come to be known as the Everest of sailing. Unlike the America’s Cup, which is all about speed over a short distance, the Volvo Ocean Race is a challenge of endurance. In this year’s running, starting in October in Alicante, Spain, crews of eight sailors will race around the globe in stages lasting up to four weeks at a time, stopping in various ports such as Capetown, Auckland and Newport along the way. The teams live in cramped quarters, on watch every four hours, sleeping little, wearing the same clothes the whole time and eating freeze-dried food. While scurvy is no longer a threat, being tossed overboard into icy water still is.
The race is also about sailing tech — the boats are state of the art, bristling with carbon fiber, modern electronics and even joystick-operated cameras mounted everywhere for maximum media exposure — but this year that takes on a new twist. In the past, teams designed their own boats to specific guidelines set by race organizers; this year, the race introduces a standard boat design, known as the Volvo Ocean 65, built by the same boatyard in England and then sold to the teams outfitted and ready to sail. This standardization of boats refocuses the race on strategy and skill rather than budgets and materials arms races.
In 2014, Swiss watch company IWC Schaffhausen will again be official timekeeper for the Volvo Ocean Race, keeping the race time as teams depart and arrive at the circuit’s stopovers. Of course, being official timekeeper of the world’s most grueling and prestigious sailing race is a great opportunity to create a special edition timepiece. In 2012, IWC introduced a special version of its Yacht Club Chronograph from its Portugeuse line, with a titanium case and carbon fiber dial, a high tech nod to the super-light carbon hulls and titanium masts the boats of the around-the-world race use. We’re told a new commemorative Volvo Ocean Race watch will set sail this fall, but we’ll have to wait for its launch after sea trials finish. As an added incentive, the crew of the boat that sails the farthest over a 24-hour period during the race will receive these new watches. It’s just one more reason to hurry home.
While teams for the 2014 race are still being announced, many have started their training. This year, in addition to some returning teams, there will be a Chinese team, an all-female team and a new entry, Team Alvimedica, underwritten by a Turkish medical device company and crewed by a young, ambitious group of men. Team Alvimedica is symbolically based in Newport, Rhode Island, since the team founder and skipper, Charlie Enright, hails from nearby Bristol and got his sea legs sailing in Narragansett Bay. Enright may be just 29 years old, but what he may lack in gray hair, he makes up for in energy, drive and skill. We set sail with Enright and his team as they trained on a beautiful June day in Newport.
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