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10 November 2001, 02:17 pm
The Liquid Himalayas
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photo:Rick Tomlinson

Volvo Ocean Race
Cape Town

Imagine taking the helm of a Volvo Ocean 60 in 60-knot winds. Onboard, concentration is high and nerves are tense. The boat is surfing twenty-foot waves at 30 knots.
One false move could spell disaster. But thoughts are not of a wipeout, only gaining extra speed. In these conditions you can stretch out on the competition. One must be aggressive, but not push too hard. Boats and people are brittle when it's cold, wet and violent. It is a tricky balance.

At high speeds, a boat, the ocean, the wind, sea life and the sailors all exist as one. At the top of a wave, a boat is unstable and seems suspended in slow motion, but as the boat drops, speed accelerates and everything feels stable, swift and exhilarating. You never want this kind of moment to end.

A wild sleigh ride through the wastes of the emptiest ocean on the planet, where wind speeds rise to 60 knots and boats fly downwind at speeds in excess of 30 knots. The crews call it 'the liquid Himalayas'. There are no ships, just albatrosses and whales, snowstorms, icebergs and mountainous waves. The teams face some of the biggest challenges in their lives as they enter this desolate place. This is the big test for everyone: it is here that the competitors find out if they have prepared enough, both mentally and physically. 'How hard can we safely push the boat' is the question in everyone's minds as they race on through the darkness, flying big masthead spinnakers, unable to see the waves ahead or behind, trying to keep the boat at optimum performance without carrying too much sail and losing control. Sydney will be a welcome respite after 6550 miles of racing.

A few hundred miles south of the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa's southern most tip, wild low-pressure systems circle the bottom of the globe with no landmass to stop them, and form the fabled roaring forties and screaming fifties. The crew reach for the camera when the boat surges down the backs of waves as big as houses, they film the nominated cook of the day as he or she struggles to reconstitute freeze-dried food on a one burner stove, and perhaps as the medic sews up a gash in someone's head by the light of a torch.

Living conditions can only be described as grim at best. Below deck it is damp and cold. Heavy, soaking wet sails take up all the available floor space, but it's a safe haven. Outside it's cold, wet and hostile. The tired crews rest if they can on the racks, which line each side of the hull. Although they are exhausted, sleep is not always easy. There are only six racks for the 12 crew, which means having to climb into a wet sleeping bag that someone else has just climbed of out of… Overhead, the winches scream and the on-watch crew call to each other to trim the sails, the boat crashes off the back of a wave with a sickening thud. Everything is shaking and wet. Every six hours, the crews wait impatiently for the position report, to see if their tactics for the previous period have paid off. Elation and disappointment are thinly divided. The 97 sailors, for the best and worst reasons, will remember the next 6,550-mile stage of the Volvo Ocean Race to Sydney, Australia.

This is the Southern Ocean and the greatest downwind sailing on the planet.

Paul Cayard, skipper EF Language, the winner of the last Whitbread (now the Volvo Ocean race) in 1997-98, wrote in an email, '[it is] the most extreme thing I have ever done and so far it is the best sailing experience I have ever had. The actual sailing here can not be compared with anything else."

The fleet of eight V.0. 60s will cross the start line in Table Bay, Cape Town, tomorrow at 1300 local time (1100 GMT). They are expected to arrive in Sydney around the 4th December.
Volvo Ocean Race Press/News Editor
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