On a lovely September morning in Portsmouth, Great Britain, Sir Alec ROSE fired, on September 8th 1973, the first ever starting gun for the Whitbread Round the World Race.
It was the first chapter of the history books still being written 30 years later. Now the Volvo Ocean Race celebrates 30 years of breaking barriers. The celebration will be a family affair, but that family, in many ways, extends all around the world.
Since the start of the first race in 1973, the event has been held every four years and has the luxury of looking back over 30 years of development and refinement. On September 8th, 2003, the Volvo Ocean Race will reveal the design rule for the brand new monohull race-boat, which will take the event into a new era. Could Colonel Bill WHITBREAD, of the brewing family and Admiral Otto STEINER of the Royal Naval Sailing Association (RNSA), ever have envisaged the magnitude of the event they discussed 'over a pint of beer' 30 years ago?
In 1973, many of the crush of well-wishing spectator boats, out to witness history in the making, could have been mistaken for the 19 entries at the starting line, which were little different from the cruising yachts at that time. Since then, the ocean racing yacht has developed into a high-tech state-of-the-art speed machine, with little comfort spared for the crew, but with leading edge technology.
That new technology completely altered the concept of ocean racing. In 1973, and the early races that followed, skippers and navigators had little idea of where their rivals might be as they ploughed, day in day out, through the vast oceans. During that first race, communication between the fleet and organisers was based on a weekly position report to a local coast guard, but from race six onwards, in 1993-94, satellite equipment has enabled the boats to file their positions every six hours.
At the start of this great adventure, big question marks remained in many minds as to whether these boats, their equipment or crews would be able to stand up to such prolonged racing pressures. In retrospect, it was remarkable, given the then levels of preparation, experience and funding, that 14 of these pioneering teams made it all the way round, and, within weeks of the RNSA announcing a second race, its postbag was filled with entries from around the world.
Cornelis VAN RIETSCHOTEN, a 49-year old retired industrialist from Holland, looking, like so many others, for a fresh challenge in life came to dominate the next two events. His yachts, both named Flyer, set new standards of professionalism, the principals of which were later embraced by career sailors such as Peter BLAKE, Grant DALTON, Pierre FEHLMANN and Ross FIELD, who all became winners in their own right.
Flyer's back-to-back victories in 1977-78 and 1981-82 marked the end of an era. When crews returned for the fourth running of the race in 1985, the boats had become stripped out racers without any cabins or any personal space, save for a small pouch big enough to hold a change of underwear and a personal stereo to drown out the noise. This edition of the race attracted the attention of rock-star, Simon LE BON, whose yacht, Drum, survived a capsize before the start, but eventually completed the race to finish third.
Times have changed, and nowadays, the professional crews who race these boats have the tools to attack, rather than survive, the roaring forty and screaming fifty latitudes. Food and nutrition have become the subjects of major research and clothing has changed out of all recognition. As a result, records have tumbled dramatically. In 1981-82, Flyer clocked a 24-hour, measured noon-to-noon, record of 328 miles. In the last Volvo Ocean Race, the eventual winner, the German yacht illbruck, broke the 24-hour record with 484 miles. The new breed of ocean racer is expected to break the 500-mile mark.
In the early races, very few people made a living out of ocean racing. They were not the top racing technicians we see today, but, instead, were generally good offshore seamen looking for an adventure at sea and a bit of fun onshore. Today, the crews are true sailing professionals, alternating between the Olympic Games, the America's Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race.
In 1989-90, race five, the first all-female team made history by completing the race, winning two divisions on handicap, and silencing the sceptics. In every race since, an all-female team has completed the course. They will be further and actively encouraged to do so by amendments in the 2005 Notice of Race, which increases crew numbers for all-female teams over those allowed for an all-male crew. The Notice of Race, and the Design Rule for the new ocean racer, will be published on September 8th 2003.
The challenge of the oceans never changes. The adventure remains, but, as the race moves into its fourth decade, a new and exciting era is born.
Diary date: September 8, 2003, official release of the Notice of Race and Design Rule