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The Everest of the Seas

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The Everest of the Seas

The Volvo Ocean Race spans nine months, in which seven teams battle it out over 45,000 arduous nautical miles, sailing to 12 ports covering six continents and four oceans, their every bend in water followed closely by a community of over a billion fans the world over

I’m standing at the highest perch of Monte Benacantil, with the golden hued Castle of Santa Barbara, one of Spain’s largest mediaeval fortresses behind me. Leaning forward against one of the outer walls of this majestic monument, my gaze is fixed on the hypnotic play of the mid-day sun, glistening over the placid expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, a swirling medley of delicately related shades of azure, far below in the distance.

There’s reason for some excitement along the port, with a large crowd converging along the waterfront and though I’m well out of earshot to make sense of the cheering, I do have an inkling as to the reason. I’ve driven extensively through this country and am familiar with most of even the off-the-map towns here. Which is why I’m a touch surprised at having missed encountering the city I find myself in now.

I’m in the idyllic town of Alicante, literally ‘City of Lights’, named by the Moors in the 10th century when they built the fortress on the mountain, that challenged every last iota of my city-bred breath during my quest for its summit earlier in the day. This port town on the Costa Blanca marks the starting point of the world’s longest sporting event — the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR). Over a calendar spanning nine months, seven teams will battle it out over 45,000 arduous nautical miles, sailing to 12 ports covering six continents and four oceans, their every bend in the water followed closely by a community of over a billion fans the world over.

The following morning, I’m standing with Dee Caffari, the legendary skipper of the team ‘Turn the Tide on Plastic’. Participating in the VOR for the second time, she’s the only woman in the world to have sailed solo around the world in both directions — west about, and east about, and also the only woman to have sailed around the world three times, non-stop.

I ask her what she enjoys more, sailing with mates, or going it alone? “Solo,” she says, without blinking. For the duration of the race, she’s in great company though. Her sailing squad is an interesting multinational mix of evenly balanced male and female members, predominantly below the age of 30.

Caffari’s team mix throws light on the revision of the squad selection rules from this edition that allows each team to have between seven to 11 sailors, depending on the gender balance. As part of the new incentivised mixed crew options crafted to introduce flexibility for the squads, all-male teams can have up to seven sailors, while an all-female team can have 11, with an either equal 5-5 men and women, or with seven males and one to two female sailors.

There is also a new scoring system that has been introduced with the intent of encouraging strategic risk-taking and innovation by the teams, that serves as a strong step in making the race more exciting and challenging.

Another commendable move was the introduction of the one-design Volvo Ocean 65s in the previous edition of the VOR 2014-15, that translated to every competing team sailing on the exact same yacht built on a set of identical plans from the Farr Yacht Design team, with victories and second places placed firmly on the shoulders of the teams, their skills, strategising, talent and fortitude to push forth relentlessly. 

That night over dinner at Cesar Anca, a regional cuisine restaurant that wears its Michelin stars with disarmingly casual ease, I’m with friends and the dinner conversation revolves around how all these carefully considered and executed plans by the VOR organising committee have ensured that the strongest team, with the finest sailors, will emerge victorious. It gives the fans of the sport exactly what they expect: To celebrate and revel in the purity of the sport, and not feel that technology has given a few amongst the entrants an unfair edge even before their team yacht kisses the water.

The following morning, I’m thinking about the role of technology in this edition of the VOR (and last night’s foie gras served with stewed pears in a vanilla infusion) as I make way through the swelling crowds on the port, all eager to catch a glimpse of their favourite team when I spot Jordi Neves, the Chief Digital Officer of VOR, having a conservation with Ashish Gupta, CVP and Head of EMEA, HCL Technologies.

Though I realise they must be juggling a packed schedule, I decide to ask them to share their thoughts on technology in this edition. Despite the evident density of their pending appointments (assistants beckon for their attention on more than one occasion), the duo, clearly excited about all the action they’ve packed in this domain, spend the following half an hour walking me through the complicated but fascinating nuances of how technology has been employed to create an unparalleled experience for the community of three million race village visitors, followers and fans, families and, of course, the teams.

Gupta speaks with deep passion about how every member of the HCL team managing the VOR stands committed to delivering the latest action from every leg, as it happens, based on the lean and agile 21st century racing infrastructure solutions they have developed and deployed, and will be setting up in the each of the race command centres going forward.

He tells me about how HCL’s IT platforms and services will be responsible for the VOR’s streaming and TV production for key events, including leg flag-offs, arrivals, and in-port races, as well as inter-site connectivity at the stopovers at host cities, the digital content delivery and multimedia facilities, mobile data centres, and Wi-Fi networks within all the race villages, its media centres and offices.

“With HCL partnering us as the strategic IT services provider, we will be more digitally focused than ever before,” says Neves, who goes on to narrate how in the 90s, the only technology input available on board the yacht was a VHS recorder that was operated by the crew, and the recorded tape would be flung over to someone waiting at a port, with its contents being transferred and shared with its audience a few weeks later.

Currently, each yacht has seven fixed cameras, two wireless cameras, two 360 degree cameras, and two drones, in addition to one on-board reporter — all placed to capture every single instance of action and share most in real time. Any room for a VHS recorder on board, I ask them? Neves and Gupta smile politely.

As evening approaches, I meet a number of sailors of all the seven teams on the portside, getting set for the following morning when they will be flagged off. These men and women, laughing and enjoying the beautiful weather and the last light of setting sun in Alicante will endure some extremely trying conditions, experiencing temperature variations from +45 to -5 degrees Celsius, carrying only a single change of clothes while at sea, consuming a daily ration of standard issue, freeze-dried meal packets for sustenance, in addition to sharing a conservatively sized space with up to 10 other adults for weeks at a stretch. All this while having to call upon their every functioning faculty to perform and succeed in the globe’s longest and toughest sporting event.

I make a quick note of the seven teams, while in silent admiration and awe of the squads that make each: Team AkzoNobel, DongFeng Race Team, MAPFRE, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, Sun Hung Kai Scallywag, Turn The Tide on Plastic, and Team Brunel, each of which will push one another as they race from port to port, covering the 12 destinations including in race sequence, Alicante, Lisbon, Cape Town, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Auckland, Itajai, Newport, Cardiff, Gothenburg, finally concluding in The Hague.

The Volvo Ocean Race, that started in 1973 and is held every three years, is an incredible testament to the indefatigable substance of competitiveness, and the relentless human pursuit of glory. The sailors are not chasing any prize money — there is none, with in fact nothing beyond a trophy with the winner’s name engraved on it, at the end of the rainbow. The real prize, as I hear from each of the many competing sailors I meet over the three days prior to flag-off, is the irreplaceable sense of pride in their conquest of a task that challenges the very core of their well-trained minds and bodies.

I know that feeling of pride only too well. I did, after all, with much huffing and puffing for company, manage to climb that incredibly high Spanish mountain with a fortress.




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