The Hardest Part

It's not the sleep deprivation or the relentless pace that makes the Volvo Ocean Race so tough. It's leaving the dock, and your family behind--again and again. Gaining Bearing from our June 2011 issue.

Sailing World

Ken Read Volvo Ocean Race

Dave Kneale/volvo Ocean Race

There’s one thing about doing a Volvo Ocean Race that doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you do it, or how tough you think you really are: leaving.

The routine before setting out on a leg is pretty much the same all the way around. The day before a leg start, there's a ton to do. You have all of your worldly possessions in one suitcase and one briefcase, which will be flown to the next port. Packing these bags is really hard: there isn't a square inch to be wasted. You have all of today's modern technology along with appropriate plug converters for each country. You have to be equipped for cold and warm and wet and dry weather. You have to have fancy clothes for sponsor events and award ceremonies, and your workout clothes for the gym. Plus, you will have whatever clothing and gear you aren't taking on that particular leg in the bag. It takes a long time to get this organized.
Next is figuring out what goes into the small, waterproof bag that goes onboard the boat. Ours are custom designed to be as light as possible, and there are pockets on the outside for iPods and a toothbrush, and maybe a few things that remind you of home. Inside, you have to cram approximately three weeks of gear for just about every condition you could imagine. After doing a bit of homework on the expected weather on the leg, I take a shot at what I might really need, but the basics include the following:

Two pair of underwear
Two tight light thermal long sleeves
One mid-weight thermal long sleeve
One heavy thermal long sleeve
One pair of surf shorts
One pair of waterproof shorts
One pair of thermal long underwear
Two pair of socks
One pair of waterproof socks
One pair of boots or sneakers
One cold weather hat, one baseball hat, and one balaclava

Now, all of this is for a standard leg; what about the cold weather legs? I’ll throw in a pair of neoprene gloves, a really warm thermal top and bottom and I’m set to go. Maybe another super warm pair of socks—but that’s it.

Once my bags are packed, it’s time to deal with a press conference and a sponsor commitment or two and then have a quiet night, hopefully with the family.

Come start day, I’m hopefully rested, and up early to get my bags to the designated drop-off location for the shipping. Then it’s off to the team base for a weather briefing, followed by a team breakfast or lunch. After a few more sponsor gigs, it’s off to the boat early to get all my stuff sorted before the starting ceremony.

A cardinal sin is to not check your gear. Bag on board? Check. Foul weather gear on board. Check. Knife, toothbrush, and headlamp? Check. Check. Check.

Then comes the hard part. It’s time to hang with the family and get ready to cast off. It’s a hugely emotional time, and it’s impossible to depart without the entire family in tears in front of thousands of spectators and cameras. Everyone’s watching.

My wife Kathy and our daughter Tory were at just about every stop during the last race. They were a huge part of it, especially having a 12-year-old learning her sixth-grade subjects while trotting around the globe. They both thrived on the travel and the arrivals, but we were all really bad at the departures.

Each departure starts with the sailors, team by team, parading down the dock. Each stopover has some sort of unique ceremony and blessing of the fleet, which concludes with all the teams at their boats, surrounded only by their families. This is where the tears really start to flow. The funny thing is, as professional sailors, we have been forever leaving our families to do our job. Why is this so hard?

Well, there is the clear danger that is rarely talked about within the family unit. And there is the fact that Dad is leaving for about 21 days for an average leg. And the fact that quite a number of us in the race have young families that try to be at as many of the legs as practical. And when one wife or kid starts the tears—look out. The dam breaks and everybody goes at once. Not cool for a bunch of round-the-world sailing studs.

When it’s our turn to cast off our lines, there’s one last round of hugs, a squeeze or two of my daughter’s little hand, and I step onboard the boat wondering what the heck ever made me sign up to do this. The team’s theme song plays for the umpteenth time and you’re off. Toss the dock lines and the bumpers (because they’re going in the air freight with my briefcase and suitcase) and away we go. Sometimes I breathe deeply, exhale, and think to myself, “Man, this sucks.”

At the end of the day, the only thing that gets me through all of this is the knowledge that there’s one constant in it all: the starting gun. My beaten body is going to forget everything except the competition. There is a leg to win. Do I want the pin end or the boat end of the start? Make sure the first sail call is the right one.

Bang! The starting gun explodes, and I’m officially in my new home, back with my buddies, and trying to get every ounce of speed out of the boat. Thank goodness for competitive juices taking over, because without it, “leaving day” would be that much worse. The first freeze-dried meal gets brewed, night comes, and we’re over the horizon while the loved ones back on shore start their own pack and move project—heading back home or on to the next stop.

We all have our reminders from the family though: little somethings stuffed in our bags, which we find at random times. Mine is always one of those battery-powered greeting cards with some corny song that sticks with me for about a week. My girls get me every time. But the songs and the cards are what this is all about, reminders of what’s really most important, and why it’s so critical to be safe, get to the next port, and do it all over again.