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Onboard Exclusive: A New Way to See in a New Year

Drag racing across the Tasman in a Volvo 60

January 2, 2002
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Hi, my name is Peter Isler, and I’m sailing in my first-ever leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. I’m laying on my side, typing on a laptop–the sound of salt-water spray lashing the deck a few feet above me. Little puddles of water in the bilge dance around a few inches below me as our 65-foot sloop bashes its way into 6-foot seas in the Tasman Ocean, halfway between Australia and our destination, New Zealand. Somewhere nearby the ship’s mascot, a rubber, two-foot high Bart Simpson doll is staring blankly at the ceiling.

We’ve been sailing for nearly a week now–and the 11 other crew members aboard Team News Corp, all professionals, are all well into the routine of shipboard living aboard a state of the art ocean racer. Personal hygiene is definitely lower on the priority list out here. First and foremost the goal is making our boat sail at peak potential–24/7. Eating enough food and getting sufficient sleep are next in line.

We’ve seen in 2002 with considerably less than the normal celebration. In fact during the midnight to sunrise period of time, there was a heck of a lot of hard work going on board as our crew strived to keep the right combination of sails up in the moderate-air reaching conditions. To keep us honest, there is another V.0.60, illbruck, just a couple of miles away and a few degrees aft of abeam. It’s been like this ever since we left Hobart a few days ago–with the two boats never more than a few miles apart.

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Last night during the sail changes it occurred to me how different a sport this is than so many others. Ocean racing is comprised of long hours of relative tedium in damp, often uncomfortable conditions, interspersed with short periods of anaerobic activity–grinding winches, moving sail bags, and generally working the boat hard. Sail changes on these reaching legs can be especially difficult, and everyone got their share of a work out. But instead of hitting the showers and a change of clean clothes after a stint at the gym, the best that we can look forward to is having a bowl (dog-bowl variety) of freeze-dried food and climb into a rather damp sleeping bag in the bunk for a few hours.

My job on board is to help determine the boat’s course–the navigation and tactics. Along with my good friend, Ross Field, the boat’s navigator and the guy who talked me into spending the Xmas holidays in this unique fashion, I help to route the boat, which means providing the crew on deck with all the information they need to make decisions regarding sail changes, course adjustments, and how to deal with the competitors like illbruck that are amazingly close by considering we have such a big ocean to sail around in.

I spend about half my time down below on the computers at the nav station, downloading weather information off the Internet through a satellite connection, studying the boat’s performance, and pondering the weather. The other half (of my awake hours) I spend up on deck–helping the ’on’ watch to do their job–whilst (hopefully) the five guys on the ’off’ watch get some needed rest. Sometimes these visits to the world above the nav station are of my own choosing, after I’ve found a break from my duties down below. Grinding winches, trimming sails, and talking with the crew all is part of the fun.

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Being an inveterate small boat sailor, I also just enjoy hiking out–sitting on the side of the rail and imagining that somehow my 165 pounds out there will make a difference to the boat’s performance. I also enjoy the harsh beauty of the deep ocean. I love the big swells, the long-winged albatross soaring by, and the occasional squid jumping up into the cockpit, scared by the coming bow wave. A full moon, and the southern hemisphere night sky with the Southern Cross, especially for us ‘northern hemispherians,’ are some of the other treats.

But often my journeys on deck are not on my own schedule, but rather on that of the ‘on watch’ which may need an extra hand for a sail change–that’s where the anaerobic exercise thoughts come from.

Am I happy to be here? Yes, in some ways this is a great challenge, but it is wet, uncomfortable and at times, really, really tough. Like the rest of the crew, I’m looking forward to the finish in Auckland, a hot shower–some real food and a dry bed.

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Am I ever lonely? Not with all the other guys packed aboard this boat. Lonely is definitely not an option.

But now, it’s time to catch up some needed shuteye, so I’ll sign off with a wish for a happy and peaceful new year for 2002.

Peter Isler
Team News Corp.

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