Taken for a Ride

The Volvo Ocean Race is equal parts adventure race and traveling circus, and the pro-am races at each of the race’s stopovers can be thoroughly entertaining for crews and guests alike. "Gaining Bearing" from our March 2012 issue.

Sailing World

Gaining Bearing

The author lends a hand to his neophyte pro-am driver/blogger Sean Sullivan in Abu Dhabi.Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

Volvo Ocean Race stopovers used to be all about rest, relaxation, and boatwork. But nowadays, in addition to the points-worthy in-port race, organizers have another sideshow to keep us busy: the pro-am races. Yes, it’s one more circus to add to an already hectic few weeks, but as we’ve come to learn, it’s a unique and sometimes crazy way to give something back to those who make the race possible.

The pro-am race was created in the previous edition for no other reason than to give sponsors a firsthand experience of what it’s like to tear around the buoys on a Volvo 70, but it has since turned into something so much more. During the 2008-’09 edition, we had two windward-leeward races on a day specifically set aside for pro-am racing, but during the Boston stopover it was incredibly windy. So we stayed inside Boston Harbor and did reaching races across the harbor and back. The spectators loved it, and the people on the boats were gasping at the speeds we were hitting. And even though the remaining stopovers went back to sausage-style pro-am races, the appeal of Boston’s speed runs prevailed. For this current edition, the pro-am races are glorified reaches.

Who exactly are the golden-ticket holders that ride on the boats for the pro-am races? By way of example, let’s flash back to our most recent experience in Abu Dhabi at the end of Leg 2.

First off, let me start by saying pro-am day drives us crazy. There are three races on the schedule, with the first start at about noon. We switch guests between each race, and when you combine the racing and the switching, each race takes about an hour. We typically entertain more than 40 people over these three races.

On this particular day in Abu Dhabi, we start with PUMA’s guests. These are 11 individuals selected by our marketing team, determined to be the United States’ most “followed” bloggers. Yup, bloggers are taking over the world. These are people who have somehow each created their own cult following.

The idea sounded crazy to me. Not a single one of them is a sailor in any form or fashion. But all 11 of them hop on board with cameras clicking and tape recorders absorbing everything that’s going on with the boat and the crew. We also have the lead singers from a group called the Scissor Sisters. Yeah, yeah, I know. We take who we’re told to take. Apparently, they’re playing a concert in Abu Dhabi. We only sail with six of our regular guys on pro-am day, so we get all the guests into the mix right away.

“Mainsail up!”

Six unsuspecting guests who have never spun a coffee grinder hit the handles, eventually turning purple as they try to hoist the mainsail in first gear. We don’t tell them how to switch gears until one of them makes a small throwing-up sound.

“Headsail up!”

It’s amazing how many fail to learn from the first hoist.

Now it’s time to race, and we explain how the race will go down: all the boats start together, we sail to a mark about a mile away, and then sail back—twice around, full drag-race style, which is essentially as fast as the boats will go in 12 knots of breeze.

The gun goes, and the fun begins. Every guest drives the boat. Every guest has his or her picture taken driving the boat. And every guest gets into grinding around the marks and through tacks or jibes. By the end of the frantic, 20-minute race, all are thoroughly amused, and there are probably about 20,000 photos on their collective cameras. Blog away.
Whenever a new person gets on the wheel, there's always a look of terror, so I try to put them at ease by asking, "Do you know how to drive a car?"

They all say, “yes,” and when they realize the boat’s wheel reacts like a car wheel, they usually keep it under control. Except for Jake Shears, of the Scissor Sisters. Of the thousands of people we’ve taken sailing in the past five years, he’s the only person that has ever answered my question with a “No.”

“You mean you don’t know how to drive?” I ask the 33-year-old.

“Nope. Never.”

Sure enough, he’s a terrible driver. I tell him to stick to singing, or whatever it is he does on stage. Ana Matronic, the red-haired co-lead singer for the Scissor Sisters is an excellent boat driver, and does, in fact, have a driver’s license.

In comes the tender with group number two ready for action. This is Volvo’s group. Volvo sends their VIPs, executives, and friends out on the boats. This group has 13 guests. Two of them have sailed before.

Same program: start, reach, reach. Cameras are clicking, everyone’s driving, people are grinding their hearts out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experiment, it’s that human beings are a competitive species. Everyone wants to win, and everyone wants to know why we didn’t win.

Finally, for Race 3, it’s time to take care of our friends from BERG Propulsion. On board clamor another 15 or so guests, and this time there are several sailors amongst the group. Sure enough, the breeze drops to about 8 knots or so, but one advantage of the canting keel is that we can heel the boat over at any time, giving the impression that we’re flying. Ah, the tricks I’ve learned in the entertainment business.

When the day is done, fun prizes are handed out back on the dock, and all of the pro-amers are happy, filled with stories to tell their friends and pictures to share on their Facebook pages and blogs. We’ve done our job. We’ve given back just a little to the people who make this all happen. It’s the least we can do.