2018-05-10 / Around Town

VOR Sailor’s Life Not for Faint of Heart

/By Sam Crichton/


Water over the deck on board Brunel. Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race Water over the deck on board Brunel. Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race Competing in the Volvo Ocean Race is not for everyone. For those who accept the challenge, it is months of extreme physical exertion, unappetizing food and sleepless nights.

What is a typical day like in the life of a VOR crew member? Basically, every day is different. Whether dealing with an unexpected weather squall or a broken piece of gear, the challenges are endless.

Life onboard a 65-foot race boat is devoid of luxuries that a landlubber takes for granted. Each leg is a test of a sailor’s mettle as they strive to be the first team across the finish line. They must do without basic things, like taking a warm shower each day, and their onboard “pleasures” are measured by the days until they can change into a new set of clothes.

When it comes to food, there is no stopping to prepare and cook a traditional meal or visiting the closest burger joint. Instead, they drink desalinated sea water and add it to freeze dried food that is similar to what you could expect to eat as an astronaut circling above the earth. While on this diet, they will burn approximately 6,000 calories a day and could lose up to 25 pounds during a leg, due to the physical demands of the competition.


Xabi Fernandez trimming 
Photo by Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race Xabi Fernandez trimming Photo by Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race Sleeping is another daily challenge. When they leave on a leg, they are assigned to a four-hour watch system, so maybe they get some sleep. But that is a term used loosely, for trying to sleep while being thrown about in your bunk in clothes that haven’t seen a washing machine in weeks isn’t easy. In the hotter parts of the world, sailors will try to sleep on deck to avoid the “sauna” that below decks can become when they are close to the Equator. This lack of proper sleep takes a toll on their mental focus. If they are off watch and a boat maneuver is called for, such as a tack or gybe, then sleep goes out the window and it’s all hands on deck to help guide the boat through the maneuver as quickly as possible.


Turn the Tide on Plastic’s Liz Wardley tries to get some rest below in a bunk. 
Photo by Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race Turn the Tide on Plastic’s Liz Wardley tries to get some rest below in a bunk. Photo by Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race If they get hurt or require medical assistance, the onboard medic will stitch them up while the boat tears across the waves.

Newport’s Nick Dana, a crew member aboard Vestas 11th Hour Racing, talked about some of the challenges that a VOR sailor might experience. “The most difficult physical challenges are the drag race for 12 days in the Southern Ocean,” he said. “The intensity is both a mental and physical challenge.”

Depending on the crew position, a sailor is on deck with three other crewmates during a watch, and is aiming to make the boat go as fast as possible while maintaining safety and keeping track of the maneuvers from competitors. Every crew member must multi-task when, for example, a sail is damaged or the desalination equipment that supplies water breaks down.


Preparing lunch on board Vestas 11th Hour Racing Nick Dana and Mark Towill VOR leg 4 to Hong Kong 
Photo by Amory Ross/Volvo Ocean Race Preparing lunch on board Vestas 11th Hour Racing Nick Dana and Mark Towill VOR leg 4 to Hong Kong Photo by Amory Ross/Volvo Ocean Race Sailors prepare physically with core strengthening exercises, building up to an intense level and then tapering off before the competition begins. They also must be prepared to spend months apart from family and friends.

Dana, who was in the boat captain role for the 2014-2015 edition of the VOR with Team Alvimedica, spoke about his daily routine on the VOR 65. “As boat captain, my day is a little different than everyone,” he said. “We work on a watch schedule, where we are on for four hours and then off for four hours, but in my off watch, I need to check that all the systems are running properly, run the engine to charge the batteries, eat and fix anything that needs to be fixed.”

The off-shore sailor is one-part athlete, one-part crazy and one-part adventurer. Bouncing off waves taller than some buildings on Aquidneck Island and drifting across a windless ocean while the searing sun beats down on you as you pass through the Doldrums is not for the faint of heart. “In the Southern Ocean, no matter how much you prepare, the squalls that appear always take you by surprise for how intense they are,” Dana said.

So, in a nutshell, if you think you’d enjoy standing in front of a fire hose being pummeled by freezing water, eating freeze dried food five times a day and getting a couple of hours sleep at best, then maybe you should sign up for the next Volvo Ocean Race.

DID YOU KNOW?

Sailors only have one change of clothes per offshore leg.

Their cold weather outfit (pictured above) includes thermals, a second layer and a full wet weather gear outfit, with boots, a neoprene hood, gloves, ski mask & helmet.

Their warm weather outfit (pictured left) includes swim gear, shorts & tee-shirt, sunglasses, crocs or trainers, a hat and a lot of suncreen.

Return to top