After 20 hours bashing into whitecaps in the Baltic Sea, then 15 hours of downwind work in the 362-mile 'Round-Gotland Race, the crew on the Volvo 60-footer Elanders had the finish in range. They'd been through daylight, dusk, dawn, broad daylight and dusk again and were aiming at an eerie midnight glow here in the land of the midnight sun. Of black night they'd seen none, nor would they.
"It's easier this way," said Cameron Appleton, a helmsman for the New Zealand America's Cup team before moving into his first Volvo Ocean Race effort here. "You don't sleep in this race anyway. With no night, you don't miss it so badly."
Appleton, an ex-Kiwi who now calls Ellicott City home, scanned the sea for wind and relayed his findings to skipper Matt Humphries. Behind lay medieval fortresses on Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic; 50 miles ahead lay the finish at tiny, scenic Sandhamn in the Stockholm Archipelago. Just ahead was Elanders's rival in the eight-race Volvo Baltic series, Sony-Ericsson, clinging to a dwindling, one-mile lead.
"We'll catch them if we keep this up," said Appleton. Humphries, a blond, 32-year-old Englishman who has raced around the world four times and plans a fifth try next year, jerked the wheel and the crew yanked on sails to climb on a wave and surf ahead.
"Good one," said mainsail trimmer Kip Stanley-Harris as the boat shot forward. "Every wave we catch like that is a half-boat gain. A few thousand more and we'll have 'em."
This is life on a Volvo 60, the low-slung, bullet-tough Kevlar boats that for a dozen years have been at the heart of the world's premier round-the-world sailing races, first the Whitbread and now the Volvo. Racing across the globe in a fleet of nearly identical boats, every wave caught is a potential gainer and every boat-length gained a potential game-breaker. Thus no sleep for the weary, and no luxuries. Oddly enough, you hardly miss it.
I've sailed on Volvo 60s since the first one left the drawing board of designer Bruce Farr in Annapolis back in 1990, and admired them for the unlikely combination of durability and lightness afoot. Dozens of them have tackled the world's toughest waters, the roaring Southern Oceans around Antarctica, charging through icebergs at speeds up to 30 knots. All came back whole, crews intact.
But the wheels of time grind on, and the Volvo 60 has been, as computer wags put it, "obsoleted." A new class is emerging for the next Volvo Race, which starts in November 2005 and stops in Baltimore/Annapolis in April 2006. The new boats are 70-footers with moving keels and other 21st century gadgetry, and the tough old warriors must give way.
So when the opportunity arose to join a professional crew on a Volvo 60 for a farewell run in Europe's grandest ocean race, the 52d 'Round-Gotland, I couldn't resist. It did not disappoint.
We were 11 in all, nine professionals, a sponsor's representative and me. Among the pros were three top America's Cup sailors and several Whitbread/Volvo veterans. "Don't worry," said Humphries, "we're always short-handed. You'll have plenty to do."
But not much to eat or wear, as is the custom in the Volvo. Stanley-Harris, the mainsail trimmer and baggage warden, rummaged through my sea bag when I came aboard, tossing things out with fiendish purpose, including the little packet of cookies I'd squirreled for emergencies. "You won't need any of this," he said in the end. "Weight is critical. We bring nothing but what we're standing in. Why should you?"
Below, bunks were bare mesh and stacked with sails. The little stash of communal food was freeze-dried. There was water to drink, as mandated by racing rules. "He'll pour most of that out as soon as we're in the clear," confided a crewman.
With 253 boats in the race, the start was chaos but soon swift Elanders and the four other Volvo 60s in the fleet left the smaller boats behind. The 60-footers trailed only five big racing trimarans that screamed by at shocking speed in fresh, 15-knot winds.
By evening it was a familiar two-boat race. Elanders and Sony-Ericsson are separated by only a point at the top of the standings after seven races in the Baltic series and they were well matched. The Swedes on Sony-Ericsson were quicker upwind, but the mostly Kiwi crew on Elanders promised to get the difference back on the downwind run back to Sandhamn.
At Visby as we turned for home the gap was a worrisome three miles, but the wind was fair, on the stern, and Elanders, lighter for all the diligent weight-saving, began to carve up Sony's lead.
"Under two miles now," hissed Humphries on checking the radar, and all 11 topsides felt the urgency of the message. Strong hands rushed to reposition sails and gear as the wind piped up and down, and all crew became moving ballast, jumping to different spots as ordered to balance the boat as the wind vacillated.
The gap shrunk. A moon rose pale in the east, offsetting lingering orange sunlight in the north, and then came the sun in full at 2:30 a.m., a bright ball illuminating the lighthouse at Sandhamn. "We're running out of runway," said Humphries.
In the blinding light of broad day just after 3 a.m., Sony-Ericsson took the winner's gun, Elanders limping in 2 minutes 2 seconds after. After 362 miles at sea, that was the difference between these aging warriors, two minutes. "Let them have their day," said Humphries as the other crew cheered. "Tomorrow will be our day."
Too bad the same can't be said for the splendid old Volvo 60s, uncomfortable and harsh to live on, perhaps, but proud, sturdy, safe and fast. They have seen their day. It's on to the Volvo 70.
Volvo Ocean Race officials announced Wednesday that two more syndicates have joined the race for 2005-'06, a Brazilian team headed by Olympic gold medalist Torben Grael and an Australian team led by veteran ocean racer Grant Wharington.
That brings to five the number of official entries, with two boats from Holland and one from Spain already building. Three or four more announcements are expected in the next few weeks, according to officials. Sadly, no American team has yet secured financing.