Marathon so far from plain sailing

There are any amount of hoary old legends associated with the seven seas and those who sail them and the Volvo Ocean Race is no different.

The story goes that Colonel Bill Whitbread of the renowned brewing family and Admiral Otto Steiner of the Royal Naval Sailing Association met over a pint in a smoky old Portsmouth pub in 1971 and worked out the concept for a round-the-world yacht race.

That may or may not be true. What followed is fact.

Two years later, 17 boats carrying 167 sailors left the Solent and headed south for Cape Town in the first ever race of its kind. There was no pot of gold waiting at the finish line. No buried treasure. There still isn’t. Just a 70cm high trophy made of aluminium and silver plate.

Phileas Fogg would no doubt approve.

Originally called the Whitbread Round the World Race, it is reputedly the longest sporting event in the world. A nine-month maritime marathon encompassing four oceans, five continents and 10 ports of call, the last of them this year being Galway.

Six vessels are currently making their way towards Ireland’s western seaboard from the French port of Lorient. The 77 or so crew members have endured the globe’s most hostile seas, stretches of up to 25 days on the waves and temperatures ranging from -15 to 45C.

They have done it all on state-of-the-art mono-hull boats whose masts stand as tall as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, whose largest sails are the same as the playing area of two tennis courts and where the space available for each person is about two cubic metres, or the equivalent of a phone box made of carbon fibre.

Not for the faint of heart, clearly.

Held every three years, it has been won by entrants from Mexico, Holland, France, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand and Japan and each vessel is crewed by specialists in medicine, sailmaking, engineering and media — as well as sailing, of course.

Three men on each 11-man crew must be aged 30 or under to allow young sailors gain experience of its unique trials and tribulations and secure the race’s legacy but other cherished elements are being tested by modern realities.

Each boat costs millions of euro and the global economic problems have reduced this year’s field to just six — the least in the race’s history — which is why plans were unveiled on Thursday to bring down costs and attract more sponsors and entrants.

The introduction of standardised, ready-to-sail yachts is expected to cut costs considerably but there are fears it will bring to an end the event’s reputation as a market-leader in sailing design and technology.

“Our clear goal throughout the planning process for the next race has been to make it easier and less costly to mount a campaign in the Volvo Ocean Race,” said race chief executive officer, Knut Frostad. “This is a big step towards that goal.”

The offshore legs may consume the majority of time and effort but in-port racing allows the general public the opportunity to absorb a combination of skill, speed, power and technology of the kind Galway witnessed three years ago when it was one of the ports of call.

This time, the race will come to a close in the City of the Tribes and, while the race started in Alicante back on October 29 of last year, the organisers of the Irish leg have been promoting the concept that the party will only start in Galway.

The 2008-09 stopover attracted 600,000 visitors to the west coast settlement with a peak of 62,000 for the in-port spectacular alone. Another 120,000 are estimated to have watched the race unfold from the shoreline in Salthill.

The Galway Race Village opens as of today through to July 8 and will incorporate a Global Village business expo, fashion shows, craft workshops and demonstrations, youth activity programmes, arts and theatre and comedy from Daire Ó Briain and Après Match.

No to mention a good few pints in smoky old pubs.

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