The Volvo Ocean Race: Waves the height of houses, plastic-strewn oceans – and what it’s like to be on board

The competitors in the Volvo Ocean Race spend months away from home sailing in incredibly challenging conditions, yet they still can't help but notice the rising tide of plastic in the oceans. Rosie Paterson caught up with Dee Caffari after the latest leg of the race made landfall in Wales – and then took part in the Pro-Am race to get a taste of the action for herself.

‘Scarily it is out there,’ admits Dee Caffari, MBE. She’s speaking about plastic in the oceans, and nobody would know better the extent of the problem. The reason? She’s seen it all first hand. Caffari is the first woman to have sailed solo and non-stop around the world in both directions, and is the only female skipper in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race.

Undoubtedly the world’s hardest sailing race and the ultimate test of teamwork and human endurance, the Volvo Ocean Race is a round-the-clock, nine-month world circumnavigation.

By the time they cross the finish line in The Hague in a week or so, the 2017-18 teams will have covered 45,000 nautical miles, crossed four oceans and inspired 12 host cities along the way.

Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 2 on board Turn the Tide on Plastic. 23 April, 2018. James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race.

It attracts some of the world’s best ocean racers, including Caffari who, in 2006, sailed around the world ‘the wrong way,’ against the prevailing winds and currents. It took 178 days.

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She came into the sport surprisingly late, sailing for the first time at university. Caffari then worked as a PE and maths teacher for five years but retrained as a water sports instructor and yachtsman after realising that teaching ‘was almost like the right job too soon… I still wanted to travel and do some crazy things.’

Several years and a lot of adventure later, Caffari is now competing in her second Volvo Ocean Race — skippering Turn the Tide on Plastic, a fully-mixed crew (this year, race organisers introduced new crew combinations to encourage female participation), the majority of which are under-30 and experiencing their first circumnavigation.

As well as encouraging youth and gender equality in sailing, the team have been busy promoting the importance of sustainability and ocean health. Nevertheless, Caffari thinks that she ‘underestimated the impact we were going to have on a global scale.’

She has, in her own words, become something of an ‘eco-warrior.’ Turn the Tide have spotted macro-plastic on every leg of the race, from bottles to helium balloons (the skipper’s biggest bugbear), but have also, for the first time in competition history, collected raw data proving that there is an overwhelming amount of micro-plastics in our oceans.

Sailing around Cape Horn — the southern tip of South America where the wild Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet — the team’s joy at spotting wild seals turned sour when they realised that the colony were playing with a plastic bag.

For Caffari, the plastics that you cannot see are even more dangerous. ‘In the back of my mind [when sailing] I’m always thinking that there are micro-plastics here, in their environment, so no wonder they’re eating them. And no wonder it is then affecting us in the food chain. We are eating plastic when we eat fish.’

Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race.

Experiencing that foreign environment, often at the mercy of an unpredictable Mother Nature, is one of the reasons why the Volvo Ocean Race becomes something bordering on obsession for so many sailors.

Stepping on board team Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s boat (which also bears a strong environmental message) however, it’s impossible to ignore the harsh living conditions and lack of even the most basic luxuries that teams must contend with.

The seven Volvo Ocean 65 vessels are identical — each a carbon fibre-walled, sparse shell below deck, complete with netted bunks (or ‘hammocks’ to you and me) and a singular sink. Sailors work to a four-hour schedule: four hours on, on-deck trying to make the boat go faster; then four hours off, below deck eating, drinking and sleeping. Or at least trying to sleep.

© The Turner Twins

A number of the stopovers host a Pro-Am event — where six members of each team sail alongside ten, amateur guests in a thrilling, 40-minute in-port race — including Cardiff, the first time in race history that the city has been involved.

Expertly skippered by Charlie Enright — and somehow not hindered by my own presence — Vestas 11th Hour Racing took gold in the first Pro-Am race and fourth, after a close encounter with Team Brunel, in the second.

Racing at an almost constant 40-degree angle whilst attempting to tack, gybe and manoeuvre around the boat was an adrenaline junkie’s dream, marred only by the fact that at roughly 12 knots we were travelling at less than half the speed that teams do out on the open ocean.

If the speed wasn’t up to expert scratch, the kit more than made up for it — think seriously waterproof and windproof salopette-style trousers and jackets, designed by official race sponsor Musto. It’s just as well that the they’re genuinely the producers of some of the world’s best sailing kit: items must be able to cope with an almost constant barrage of salt water and wind, especially in the Southern Ocean where waves can be taller than a two-storey building.

Musto have taken the message on plastics seriously as well. They were challenged by Volvo and Vestas to reduce their plastic consumption; and by introducing an additional fold into clothes leaving the factories, they’ve reduced plastic packaging by 11,000kg every year.

The Pro-Am is a sanitised version of what Enright, Caffari, their respective teams and everyone else involved must endure on a day-to-day basis, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the ocean through their eyes. In late March, on leg seven, Vestas was in second place when the mast broke, some 100 miles off the Falkland Islands. The crew were forced to cut away the rigging and main sail to prevent any long-term damage to the hull.

‘The reality is,’ cautions Caffari, ‘the environment we are in, if something goes wrong they go really wrong, really quickly.’

Really quickly, and catastrophically. In March, amid gale force conditions, a team member from the Scallywag boat went overboard. The man – John Fisher, a 47-year-old from Southampton, was lost at sea despite all efforts to rescue him.

‘We do a lot of training and preparation in defence of that… but you can’t ever factor in everything,’ continues Caffari.

‘We were all affected by the loss of Scallywag’s crew member… and it made everyone back each other up a bit more.’

It is a sobering reminder of the lengths these sailors will go to achieve the seemingly impossible and spread an increasingly important message regarding the state of our irreplaceable oceans.

You can find Rosie Paterson on Instagram at @rosielkpaterson

Five ocean-friendly products to invest in on World Oceans Day

  • For those who prefer the relative comfort of dry land, Volvo have a released a limited edition V90 Cross Country car. As well as a bespoke colour way and trim, the V90 Cross Country Volvo Ocean Race model comes with a water-resistant storage bag and compartment nets, seat covers and waterproof mats made from recycled materials and optional matching roof box and lightweight portable cleaner, for rinsing off outdoor equipment

  • Keen sailors should check out Musto’s exclusive Volvo Ocean Race collection. As well as technical clothing, you can pick up a Turn the Tide hoody, made from lightweight cotton and featuring a contrasting drawcord
  • Celebrate the arrival of summer with Chilly’s tropical print bottles. Leak proof and made from BPA-free material, the bottles will keep liquids ice-cold for 24 hours or tea and coffee hot for 12.