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October 16, 2018

Inside Sailing’s Biggest Race

I haven’t peed in six hours, and my only option for relief is a precariously small carbon-fiber bowl, known to everyone on board as “the head.” It sits near the rear of the 65-foot racing yacht between three carbon-fiber walls, a precaution to ensure that sailors don’t slip off their perch in treacherous seas. But it’s exposed to the rear of the boat, an area housing other necessities the crew might need during my rushed encounter with the head.

Around 1am, Ralphie, a 51-year-old veteran sailor who has raced in the America’s Cup, catches me enviously watching others relieve themselves off the back of the boat. (As the only girl on board, such freedoms do not come so easily.) “The girls I used to race with would just pull their pants around their ankles and hang off the back,” Ralphie says with I shrug.

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Were I braver, I’d attempt this balancing act and delight in exposing my bum to the breeze and ocean spray. Instead, I sneak down to the head.

It was a calm June evening, and I was on breezy overnight jaunt from Newport, Rhode Island to Oyster Bay, Long Island with Team Alvimedica. Today (Saturday), the 10-man Alvimedica crew will undertake a rather more daunting task—with no confused female journalists in sight—when they compete in the triennial Volvo Ocean Race, sailing’s biggest offshore race and the most time-consuming single sporting event in the world (it takes around nine months to complete).

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Alvimedica are one of seven teams crossing the starting line in Alicante, Spain, embarking on the first of nine legs in the race: a 6,487 nautical mile, roughly 30 day journey to Cape Town, South Africa. (The teams rest for roughly a week at each port). The race will be complete in April, 2015 in Gothenburg, Sweden. The winner is determined not by total elapsed time but by a series of point, allowing teams to challenge for victory if they are forced out of one or more legs.

The Volvo Ocean Race began in 1973, known then as the Whitbread. It was a luxury sport then, as it is now, but with more emphasis on the luxuries afforded the sailors: wine, meat, cooks, and copious amounts of fresh water.

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Today’s teams survive on rehydrated food, protein bars, and desalinated water. In 2014, circumnavigating the globe is still tough, but there are technological luxuries too, in the form of state of the art GPS devices and weather predicting systems. But this can make the race more about the art of sailing. Because as Ralphie explains to me, “every team has identical software and identical weather.”

In years past, teams have piloted yachts with different design elements, but this year the Volvo Ocean Race is requiring all seven teams to race in identically designed, 65-foot boats. To the non-sailor, it seems a brutal journey; the cabins look like submarines, with a small berthing area where crewmembers sleep in netted bunks during four-hour shift.

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“A huge part of this race is about team chemistry and co-existing for 25 days or longer at a time,” says Charlie Enright, the 29-year-old skipper of Team Alvimedica. “There’s nowhere to run or hide if you have problems. Everyone in the boat is rowing in the same direction and better not drill holes in it.”

Enright and his 25-year-old teammate Mark Towill, who met in 2007 on the set of Roy Disney’s Morning Light, a documentary film about a group of young sailors racing from Southern California to Hawaii, worked together to raise money to compete in the Volvo race, ultimately convincing a Turkish medical supply manufacturer—Alvimedica—to be their sponsor.

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As the team manager, Towill’s job is to constantly monitor the speed of the boat and communicate that information to the skipper and navigator. “I’m always thinking about performance and how to go faster, faster, faster,” he says.

But speed and navigation are far from my mind. I’m onboard for a single evening—calm waters and a temperate climate—and it isn’t long before I am obsessing with sleeping and peeing.

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“Once you get locked into the watch system, day and night become irrelevant,” Towill tells me. “But you never get four hours of sleep. Anytime we have to put up the sail or tack or do any maneuvering, it requires all hands on deck. And it can take an hour just to tack. Plus you still have to find time to eat, clean, go to the bathroom and all that stuff.”

Around 3am, my spindly legs are beginning to ache from balancing on deck, as we heel with each tack. I had hoped to defy the four-hour watch system and stay up to see the sunrise, but I’m fantasizing about retiring to my claustrophobic netted bunk.

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Cradled in the hull, the Ambien is unnecessary, as I drift off to the muffled “whoosh” sound of the boat darting through the water like a large fish. The seas are calm, no waves violently knocking the hull, as they inevitably will during long stretches of the race. Indeed, in 2006 a Dutch sailor died during the race after, as the New York Times described it at the time, “a frantic and harrowing struggle against low visibility and treacherous waves.”

I sleep so soundly that I can’t fathom how the crew manages to sleep on land after each 25-day leg. Still, after nearly a month at sea, I imagine they are eager to recharge, ready for interaction with the outside world. But readjusting isn’t always that simple.

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“It’s strange when you get back to land after being in such a small place with such a small group of people, all focused on the same thing,” says Towill. “You feel like you have what you need. Then you get to land and there’s a million people standing around, handing you beers. It’s pretty overwhelming.”

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Inside Sailing’s Biggest Race