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Volvo Ocean Race: Winning the Toughest Leg

Team PUMA skipper Ken Read describes winning what was possibly the hardest leg in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race.

We did it!!!!!!

We survived, and won, possibly the hardest leg in the history of the Volvo/Whitbread Around the World Race. Why was it arguably the hardest? Simple. We were the only boat in the fleet that didn’t have to stop to repair their boat. Like a NASCAR race without a pit stop. We were certainly fortunate, but I also think we had a strategy that worked, getting us safely across the world’s harshest ocean and in a position to succeed.

The story of this race could make the big screen. The storms. Human beings being punished while just trying to do their jobs. The physical and emotional toll it takes on each crew member. The beauty and the anger of a rock that marks the southern most tip of civilization. The majestic albatross circling like a small airplane. The bitter cold. And the water…punishing, breathtaking, just above freezing. All in all it was simply relentless. Not a moment taken off or taken lightly. Even when sleep deprived you don’t stop concentrating or you could end up putting the entire crew in a catastrophic situation with no way out. Keep in mind that a large percentage of the Southern Ocean leg is in a part of the world that is absolutely the furthest away from land. It is simply you against nature. In its harshest form.

When we rounded Cape Horn we were in second position behind the French team aboard Groupama. We were only 12 miles behind and it started a 1,500 mile match race that had us in sight of each other for days at a time. Then, early one morning just two days before the finish they suffered the same fate we had suffered in the South Atlantic on Leg 1. Their mast inexplicably came crashing down. 

Wow. Bizarre just became even more incredible. But, wait. The weather gods weren’t exactly smiling on us, and three separate times while traveling up the Argentinean and Brazilian coastlines high pressure centers formed and gobbled us up, squelching our progress. 

Here comes our Spanish competitor Telefónica, in their own weather window more than 450 miles behind after stopping to repair the bow section of their boat just after the Horn. They come blazing up the coast in an ideal weather scenario that is simply taking dozens of miles out of us every hour. Not looking good. And our weather routing software confirmed the inevitable. Their weather window was going to have them right next to us by the finish. This was going to be anyone’s race.

The software was spot on. With 100 miles to go they appeared on the horizon. While we were sailing in lighter air, they continually brought up wind pressure from the rear. The race was on. The final 50 miles was literally a head-to-head match race with Telefónica closing to within a couple hundred yards twice. 

The great news is we maintained our composure. Despite minimal food at this stage, we all kept our emotions in check and did our jobs. I can’t be more proud of this team. We took their best and fought them off. All to finish with a rousing Brazilian celebration of tens of thousands of cheering fans along the shorelines, breakwaters and docks of Itajaí, Brazil. 

Finishing is always the reason to do this race. There’s an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment especially when you lead the fleet in to port. But this one was different. It is now clear to us that the sailing and sporting worlds were watching this epic adventure unfold and conclude with amazement. The notes and calls we have all received from friends and fans are unreal. We are equally proud and relieved. 

We made it. Successfully.

Ken Read is skipper of the PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG team, competing in the Volvo Ocean Race. The 39,000 nautical mile round the world yacht race is the world's longest continuous professional sporting event. Visiting five continents over nine months, the world's best offshore sailors risk their lives every day competing in the 'Everest of sailing.' The race began in Alicante, Spain on Nov. 5, 2011, and will stop in Miami this May before finishing in Galway, Ireland, early July. Follow the race at www.volvooceanrace.com.

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