At a media breakfast, during the Baltimore stopover, Team Ericsson Racing’s Damian Foxall and Richard Mason (left) talked about life on board a Volvo Open 70; the food, the watch system, hygiene, safety, technology and environmental observations.
Lori Pierelli went along, for BYM News, to get a first hand insight into life in the Volvo Ocean Race.
New Zealander, Richard Mason, is one of two medics on board the Ericsson yacht (the other is Magnus Woxen) and he began by describing their preparatory training.

"We spent a week with triage doctors, in Stockholm, had two days of basic training and were then thrown into a hospital Emergency Room for two days, working side by side with the doctors."

Richard and Magnus can do most things, except open surgery and the diagnosis and treatment of internal injuries, but - thanks to satellite communications onboard - they can transmit live to the Volvo Race Office, which has a team of specialist volunteers on-call 24 hours a day. In a serious situation, they would send live pix and the specialists would tell them what to do. The boat carries enough fluids and immobilisation equipment to keep a “pretty seriously” injured person alive for about five days, which should be long enough to organise a medivac in most places.”

Richard was less enthusiastic about the on board food, than he had been about the medical equipment.”Disgusting!” was his summing up “Usually, two hot meals a day - that is hot in terms of boiling water added to freeze-dried, but it does depend on the leg. Cold meal is usual muesli.” On the Rio to Baltimore leg, they had a hot meal in the morning and evening and a cold one in the middle of the day, because it was so hot. The watch system means that not everyone eats at the same time, so the food is prepared and then stored in an airtight container. They also eat protein bars.

Because fats, various nutrients and minerals can’t be freeze dried, they take up to 30 supplements a day, with various fats, oils etc, every day, even when ashore. Each man takes in 5,000 calories each day and, depending on his rôle on the boat, burns from 5 to 7K calories a day. 5 or 6 kilos weight loss is normal on longer legs and the loss averages out to about 2 or 3 kilos per leg, throughout the entire trip. so, they try to start the race as big as they can, because big weight loss happens at the beginning. “You get really fat, really quick, after the race,” said Mason “because you want to eat everything in sight.”

Some people are sleeping when meals are being cooked, so food is prepared and put in thermos-like container, so each person can get their food as the wake or come off watch. Even when preparing the next meal, you’ll sometimes find leftovers in a thermos that someone didn’t get around to eating. Everyone is supposed to be responsible for cleaning up, but doesn’t always happen.

Contraband

 I asked whether anyone tried to sneak contraband food on board. “The general rule is that you don’t do it, because you don’t have enough for everyone or, if you do, you share around.” said Mason “An interesting thing went on the other day; there was a bit of rattling around in the bunks, a few lolly papers coming out of the bunks every now and again during a tack. When that happens, you just try and guess who the culprit is, find the bag and eat it while they’re on deck.”

Provisioning for each leg is discussed at crew meetings and all food is vacuum-packed in dry bags, theoretically to keep it fresh and dry, but it still gets “trashed”, because everything gets shifted back and forth during manoeuvres. Everyone is essentially responsible for everything, but there is a “minister of the interior”, who tries to keep track of where everything is; not an easy thing to do. The only things that never get shifted around are the emergency equipment and tools.

The watch system is four hours on, four hours off, with a watch change every two hours, so they can change sails on a regular basis, with two fresh guys always coming up on deck. One hour of sleep is about average, even though the watch system is, on paper, designed so they get at least two hours, it takes a half hour to get dressed, sail changes happen at watch changes and every sail change takes about an hour, because there’s so few crew. “So basically on these boats, there’s no sleep.” said Damen Foxall “On a good watch, you might get 2 to 2 1/2 hours sleep, on a bad day 20 minutes.” When on land, though, they get ten hours’ sleep; their bodies adjust to the unique patterns on the boat, and “catch up.” when they get ashore.

Slovenly habits

Everything on the boat, even the smallest job requires a huge amount of energy so it only takes a matter of days to fall into “slovenly habits”. What is okay for a three or four day leg is not acceptable for a two to three week leg. Then it is a case of “if you are not on deck changing sails, you are cleaning the galley or the head, getting water out of the bilge, things that are fundamental to staying healthy on the boat, even if that means the chores eat into sleep time.”

Personal hygiene depends on the leg. In the tropics, it is easy to give clothes a salt water rinse; in the Southern Ocean it isn’t necessary to change clothes as often, since you don’t sweat so much. Bodies, naturally, build up a layer of “wax” and skin lives quite happy like that, it is only modern culture that requires us to wash! “It’s good to wash it off every now and again, though.” says Foxall “We bring wet wipes to ’spot bathe“, but you have to be careful in the States not to confuse them with wet wipes for cleaning toilets!”

Safety is another important issue. When it gets rough, protective helmets, with a pull down clear screen, enable them to see and breathe, when waves are constantly washing over them. These are not just for helmsman, but also for trimmers and sometimes they are needed just to move around the boat, because “when you are doing 35 knots and the waves are moving at 20 knots, you can’t see, can’t breathe without them.”

More seamanship needed

Foxall says there is a lot more seamanship involved now “Before it was, head for the nearest low and get the boat going fast, now you don’t necessarily need all that wind. A lot of times, the boat can go faster than the crew can physically stand.” The worst nightmare, “always in the back of minds and, if it isn’t, it should be” says Foxall, is going overboard. Prevention is the important thing and, mostly, they wear a standard clip on harness, but if it gets really rough, or at night, they wear harnesses with life jackets in it. Each crew member has an individual EPIRB, with directional finder and GPS, each coded to the sailor. Each carries a small bag, with dye marker, flash light and knife.

Safety training takes all eventualities into consideration and there are “crib sheets” on what to do in case of capsizing, dismasting, fire, abandon ship. All have standard procedures and everyone is responsible for their own area. Grab bags are now taken more seriously; in the past it was a case of “Go through the race requirements, put the necessary equipment in the bag, leave it in the bottom of the boat and you don’t think about it until the end of the race; now we put in our own additions. Standard equipment includes satellite phone, standard set of flares (orange smoke flare for use during day), red flares, white collision flares to be used at night, flashlight. There are two 14-man liferafts and medical and food supplies in grab bags.

When movistar had a potential sinking issue, Ericsson was the standby boat to go get them if the boat went down and they were in contact with the Spanish boat the whole time, though their assistance wasn’t needed. As Mason says “Never get out of the boat until it’s absolutely sunk; you want to step off the top of the mast. Certainly, in the Southern Ocean, it’s your last line of defence.”

Lightning strike

Technology is another important issue. Ericsson got struck by lightning on the way into Wellington. Everything was blown for the rest of the leg, white smoke was coming out of all of the computers. The only thing that survived was the control for the keel system and one computer that wasn’t hard-wired in; basically everything that was connected in some way to the mast stopped working.

“It was a bizarre experience! We were sailing along through the tradewinds and a squall came through, with quite a lot of wind, more wind than we should have had for the sail band, but it was over a short period. There was a lot of rain, everyone was on deck and, suddenly, a there was a flash and flames were coming off the rig and all the instrumentation went down and caused panic around the navigation area, because it is their responsibility. The rest of the team on deck found it just so bizarre they started laughing. The boat had to be completely rewired - a $100,000 operation – over four days in Rio. It was actually the second time the boat had been struck by lightening, which made us wonder "What have we done wrong?” said Mason, humorously. They have handheld GPSs and manual back ups for all equipment. “It was quite fun, actually, because natural sailing skill comes out.” said Foxall: “Sometimes going straight at the mark isn’t that bad.They have handheld GPSs and manual backups for all equipment. “It was quite fun, actually, because natural sailing skill comes out.” said Foxall: “Sometimes going straight at the mark isn’t that bad.”

Driver and helmsman are constantly using instrumentation to achieve performance, which is measured by 1 or 2 %, not by talking about knots or half knots, it’s hundreds or tenths of a knot and, when talking about sail crossovers and sail changes, sometimes two or three sails could be up for a given condition. So, navigators and skipper are constantly looking at those numbers and running it through databases to decide what will give the best averages and you might go from 105% potential performance to 107% with a sail change. If you don’t have the instrumentation there’s no way you can do that by feel. “Also,” added Foxall “it’s hard to know what speed you are going.”

So what does a Volvo Ocean Race crew experience that others don’t? Mason (an environmental scientist) said “The biggest feeling I get from it is that the world is a very small place. You see all these different cultures of people over eight months, it’s an incredibly small place. What is scary is the amount of rubbish you see in the ocean these days and that there is less and less sea life around. Water is life and we need to look out for it.”

Foxall said “When you live and work for a large part of your year outside of civilization, you see the contrasts so quickly over a nine-month period. Offshore for three weeks you see nothing except waves and wildlife and then you come ashore and get a couple days off in the mountains or at the beach and it changes so quickly, it’s quite a stark contrast you see. You notice it a lot more.

Any advice for up-and-coming sailors? “Other than you need to know how to sail.” Richard Mason said, laughing “Take up golf.” Foxall added “Seriously, sailing is a fantastic sport. We’re very lucky to be in a sport that has so many aspects to it. The extreme of offshore monohull sailing is just one of them, there’s multihull sailing, regatta racing in the bay, there’s dinghy and Olympic sailing. We are both lucky to have been involved in a lot different disciplines within the sport. We get to meet amazing people. It’s a great business to be in, it’s a great life and I highly recommend it!”

Lori Pierelli

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