HAPPY FACES, TIRED EYES
Fernando Echavarri’s body language said it all. His head was in his hands, eyes aimed at the ground. He looked shattered.
“So hard,” he said. The duel with PUMA went on for the better part of 40 miles, sleep countable in minutes. “Nothing is easy.”
It would be hard to imagine, for an onlooker, that he and his crew on Telefonica Black had just surpassed their greatest expectations. They won the tenth and final leg, a result that by far outranks their often stated target of an “offshore podium finish”. But, the toe-to-toe intensity of 400 miles of coastal racing, combined with nine months of brutal living (and more than 10 hours waiting between the finish and being allowed to come in for interviews) left them so drained and lethargic. As it did each of the crews behind them. It’s the typical state of a Volvo Ocean Race sailor stepping onto land.
“Happy, very happy,” Echavarri continued, a big smile breaking out. “But tired. This whole race, is so, so tough.”
And now it’s over.
More than 37,000 miles have been sailed, 11 ports visited in 10 countries on five continents, and, in the quickest case, it took Ericsson 4 127 days to complete their circumnavigation. The conditions were often horrendous, the lifestyle primitive, the risks and adventure unimaginable to normal people. The physical and mental challenges of the final few sprints were regularly as hard as the longest marathon. “The shorter ones, I think, are actually harder,” said PUMA skipper Ken Read before leg eight. “But this race is one long battle. There’s no way of over-stating that.”
Now begins the next phase, a time Green Dragon’s Phil Harmer described ahead of the leg as “returning to society”. It means leaving the “bubble”, temporarily moving away from the exhilaration, fear, intensity, watch systems, rehydrated powder food, sleep deprivation, and the close confines of a 70-foot boat shared with 10 other people (some friends, some not). These guys are all in demand, though, and will move on to other races, most likely around buoys or islands for the time being.
“Nothing as hard as this for a while,” laughed Telefonica Blue’s Simon Fisher.
“I’m going home to paint the house,” added Stu Wilson of Team Delta Lloyd.
“I’m just looking forward to going back to my family and being a dad again,” said PUMA’s Rob Salthouse.
Finishing the race, for awhile at least, dims the noises of their intrinsic and complex desires to challenge themselves and win or complete a hard, a very hard, race.
They agreed, unanimously as the straw poll could tell, that no one wanted the event to go on any longer. “It’s so hard,” added Ericsson 3 skipper Magnus Olsson. “I suppose it’s one strange reason we like it. But we are at our limits. Need a break, a long break.”
But, in maintaining the mystery of their psyches, they have almost all adopted the cliché that you never say never. In fact, just about everyone said they wanted to come back and do another. “I see my career swaying more towards Volvo than anything else,” said Fisher, who has now completed two. “For sure I’d like to do another, or two or three,” added Ericsson 4’s Stu Bannatyne, a five-race veteran and triple winner.
Some people will walk away. Roger Nilson has participated in a record seven races now and, at 60, said he would do no more. Even the uncontainable Olsson, also 60, was ambiguous on the subject. “I would love to do another, but I do not know what role.” That said, it’s not uncommon for people to go back on their word (Mikey Joubert being the obvious and most publicised example).
Iker Martinez said he and Xavi Fernandez would most likely favour a tilt at a second gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.
“But I love this race,” Martinez said. “I have had a great experience. There have been great times, and bad times. I do not try to separate them. It is all part of the experience and it is a very positive one. I would like to do another at some point.”
“It is just such a great achievement, to sail around the world,” Read added. “This is a truly tough event and I am just proud to have done it. I have had the pleasure of sailing with a great team, in a great boat.” He also looked exhausted. His team secured a superb second place on the leaderboard by simply finishing this leg, the reward for a run of results that looked good early on and continued to get better and better throughout the race (they scored more points after leaving Boston than anyone else). It’s a fantastic return for a one-boat programme, but there was a trace of sadness in his voice. And most others.
“After you spend so much time in this race, with these people, it’s a bit of a shock to the system when you finally finish. We have been through an amazing adventure together. We just sailed around the world.”
Telefonica Blue skipper Bouwe Bekking continued: “When you put two or three years into a campaign, it’s always a little bit sad at the end.
“My last words for this quote are for my team onboard. Thanks to you all, we have shown the world what a team is.”
Ericsson 4’s Torben Grael added: “It’s a funny feeling because some of these guys you had never met before and you become like brothers. Now we go our own ways and it’s a strange feeling. On the other hand it has been a long race. It was a very long race around the world. We are completely drained and tired so I think everyone is looking forward to a nice rest. We have had a wonderful time.”
The looks and bodies on the dock didn’t show that. They showed tiredness and exhaustion. But the words said everything about the last nine months.