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Being paid to sail a fast boat; what's to complain about?

2009 March 1
Imagine if Brett Favre wrote a Web log during football games, blogging his thoughts from the New York Jets sideline on a BlackBerry when the defense was on the field: "The offensive line they've stuck me with couldn't block my mother-in-law. The last guy who ran over them and sacked me laid on me for a good minute. He must have weighed 400 pounds. Besides that he had bad breath. At least it was warm under that tub of lard. Playing in this cold and wind is no picnic, I'll tell you. Sure, it's easy for the other team's quarterback, he's got a running game, but I've got to pass on every down. That's OK with me, that's why they call me a gunslinger. But in weather like this you have to expect a few passes to be picked off. And I really resent the booing. I'm not saying I'm a legend or anything like that and shouldn't be criticized. Plenty of future hall of famers have been booed. But, shoot, three interceptions isn't that big a deal. What's with these New York fans anyway? They never did that to me in Green Bay."

Blogging from the game is a pretty weird concept, but you might recognize it-it happens in sailing. Around-the-world sailboat racing has come a long way as a professional sport. It has star players, highly paid athletes, big-time sponsorship, tons of money all around, but it differs from other pro sports in that you can't watch it, at least not in real time. You can, however, follow it on the Internet. In the Volvo Ocean Race, reports and images are e-mailed from the boats, and a lot of the information comes in the form of blogs. I've been following those written by Ken Read, the estimable Newport, Rhode Island, sailor who is skipper of Team Puma's il Mostro. This has been quite entertaining, but I have to say, like Favre in the concocted blog above, he really complains a lot.

"Last night really sucked" is a pretty typical start to a Read blog posting. Some of the griping is, as expected, about the weather and various mishaps aboard the boat, but there's a lot of grousing about the race course-too much beating-and upwind sailing in general. Like most of us, Read has noticed this can often be unpleasant, tending to make one wet, uncomfortable and possibly seasick.

Blogging from the Bay of Bengal, he wrote, "Bringing these boats here for this leg is like using a Ferrari for a tractor pull. Slogging upwind, tacking on every shift for days. In fact, for one 24-hour period we had 51 squalls come through bringing rain, shift, no shift, wind, no wind, etc. You get my drift. Mix in the heat and humidity and you have a real glamorous sailing spot at this moment in time."

Sometimes sailing just sucks, I guess. Especially aboard a Volvo 70, it seems. Here's Read on the onboard ambience: "I know that the interior of these boats and the lack of amenities has been well documented. The lack of much hygiene, the noises the boat makes and the lack of sleep are part of the game. Mix in a nice layer of carbon fiber dust on your clothes, foul weather gear, sleeping bag and food, and you have a pretty good idea of what it has been like on this fine yacht for the last few days. Sounds lovely, doesn't? It really isn't."

Maybe I'm not getting his drift right, but it sure sounds like he wishes he were somewhere else, a bit surprising coming from someone who makes his living sailing and is being handsomely paid to pilot a fantastic sailing machine around the world. Shoot, as Brett would say, I'd do that for nothing. Volvo 70s are taking monohulled boats where none have gone before in terms of speed. In October, one of Puma's competitors, Ericsson 4, broke a record by sailing 602.66 nautical miles in 24 hours. Do the math and you'll find the boat's average speed was probably faster than that of your commute to work.

I don't mean to suggest, from the comfort of my carbon fiber dust-free office, that the Volvo race is a fun-filled jaunt around the globe. It regularly produces challenges that are quite a bit more difficult to deal with than smelly mates and poor sleeping conditions. Such as what Gustav Morin, a crewmember on Ericsson 3, described as "the worst watch of my life," which included a squall lasting four hours, during which "it was pitch black, absolutely no visibility at all. I couldn't see the waves and no horizon and we had everything from 19 to 46 knots of wind. Going with the chute up in that much breeze on one of these boats when you can't see a thing is as terrifying as it gets." Terrifying with the spinnaker up and terrifying to think of trying to take it down. They left it up. It was, Morin said, "pretty much survive or die." They survived.

Hairy stuff, for sure. But at least in the Volvo race there are 11-person crews to deal with it and stopovers between legs to recover. There are no such luxuries for the sailors in the Vendée Globe Race, which is going on simultaneously with the Volvo. They're sailing around the world nonstop, alone on Open 60s, boats that are said to be as fast and almost as difficult to manage as Volvo 70s and less seaworthy. There hasn't been much complaining from the Vendée skippers and none that I've seen about uncomfortable living conditions. I guess they're too busy to gripe.

So far, all of the 30 skippers who started have survived, but in several cases barely. The same can't be said of their boats. By mid-January, 18 skippers had withdrawn from the race. Boats have capsized, been dismasted and broken in various ways. Two skippers have been rescued in appalling conditions.

While working on the bow in the Roaring 40s about 850 miles southeast of Perth, Yann Elies was thrown violently to the deck, breaking his thigh bone and several ribs. He was able to crawl below and contact race officials, but then couldn't move enough to reach the pain relievers in his medical kit. After two days he was rescued by an Australian Navy frigate.

Jean Le Cam was trapped for 16 hours in the hull of his capsized boat 200 miles west of Cape Horn before being rescued by fellow Vendée sailor Vincent Riou. After Riou, who had been 100 miles behind his stricken rival, reached the scene, Le Cam exited his boat through an escape hatch in the stern and swam in a survival suit to his rescuer's boat. In a reaffirmation of the cynical aphorism that no good deed goes unpunished, Riou's then doublehanded boat was dismasted shortly after the rescue.

Now that's something worth complaining about. I don't think human endeavor, ruling out war but not exempting mountain climbing, gets much riskier, nor requires more courage, than singlehanded ocean racing in these ridiculously fragile boats. Much as I like a little adventure in my sailing, I'll pass. On the other hand, I'm still available for the Volvo. Just give me a warm downwind leg. I won't complain about the carbon fiber dust.