This year is the 40th anniversary of the round the world race, now the Volvo Ocean Race. Barry Pickthall remembers the early days

Whitbread History

The Whitbread round the World race

Sailing pioneers Francis Chichester, Alec Rose and Robin Knox-Johnston had already done it single-handedly, but a race round the world for fully crewed yachts was thought a step too far in the 1960s. Any number of blazered armchair sailors said it could never be done.

Yet a meeting between the Royal Naval Sailing Association and brewery boss Sam Whitbread in a Portsmouth pub led to 17 disparate crews on the start line for the first Whitbread Round the World Race in September 1973.

Only 14 went the distance and a heavy price price was paid in lives and broken boats. But lessons from this and subsequent Whitbread races held every four years for the next three decades pioneered many of the advances now commonplace on cruising yachts.

 

Preparation

In 1973, preparedness meant making it to the startline with the crew and food on board. When Sir Alec Rose fired the cannon from Southsea Castle, many crews were too busy still finishing their boats to think about what lay ahead.

Aboard Les Williams’s Burton Cutter crew were cutting wood to make berths as they sailed out of the Solent. The 80-footer was built in Poole by a company more used to making fuel tanks than boats and there had been no time even to hoist her sails before the race. For Peter Blake, then a keen but green 25-year-old, the experience was a baptism of fire. “We had a big drum of rope in the cockpit and I was cutting off the sheets to size each time we hoisted a new sail,” he recalled years later.

Improvisation was the key. Arriving late for measurement at HMS Vernon, Burton Cutter was found to be floating down by the bow. Skipper Williams was at a loss as to how to reballast her in the short time available. Not so owner Alan Smith. A West Country businessman who was more hunting and shooting than sailing, he simply rang up his gunsmith and arranged for lead shot to be poured into her skeg.

Burton Cutter was first into Cape Town, pioneering an upwind route through the South Atlantic High when others chose the longer trade route to Brazil. But the boat began to break up soon after heading into the Southern Ocean and only rejoined the race on the last leg from Rio back to Portsmouth.

Four years later, few lessons had been taken on board. In 1977 Williams co-skippered the British maxi Heath’s Condor with Robin Knox-Johnston. Again, little time was left for sailing before the race and the crew were still rigging her experimental carbon fibre mast on the eve of the start. Little wonder, then, that they lost it overboard during the first leg.

Contrast this with the efforts of an then-unknown Dutchman, Cornelis van Rietschoten. After commissioning Sparkman & Stephens to design a boat to beat Ramon Carlin’s 1973-74 race winner, the Swan 65 Sayula II, he embarked on a transatlantic crossing to test the boat and crew, plus a return race (which they won) and a Fastnet. Flyer and her crew were honed to such a high level compared to the rest of the fleet the race was almost won already.

Van Rietschoten returned with a second Flyer four years later, this one a Frers-designed maxi built expressly to win line honours. Again preparation paid off – the crew became the only team in the history of the event to win both line and handicap honours.

Van Rietschoten not only repeated the pre-race trials, he funded a research programme that had far-reaching effects. First, he commissioned Britain’s National Weather Centre to condense a century of weather statistics. These went into a computer program to predict the likely local scenarios, particularly in the Southern Ocean.

The program wasn’t a complete success, but the lessons learned from the research, along with coaching given by weather guru David Houghton, meant the crew only got the weather ‘wrong’ once. In the previous race the first Flyer crew found themselves on the wrong side of pressure systems 14 times – and still won.

During the first two races crews suffered badly from colds and flu in the Southern Ocean because short bursts of activity led to sweating that then chilled on the body under layers of fleece and oilskins. The challenge was to ‘wick’ sweat away from the skin. Working with Musto and the National Aerospace Laboratory at Farnborough, the Flyer crew helped to develop the first three-layer system, which went on to revolutionise how manufacturers made their sailing clothing.

The third improvement centred on rigging. During the first two races, yachts were rigged with 1×19 wire. By 1981 rod rigging was in vogue, with the rigging bent at the spreader tips. Van Rietschoten, an engineer at heart who was reluctant to change from a ketch to a sloop rig, was unconvinced.

He commissioned Dutch Aerospace laboratories to develop a discontinuous rigging system with individual rods between spar and spreader tips that could articulate at each connection point. The industry thought this was over the top until three maxis lost their rigs early that season. Navtec took up the idea and offered it as standard.

That was too late for Peter Blake’s first New Zealand entry. Ceramco New Zealand set out from Portsmouth with continuous rod rigging and off Ascension Island it failed at a spreader tip, leading to her crew making the longest voyage in history under jury rig.

 

Whitbread History

The Whitbread round the World race 1985/86

Watch systems

The first Whitbread races were laissez faire events compared to today’s full-on racing. Crews tended not to fly spinnakers at night for fear of mishandling them and watch systems on some boats were very laid-back. Of Burton Cutter in 1973, Blake recalled: “We had a game of backgammon running below and anyone still in the game was excused watches. It put a lot of pressure on the losers, who finished up not only out of pocket, but doing more than their fair share of the work.”

 

Parties

They knew how to hold parties during the early years. With none of the crew and PR regimes that police Volvo raceboats today, hedonistic events were fuelled by the sponsor’s brew and an ethic among crews that what goes on on tour stays on tour. In a libertine era, life ashore was played out to the full.

The most notable parties – or at least those that can be written about – include a riotous affair at a local yacht club during the 1973-74 race, when Clare Francis led a conga straight into the swimming pool. That night ended in a haze of tear gas as riot police charged into this millionaire’s oasis to clear out the prostitutes.

Peter Blake inaugurated the Garden Party aboard Ceramco New Zealand in 1986, but the most memorable event was on Lion New Zealand four years later during the Punta del Este stopover. Called on to bring a plant to the boat, guests excelled themselves by denuding hotels and restaurants of every potplant not bolted down. One crew even arrived pulling a palm tree behind their VW transporter, having ripped it out of the harbour boulevard.

 

Fatalities

Death is never mentioned yet never far from any crewman’s mind, especially when yachts are riding on a knife-edge between windswept and wipeout in the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties. But ultimate danger also heightens the challenge for these sailors – it is what has always attracted a special breed of sportsmen and women to the Whitbread/Volvo Ocean Race.

The dangers quickly became apparent when untested crews entered the Southern Ocean in 1973. Paul Waterhouse was the first to lose his life. He was lost overboard from Tauranga 12 days after the fleet left Cape Town. Four days later co-skipper Dominique Guillet disappeared overboard from the 60ft ketch 33 Export. On the ninth day of Leg 3, Chay Blyth encouraged his Great Britain II crew to make more sail after a southerly buster passed. Tidying up the foredeck, Bernie Hosking pulled on a sail-tie caught in the forestay. It gave way and he too was lost. Three deaths in that first race were three too many and the race might have ended then had the Press had its way.

There have been two more deaths since, both from falling overboard. Each was tragic, but the Whitbread and Volvo races have been responsible for huge strides made in safety equipment in the four decades since. Lifejackets, harnesses, MOB tracking devices, immersion suits and sprayhoods have helped to extend life expectancy from just a few minutes to half an hour or more in the Southern Ocean, a legacy that overshadows the best parties.

This is an extract from a feature in the November 2014 issue of Yachting World