British sailor Ian Budgen talks to Sam Brunner about life onboard a Volvo70 during the VOR 31/5/06

Sailing the Volvo Ocean Race was something that Ian Budgen (Budgie), 35, the latest recruit to the Pirates of the Caribbean, had wanted to do for a long time: ‘It’s been a goal of mine since I started sailing in Scotland age 11.’

But with only 70 crew spots available on seven boats, and no previous experience of the race, becoming a Pirate wasn’t easy: “I had sailed with Paul (Cayard) a few times – on a Swan 45 with Leonardo Ferregamo, and last summer on George Andreadis’s TP52 Atalanti. When I knew he was involved with the race, I sent him my CV, registering my interest.

“However, because the Pirates project was so late (the last campaign to be mounted, and the latest boat into the water), Paul wanted to take crew who’d done the race already, in order to shortcut some problems and to work the boat up to speed as quickly as possible. So. I didn’t make the crew from the outset. I sent him an e-mail to wish him good luck and to say I was still keen to join if there were any crew changes, and was lucky enough to be asked to join when a couple of spaces arose in Rio.”

A space on the boat was a huge achievement for Budgie, one of the younger members of the crew. However, joining a project halfway through was tough: “I was nervous. It’s difficult joining a close-knit team who’ve been together for such a long period of time, because they’re already so close as a unit. Not having done the Volvo before, I was also nervous about my ability; whether I’d be good enough to race offshore at a top international level.”

His first leg from Rio to Baltimore was full of ‘unknowns’. “One of the things that concerned me was the lack of sleep I might face, or how I would wake up for my watch at some ridiculous time of night. In actual fact, it wasn’t a problem.” The intensity of such a long race was another hurdle, but didn’t phase him: “I like winning. Paul pushes hard and works the boat hard, and I enjoyed that.”

Ironically, it was the shortest leg – from Annapolis to New York – that turned out to be one of the hardest. “It was intense, both because it was a short sprint and also because of the conditions we experienced. We had a fantastic start from Annapolis, and pleasant running conditions through the Chesapeake Bay in about 12 knts of breeze which built steadily. The forecast was for the breeze to build and head as we reached the ocean, but it still caught us a little bit by surprise.

“We went through a number of sail changes in heavy rain, and had major problems with one change at the worst possible moment, just as we were approaching the bottom of Chesapeake Bay and the entrance to the ocean, which lost us a lot of time. That evening it was 45 knts in the Atlantic and no-one really slept, as we were always adjusting the sail plan, reefing the main, changing headsails… The following day New York was dead upwind and it was favourable to tack up the shore. We ended up tacking every couple of hours, crossing tacks with moister; everyone has to be up on deck for each tack, so sleep was very, very limited.”

Added to the sleep deprivation was sheer physical exhaustion; every time the boats tack they are restacked on the new windward side. Everything that can be moved, is, right down to the crews’ toothbrushes; totalling between 1 – 2 tonnes of gear. However, when the going gets tough, the Pirates get going, says Budgie: “The atmosphere on board was fine. It’s all part of the job.”

But what about when things really go wrong? On the last leg of the race, from New York to Portsmouth, Pirates received a call came from race HQ alerting them to a man overboard situation on ABN AMRO Two and requesting them to go back and join the search. “It was the middle of the night, and absolutely pitch black. We were sailing downwind with our spinnaker up, in about 25 to 28 knots of wind. As we’d just completed a sail change, the crew were virtually all up. It was immediately all hands on deck, and we had a lot to do as we turned back upwind. We still had a full main up when we turned, and the wind built very quickly to 35 knots, so the main was ragging and we were fighting with lowering the staysail.

“After we settled the boat down to the conditions we continued upwind for half-an-hour, before a call came through from HQ telling us that the man overboard had been recovered and that we were to stand down and continue racing. It’s unbelievably impressive that they recovered him in 40 minutes, especially in those conditions. Sometime after that, I’m not sure when, we heard that Hans had passed away. Everyone was very down, we all sat in the cockpit with no-one saying anything. We were all very quiet and subdued for a long period of time afterwards. Hans’s death sent shockwaves of grief and horror through all of the crews in the race; it also made them reflect on safety on-board. “An incident like that reconfirms the dangers of the sport and makes you even more conscious of them. The following days, the breeze was still strong – 35 knts, and we were ploughing through waves that were literally bigger than houses. We were all in our survival suits – basically a dry suit which you can inflate if you want, so if you were to fall over it would provide you with some insulation – warmth, and also act as a mega lifejacket.”

Despite the leg being almost unarguably the toughest of the race in both physical and psychological terms, Budgie says he didn’t want to get off the boat. “We had five days of upwind sailing out of New York in the cold and damp, but I did really enjoy it; the conditions were extreme, but they provided some fantastic sailing.” Despite having settled into a driving seat since joining the crew, he admits that the conditions were initially daunting: “Having not driven a boat in those conditions before, I was nervous at first. Falling off the back of a wave and planting the bow in the trough of the wave behind is a bit like dropping a double-decker bus off a ten storey building! I stopped being nervous as I gained experience, and got a lot of enjoyment from driving in downwind conditions. It’s been the most fun and the biggest challenge I’ve had driving a boat in all my career.”

Life is looking rosy for the Pirates, with a flurry of podium places on recent legs giving them a solid 2nd place on the overall leader board at present. Some great tactical racing round the Solent saw them finish in 2nd place in Monday’s in-port race. “The mood is good. Obviously it would have been great to beat ABN One in the in-port, and we got quite close, but 2nd is a fantastic result and we beat all the people we need to keep behind us in order to secure 2nd overall. It’s good to be a Pirate!”