Steam and Spray

On the latest leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, a dispatch from Abu Dhabi
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Photo: James Nord

The Lula Terrace at 1am on the darker side of the docks held few sailors and fewer of the kind of people you'd like to see at that time in the morning three-quarters drunk, especially in a dry country. It's perfectly legal to drink there, in the tent that was the Lula Lounge, and in a few of the surrounding hotels, but the locals shun you with the kind of reserved energy best left for houseguests that never seem to leave. Nevertheless, the stragglers downed their Heinekens with gusto, laughing, shrieking into the Abu Dhabi night, grasping at the hangers-on, the sailor groupies who have traveled far and wide to be in the arms of the men who know little else than the sea. The Volvo Ocean Race is a nine month journey every three years that criss-crosses the world's oceans from Miami to Abu Dhabi to China and back again; a daring, wild, and frantic journey where the difference between winning and losing can still be just the matter of a few feet, despite the massive distance travelled between the start and finish lines.

There's a band at the far end of the tent butchering modern classics comprised of professional sailors who know that you know that they don't know the words to "More Than A Feeling". When they suddenly disband halfway through the second chorus to continue drinking, the DJ scrambles to press play on a misguided house song, and as the lights are still very much on this gives Lula Terrace at 1am the hue of a party that refuses to die despite the odds stacked heavily in its favor. The liquor has since run out and there is only beer now; the hurdy-gurdy sluggish energy of the beer the only thing keeping the party afloat. The shore crew of the Puma Sailing Team wandered around the edges, somewhat above the whole ordeal. This is only the first night here in Abu Dhabi and you're tired, jetlagged, and not above funneling cigarettes into your mouth to simply keep your wits about you. 

The following day all traces of last night's party has dispersed and you and your colleagues are taken around the marina, meeting rugged individuals who live out on the ocean water going 80mph nine months out of the year. They are as fast and no-bullshit with you as they are on the water and you hold your own behind your notebook and pen, jotting frantically the statistics of the trips: 10 men, eight sailing at any given time, six on the grinders alone, four hour shifts, 24 hours a day, nine months out of the year, once every 3 years, with a workout regimen that rivals that of most any professional million-dollar athlete  in the United States. 

The race started in 1973 as the Whitbread 'Round The World Race and used to be a much more pedestrian jaunt, if a race around the fucking world could be called such a thing. They used to be schooners. Nowadays the boats are 70ft tall, made almost entirely of carbon fiber, and cost $6,000,000, racing at speeds on the open ocean water anywhere between 50 and 80 mph. Now it's your turn. You step on the boat and are pushed out, casually at first, you approach the starting line for a friendly race between the other four teams. The Camper team, from Spain, in their flagrant dark red jerseys, laugh at the newbies from their boat forty feet away and it gives you more incentive to kick their ass. The French team cut you off almost immediately after the horn goes – the horn goes! – it's your time now, you grab the grinder and raise the sail. Standing off to the side to allow some of the actual sailors to do their thing you sway to the side as the boat turns to a near 45º angle – you're on your way, allowed a few seconds to catch your breath before being called again to grab the grinder once more and pump the sail in the other direction to avoid the French bastards. 

Ken Read asks you to grab the steering wheel for a while and you feel how surprisingly mallable the thing is; it's not unlike steering a Cadillac. It's a giant fucking thing; wide as a card table and as tempermental as one too... you can barely keep the thing from going haywire. "Hands at 10 and 2!" you hear in your head, some distant driving instructor from a decade ago tells you. You pull hard to the right. The boat makes the sound a camel might while achieving sexual climax except LOUD and INCREDIBLY FUCKING CLOSE to you – everyone lurches in the opposite direction as the team swerves to avoid the fucking French boat; those Gallic bastards not knowing the havoc they caused on the American boat. 

You still have to find a story within all this. Your colleague Sean Sullivan has been at work on the grinder while you've been scurrying around the stern of the boat divvying your time between steering the boat and trying to jot down any sort of note. Ken Read takes the wheel and you reach forward to Sean with your voice recorder; ask him for a quote, any quote, really, you didn't plan on this kind of scrabbling on the boat – sailing to you until that point had been a mixture of Christopher Cross songs and childhood wallpaper. "Got a quote, Sean?" you word over the wind; "I'll give you a quote when I catch my breath," he shouts, jamming the grinder like a monkey on high grade methamphetamine. Too much wind noise. Too much wind noise on the voice recorder. Too much undecipherable, excited conversation lost – yelling, too, about how to steer the boat to get ahead of the fucking French. There's a photographer onboard, sitting there like a mook, you ask him, too, for a quote: "WHAT'S IT LIKE FOR YOU" you ask. He gives you a quizzical look. "WHAT'S IT LIKE JUST SITTING THERE" you yell. "FUCKING GREAT" he says, not hearing you, and looks back towards the front of the boat. Sean, taking a much needed break from the grinder, jokes about throwing him and the woman from the fashion house overboard; "We need to lose some weight," he says. 

"You're never going straight. You're either up in the lulls or down in the puffs," says Ken, "Pull to the right. Now down to the left. There you go," he guides to someone else on the wheel; too much going on to look back to find out who. One of the guys on the grinders loses his grip and the thing spins wildly out of control until a well-timed grab stops it. There's a private yacht a few hundred yards away as white as a molar and its inhabitants just gawk at your massive boat passing by. The Camper boat eases ahead, the bastards, and there's little you can do as water from their wake hits the bow of the boat; angrily splattering the front of the boat like an acquatic Jackson Pollock. Too much wind in the voice recorder again. Hard to decipher what's going on even if your own mind hours later as you sit down to write it all down, listening back to the recording. Too much wind. Muffled shouted conversations and that damned camel sound again as six men take to the grinders once more, moving both sails as they round the buoy signifying the midpoint in the race. The boat tilts to the side at an extreme angle and you slip, almost falling, catching yourself on the wire, you're able to put your hand in the water going by so fast. 

"You just can't give up an oppurtunity to work with some of the best athletes in the world, and in a field like this..." says New York City based photographer James Nord, who is wearing ridiculous red shorts. "Do you feel like a badass?" you ask him. He nods. "Even in those shorts?" you say, and he pretends to laugh the way your grandma would if you told and then explained to her an off color joke – enunciating "Ha Ha Ha Ha" in monotone stattaco. "I didn't shave my legs for nothing," you hear him say as you make your way to the front of the boat to get a better a picture; of course you, of all fucking people, thinking you can take a better picture than four professional photographers. The boat shifts again. A big fuck-off wave hits the sail ten feet up just in front of you. Kirby, the youngest guy, moves up to the front of the boat, taping up a hole the size of a fist in the sail. It's an intense scene for being a friendly race, and you happen to look over to the side and see the Camper boat, which has fallen behind, and it looks for all the world like an oil painting – perhaps it reminds you of them, the boats on the water – and you realize what it takes to actually sail, and how it might look from afar, and what goes into these fucking mammoth boats racing around the world at high speeds. And then you think – 

You can't complete the last thought, or rather, there's little to transcibe now, back on shore, hours later. Muffled wind against the mic again. Incomprehensible speech for the next minute or so on the recording. Something about the press boat trailing behind you snapping pictures from afar like some sort of wild animal. Something about another turn; another 45º angle. The damn camel sound again. Too much wind. The mic levels are in the red. Too much wind. You can barely hear yourself complain about the other people on the boat not working hard enough to win against those fucking French bastards. The tape cuts out there, in what appears to be mid sentence in a rant against the French people, silence now, no more audio of the supposedly "friendly" race, but you're still back there out on the water, hours later, furrowed brow in the hotel room, trying desperately to find your way back there to whatever you felt on that boat racing towards the infinite blue line of the horizon.


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