Robert Greenhalgh is competing in his fifth Volvo Ocean Race, and second on board MAPFRE, currently in a three-way tie for the lead going into the final leg. We spoke to him about the race, the challenges it presents, MAPFRE’s partnership with Helly Hansen, and the future of the Volvo Ocean Race.
With every leg in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, the racing has become closer and closer, with tighter finishes as Robert explains, “It’s the closest race we’ve ever had. All the teams in this edition are good, the boats are even and everyone is finding out how to make the boats tick. At the start of the race there was a bit of a spread in boatspeed, but now it’s very even.”
The teams are pushing the boats and themselves harder than ever and this presents unique challenges to the crew. Robert believes the move to one-design has given the teams no place to hide:
“We tack, gybe and peel sails more than we ever have done in the past. The tacks and gybes are tiring manoeuvres with a lot of weight to move around the boat and normally when you’ve done one, it’s followed soon after by another one, and that just wouldn’t happen in the Volvo 70s. Now that it’s one-design, you see the smaller windshifts, and if you don’t take the ten degree shift, you cop it. In the 70s you could get away with it and you’d put it down to the opposition having a slightly better boat at a certain angle – you’d hide behind the difference in the boats – but now if you don’t take a shift you lose out.
“The classic example was in the Southern Ocean where everyone was gybing along the line of the exclusion zone because there was just that little bit more wind further south and a very subtle shift – those who didn’t do it missed out. Once one team did it, you’ve got to follow suit.”
During these periods of extreme physical exertion, the team’s Helly Hansen sailing gear has to cope with very cold, the heat and sweat generated during the manoeuvre, and then back to being cold again.
“The most important thing offshore is to stay dry and one thing for sure in our kit is we don’t get wet,” said Rob, “It’s so different to what we had only ten years ago and it’s critical that you have good kit on board and stay dry.”
We’ve all seen the Southern Ocean photos and videos with the ‘fire hose’ conditions on deck and staying dry is easier said than done.
“For someone like a bowman it’s the worst – they’ve got to be up there plugging in sails when the bow is underwater. In a normal watch everyone is knee-deep in water regularly and if you’re driving the boat there is water being fired down your wrist seals pretty hard and you’re copping it over the head the whole time. You need good gear and in one Volvo Ocean Race leg we’ll use our kit more than the average person does in a lifetime. We take our gear on and off between six and eight times a day with watch changes, sail changes and other manoeuvres, day in day out. Without a doubt the Volvo Ocean Race is the toughest conditions for sailing kit.”
The Volvo Ocean Race itself is at a turning point, with new owners and much talk about the format for the next edition of the race. We asked Robert what he’d like to see for the race moving forward:
“I’d like to see a one-design 68-footer with a big foil on it: a boat that is capable of doing 40 knots with eight to ten crew. We don’t know what foiling will be like in the Southern Ocean, so the boat needs to be able to sail nicely without the foil as, if the foil snaps off or it’s just too dangerous, we need to be able to sail without it. You could maybe leave the foil design open with a one-design strut, providing some evolution and scope for design, as that’s how everything gets better.”
The Volvo Ocean Race is all-consuming for the duration of the event, but Robert already has plans post-race in other classes and events:
“I’ve got a new foiling Moth on its way, so I’ll be straight back in to that. I’ll try to get fit again for dinghy sailing and other big boat sailing. I’m lined up to compete in the J70 World Championship, some TP52 sailing, the Rolex Sydney Hobart and various other events to look forward to.”
With all the exertion during the Volvo Ocean Race, you’d think that fitness wouldn’t be a factor post-race, but Robert explained what the issues are:
“I was pretty fit before the start of the race, but during the race you are weakening your body. You never get a week in one place to go to a gym properly and get five or seven days of rest, sleep, train – it just doesn’t happen – so you’re always getting weaker. You also can’t get good sleep or good eating because you’re in hotels, you’re moving around all over the place, the food on the boat is good, but you’re not eating properly. So overall, you’re eating badly, resting badly and training badly.
“When you get to Cape Town you’re in reasonable shape still, but on the long legs when you hit the Southern Ocean it’s bad and you never recover after that – it’s pretty relentless. The stopovers are also pretty taxing with two-boat testing, practice races, pro-am races, in-port races, the preparation for the next leg, including food, navigation options, then there are the personal things you have to get organised, media commitments. It’s pretty hard to find time for anything else.”
The finale of the race is going to be unmissable and we wish Robert and the team on MAPFRE all the best as the Volvo Ocean Race goes down to the wire.
Story from Sail-World.