by Conrad Colman
The Volvo Ocean 65s are high and dry in Lisbon as they get their final tune up before the race – but the sailors are wet to the bone in Newcastle, UK for a sea survival course.
Just 27 days separate the Volvo Ocean Race crews from the start line, but first they must all pass through the Marine and Offshore Safety Training Centre, just outside Newcastle, for two days of intensive first aid training, firefighting and an opportunity experience the challenges of safety at sea.
Hearty laughs and good-natured banter echoes off walls of the pool room as the crews jump into the pool in shorts and T-shirts and told to tread water. An easy task for some of the burliest sailors on the planet, all of them experienced seamen and surfers for whom the sea is their playground.
Then the waves roll through the swimming pool, drenching rain deluges from overhead spray heads. Smiles fade. Industrial fans kick in, creating a deafening roar that extinguishes any remaining glint in the swimmer’s eyes and makes it hard to breathe.
They struggle to stay afloat, some go under the waves. Eventually one of the sailors taps out, reaching for the ladder. Two minutes later the instructor stops the exercise to save the rest. How long had the world’s hardest sailors lasted? Just five minutes.
Lesson learned, always wear a lifejacket! Now, dressed in survival suits and equipped with custom-made Spinlock Deckvest lifejackets, the crews returned to the pool and were put through their paces by Ocean Safety drill sergeants who barked orders over the screeching fans and pounding waves.
The final part of the exercise was how to survive in a liferaft – and if teams thought their race boats were cramped, they were in for a surprise with the rafts. Survival etiquette is important – basically, don’t throw up in your neighbour’s lap, and don’t eat more than your fair share of the survival biscuits.
The waves and the rain were turned back up, the lights turned off and the fans on. As the two rafts bobbed up and down, strobe lights flashing in the dark, voices rose above the maelstrom.
Defying the conditions and cementing their camaraderie, Team Brunel enthusiastically sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to their Argentinian crew member Maciel Cicchetti.
If teamwork is key to survival at sea, the Volvo Ocean Race sailors are now ready for anything.