Inside the ‘Everest of sailing races,’ where crews endure massive waves, little sleep, and freezing temperatures

The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the world's toughest sailing races.

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The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the world’s toughest sailing races.
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Brian Carlin/Volvo Ocean Race

Welcome to the Volvo Ocean Race, one of the toughest sailing races on the planet.

Held every three years, the nine-month, 40,000-mile race is a grueling test of will and ability for some of the world’s best sailors.

Along the way, the teams visit six continents, cross the equator, and experience temperatures ranging from below freezing to burning hot – all with as little gear as possible to keep weight down on the boats.

The race has been called the ‘Everest of sailing’ for the difficult conditions teams face.

But the payoff is worth it, the competitors say.

“When you think about that sense of achievement when you get to another country, it’s incredible,” Brian Carlin, an onboard reporter that Volvo Ocean Race pays to sail with the competitors, told Business Insider. “It’s a pretty unique event and certainly very, very unique experience.”

The winner of the race is determined by a points system. Teams earn points by pulling into ports first, second, or third at the end of each of the race’s 11 legs. Double points get awarded for the most difficult legs, and the team with the fastest overall time receives bonus points.

In the end, the group with the highest overall total wins a trophy.

Here’s what it’s like to sail thousands of miles through the open ocean with the fleet:


Only the toughest, most experienced sailors are capable of participating in the race. On the longest legs, competitors spend close to a month at sea, running the boat 24 hours a day.

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Chris Nicholson works the waves on May 5, 2018.
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Brian Carlin/Volvo Ocean Race

The boats are designed for speed — not comfort — so it can be a wet, bumpy ride when the weather isn’t cooperating. Each boat is 65 feet long and built to withstand punishing ocean conditions.

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In Leg 7, boats sailed from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil. (March 30, 2018)
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Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

“It’s an experience,” Carlin said. “It can be pretty bleak and if you’re on deck, you’re getting hosed by waves and the salt water gets into your skin and you get calluses and you get rashes and it’s… Yeah, it’s actually not that appealing when you, when you think about it.”

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Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race

This year’s race started in Alicante, Spain in October 2017.

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Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

The fleet completes the journey in 11 parts. The sailors are currently speeding across the Atlantic Ocean towards Cardiff, Wales after departing Newport, Rhode Island on May 20. At the end of the last completed leg, team MAPFRE was in the lead with 53 points.

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Jesus Renedo/Volvo Ocean Race

The teams are experiencing favorable sailing conditions on the Atlantic crossing, hitting speeds of over 35 miles-per-hour and smashing records for distance sailed in 24-hours.

If you want to see what it’s like to sail at almost 40 miles-per-hour in the middle of the ocean, check out this video:


The 2017-2018 edition of the race is set apart by a new rule: it’s the first year that women must be included in each of the sailing teams.

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Emily Nagel fights the elements on the way from Itajai, Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island on May 2, 2018.
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Brian Carlin/Volvo Ocean Race

The event is highly competitive. The boats are often just minutes apart from each other at all times as they travel over 15,000 miles and spend weeks at sea.

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Abby Ehler endures cold, difficult conditions after sailing around Cape Horn, March 30, 2018.
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Yann Riou/Volvo Ocean Race

The boats can reach speeds of up to 32 knots, or over 35 miles per hour, in prime sailing conditions. The vessels can also “surf” down large waves, breaking 30 knots.

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In Leg 4, boats sailed from Melbourne, Australia to Hong Kong.
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Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race

The ships can cover around 500 nautical miles in 24 hours in good sailing conditions if the crew is “sending it,” Carlin said.

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Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

On each boat, the 10 members of the crew have specific job functions.

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Martine Grael is pictured during Leg 7, in which teams sailed from Auckland to Itajai, March 22, 2018.
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James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race

The navigator’s job is to set the route to maximize optimal weather and wind conditions.

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Anna-Lena Elled / Team SCA / Vol

But the skipper, or captain, always makes the final decision, Carlin said.

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Kyle Langford looks at the navigation station while Thomas Rouxel eats his diner. Condensation is visible on the ceiling. (March 21, 2018)
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Yann Riou/Volvo Ocean Race

An onboard reporter like Carlin is assigned to each boat to document the trip for the Volvo Ocean Race organization. They live and sleep with the crew, but aren’t allowed to help sail in any way.

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Peter Burling focuses on speed as he sails from Itajai to Newport, May 4, 2018.
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Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race

The reporters train their pens and cameras on the sailors at all times — even when the team is grumpy and exhausted, Carlin said.

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Competitors sail from Itajai to Newport on April 23, 2018.
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Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race

Leg 7 of the race requires the sailors to round Chile’s infamous Cape Horn, a peninsula that has proven to be a graveyard for ships for hundreds of years. That’s where teams experience some of the most vicious weather.

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Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race

“It’s a pressure cooker environment where every sail change, every decision, every little movement on the boat counts for winning or losing,” Carlin said.

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The sun sets during Leg 6.
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Martin Keruzore/Volvo Ocean Race

But that’s all part of the challenge. Many sailors see the race as a test of will between them and sea.

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Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race

Life on board the ship isn’t easy. The sailors bring minimal clothing — just what they need to stay warm in cold and wet conditions. All the food they eat is pre-packed and freeze-dried.

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Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica / V

There’s nothing resembling bedrooms or even traditional beds on the ships.

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After his watch, Alex Gough seeks out food and sleep, March 20, 2018.
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Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race

The sailors usually only sleep for 3 or 4 hours between shifts, Carlin said.

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Ben Piggott sleeps during Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, April 23, 2018.
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Rich Edwards/Volvo Ocean Race

“I suppose the best way to describe it is sitting in a one-bedroom apartment with 10 people, a bucket for a toilet, your freeze-dried meal comes out of a bag, and then you go to sea for three weeks,” Carlin said. He added that most people just go to the bathroom off the back of the boat.

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Sailors rest during Leg 4 from Melbourne, Australia to Hong Kong, January 6, 2018.
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Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race

“It’s either freezing cold or super hot,” Carlin added. “There’s no windows you can open, the smells get pretty funky, and you’re always tired, and you haven’t slept that much.”

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Racers encountered light winds and warm temperatures en route to Auckland, New Zealand during Leg 6.
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Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race

In the area near the equator, there’s not much wind, so the sailors get a lot of downtime to rest and do repairs on the ship. They refer to it “the doldrums.”

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Brad Farrand clears seaweed from the rudders as his boat crosses the equator and encounter some Sargasso Seaweed on May 1, 2018.
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Brian Carlin/Volvo Ocean Race

With little wind in that area, the boats can usually only travel around 60 miles in a day, a pace Carlin said can feel “pretty painful”.

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Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race

While life during the race is mostly grueling, the sailors still find time to have fun.

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Yann Riou/Volvo Ocean Race

One of the rituals that sailors practice when they cross the equator is a sacrifice to King Neptune, the god of the sea. Teams’ approaches differ, but the ceremony usually involves the skipper dressing up as Neptune and covering a rookie sailor — or other team member — in food, paint, or something else gross.

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For sailors meeting King Neptune at the equator, respects are always paid on board. (January, 12, 2018)
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Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race

As hard-core sailors, each competitor lives for the race’s sublime moments on the open ocean.

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Emily Nagel awaits the equator crossing, April 30, 2018.
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Brian Carlin/Volvo Ocean Race

But the Volvo Ocean race is a team sport. “You cannot be an individual on these teams,” Carlin said. “You’re not gonna survive, you won’t be accepted.”

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It’s all smiles for Nick Dana, Tom Johnson, and Mark Towill — with the Doldrums drift-off a thing of the past, new winds carry the fleet north towards the equator, January 11, 2018.
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Amory Ross/Volvo Ocean Race

“This is about being a team and working together and getting the best out of it,” Carlin said.

The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the world's toughest sailing races.

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A sailor works on the boat’s sails at sea on April 28, 2018.
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Brian Carlin/Volvo Ocean Race

The fleet leaves Newport on May 20 to cross the Atlantic towards Cardiff, Wales.

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Sunrise at the equator, April 30, 2018.
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Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race