Olivia Parker of the Daily Telegraph reflects on the achievements of the woman’s crew of Team SCA in the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race.
They may not have finished in first place, or even close, but the first all-female team to sail the Volvo Ocean Race in 12 years has spent nine memorable months pushing boundaries for women’s sailing
It was leg five that almost broke them. A matter of hours after crossing the finishing line of the nine-month, round-the-world (RTW) Volvo Ocean Race, memories of “that leg’’ are still fresh for Team SCA, the only all-woman crew in the 2014-15 race and the only female crew ever to have won a “leg”, the name given to each of the nine stages of the competition.
“After leg five I said no, never again,” Olympic sailor Annie Lush tells me on the quayside in Gothenburg, Sweden, her hair still streaked with salt and her face lined with exhaustion.
“My worst moment? A large part of leg five,” declares meteorologist Libby Greenhalgh emphatically.
It is the most notorious section of the 39,000 nautical mile race – this year the longest RTW route in the race’s 42-year history – comprising 6,776 “fundamentally scary” miles from New Zealand, across the unrelenting Southern Ocean with its 100ft waves and 60 knot winds, to Itajaí in Brazil.
A few days after the team had left Auckland in March, the temperature plummeted and the merciless cold started to creep throughout the boat, forcing the crew into survival suits for the first time since the race had begun in Alicante, Spain, in October. As they sailed into one of the most remote areas on the planet, the only other sign of life was the odd albatross, circling high above them.
Then, on the seventh night, as they surfed the swell at 20-25 knots in “wet, brutal and cold” conditions, disaster struck. “The situation was pretty scary,” recalls Abby Ehler, from Plymouth, one of five British women on board. “It was the middle of the night and pitch black. There were no lights on the boat.”
They were a little out of control; the yacht, a Volvo Ocean 65, was heeled over hard when suddenly they were hit by a squall that shredded one of their sails.
“The sail hit the water and immediately acted as a sea anchor, so it basically stopped us dead,” continues Dee Caffari, one of Britain’s best-known yachtswomen who in 2006 sailed single-handedly “the wrong way’’ around the world (i.e. westward against the prevailing winds). Three years later she circumnavigated the “right way’’ around, becoming the first woman to sail solo, non-stop, in both directions.
With the sail pulling the boat onto its side towards the freezing water, the crew were suddenly in serious danger. “Everything was against us. The keel was on the wrong side, the sail stack was on the wrong side, everything was pulling the boat over,” says Abby. “I was on deck at the time and I remember being in the cockpit and looking up at the floor that was suddenly above me, thinking, my God, there is no way I can climb up there.”
It was nine-tenths of the way through the race, however, on June 10, that their resilience and persistence paid off. Team SCA took an early lead in leg eight, from Portugal to Lorient, in France, and arrived in port 48 minutes ahead of the closest boat to scenes of jubilation.
“That was a ‘let’s make history’ moment,” says Dee. “Everything felt like it had been worth it. We knew it was in us and we just hadn’t delivered, and it was a justification for all the hard work that the guys behind us put in, the coaches, the shore team.”
It was a win that silenced their many critics, who’d argued that a women’s team could never be physically strong enough to compete. “When we went to get our prize in Lorient we got a standing ovation,” says Libby. “It was like, ‘Wow, these guys genuinely respect us now.’ Not that they didn’t before, but you actually could really see it because they showed it.”
Their message delivered, the crew is starting its recovery and their top priority is a good meal followed by bed. After nine months without fresh food in one of the toughest endurance tests imaginable, they are vitamin deprived and bone-crushingly exhausted. “Our immune systems have been down since leg six,” says Annie. “I’ve never felt tiredness like this. It’s not the kind of tiredness that can be fixed with a night’s sleep.”
But would they do it all again? “Definitely. Hands down, straightaway,” says Libby. Dee agrees. “We’ve only just got good at it. Now we want to do it again – and do it properly.”