by Marina Thomas
Kit is being weighed, bags of freeze-dried food are being loaded on, adjustments are being made to sails on and emotional goodbyes are being said.
Billed as the ‘World’s most extreme ocean race’, the professional crews will battle everything from freezing conditions and icebergs to intense heat, massive waves and storms under immense pressure. Add to this the threat of piracy, man overboards and busy shipping lanes all while living in terribly cramped, damp and uncomfortable conditions.
The 41-year-old sailing contest has a big presence in the Spanish city which became its new race HQ in 2010.
There are posters all over town depicting the dangerous and hostile conditions the seven teams will battle as they race nine separate legs to 11 different countries.
In this the 12th edition of the race – the teams will race a new one-design boat, the Volvo 65.
Thanks to the careful plans of Farr Yacht Design, the legs are set to be the closest ever with the teams needing supreme physical fitness to achieve the best boat speeds, break records and be the winner of the Volvo Ocean Race Trophy.
“Believe it or not I don’t like getting wet!” Sophie Ciszek, SCA bow person of the all-female Volvo Ocean Race team.
But being fire-hosed by salt water at the bow in treacherous conditions is part of the specialist role where the American/Australian surfer, 29, feels most at home. She is one of 12 females in Team SCA, the first all-women’s team to enter the event since 2001-02.
Team SCA have three more crew members and a reserve which race organizers hope will put them on an equal playing field with the other all-male teams.
The crew is sponsored by global hygiene brand SCA. It produces products like Bodyform and useful items they can use onboard such as ‘wash gloves’ and wet wipes to stay clean in the absence of showers.
The team has also developed durable and stylish clothing with partner Helly Hansen that will last through everything Mother Nature can throw at them.
The girls team has been in training in In Lanzarote, the Canary Islands, for a year and a half – the longest period of any team in the event. But their goal is not to win, says Sophie, but to know they have performed the best they can at the end of each leg and have no regrets.
“We have all been together sailing long enough and we are excited to be the only women’s team. We know we can be competitive.
Maybe it’s an advantage that not many of us have done the race before. We are fresh and have the most to learn. “We look at it in a different way. We have a good mixture of experience and knowledge from Olympic sailors to single-handed and offshore sailors. “It’s a big challenge to reach the fitness required so it has been a gradual process,” she adds.
Sophie is a real action girl and loves surfing and rock climbing which she says helped her get the job. The team does weights and crossfit with a trainer every day, sometimes twice a day. In Lanzarote’s volcanic landscapes, the team went on hikes and did mountain biking which helped them bond.
“As the bow I need to be very fit. I am one of the best grinders on the boat too. I don’t have that kind of physique so it has taken a lot of work. Endurance, strength and balance are key for all of us. “Time at sea is a killer and it is a test of endurance. Hopefully by being able to swap people on and off we can keep everyone fit.”
Dynamic Sophie is also the team’s head medic, and has a degree in health science. After her degree she set up a business in myotherapy which helps treat musculoskeletal issues. She has an entrepreneurial head also that has come in handy when dealing with the logistics of running a professional sailing team.
“I’m used to dealing with people and will look to make sure any potential injuries are treated before they can develop further. I know how the body works.
“My biggest fear is getting injured – my job at the front is pretty risky. I am also afraid of going overboard, although I always use my bow harness and we take all the safety precautions.”
Team SCA wants to create a new platform for women in sailing, hopefully through their results but also by being good role models as they go round the world, meeting fans and inspiring more women to get involved in sailing.
“If I was a 10-year-old girl now, this would be the coolest thing ever! We want to show you can make it if you are totally dedicated.”
Aged 25/26, Sophie seriously questioned whether she would carry on in the sailing world. She was not earning much and had volunteered a lot of time to get all the experience, but she still wasn’t moving up as there were very few opportunities for women in sailing.
She did a Sydney Hobart with British solo yachtsman Alex Thomson of Hugo Boss and it was actually her Dad who spotted SCA’s call for female sailors to apply for roles while Sophie was surfing in Indonesia. She put everything she had into the trial in Sweden in January 2013 and managed to beat dozens of others to earn her place.
She describes the new Volvo 65 as “pretty bare bones” but says it is a little easier to sail than the previous Volvo 70 as it is lighter and there is one less jib.
“It’s a solid boat, pretty fun and the sail configurations are actually a little easier too. “It’s been made pretty even for us.
There’s advantages and disadvantages to being women onboard,” she adds. Sophie and her teammates worked with Helly Hansen in Lanzarote to trial and develop wet weather gear and a new fabric to keep base layers as dry from sweat as possible. They also gave feedback on design and fit – where pockets and straps should be, and some of the girls also got a drop-seat sewed into their salopette trousers.
While there are strict food limitations, the girls do bring aboard some nuts and a little chocolate as well as tea and coffee for energy. “You get so tired and you must look after yourself and stay clean when you get wet so much. I use a balaclava to try and prevent my hair getting too wet, but sometimes it’s impossible.”
Sophie adds SCA is a strong team and if someone is having a bad day, there are 11 girls around all going through the same thing so everyone is supportive.
“We are going into unknown territory. It’s super exciting. To have this opportunity is huge. We can race the guys and we want to see what we can do.”
Marina Thomas is press officer for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race and enjoys living out of a suitcase while traveling as much as possible. She also works as a freelance journalist and is a news addict, London and Sydney lover, trance music aficionado and sports and adventure nut. Her website: http://www.marinathomas.com/