Nine months of intense racing around the world’s oceans has not only taken its toll on the sailors physically, but also emotionally, particularly for those who leave girlfriends, wives and children on the dock.
We spoke to three of the skippers during the Lorient stopover to find out how they and their families had dealt with the pain of separation during the current edition of the race.
PUMA skipper Ken Read said from a family point of view the 2011-12 race had been a very different experience than the previous one for him.
“In the last race I had a 12 year old daughter looking at the world with wide eyes,” Read said. “We took her out of school and she and my wife travelled the planet for a whole year. I think they saw 17 different countries during that tour.
“This time my daughter is at a boarding school, which we decided to put her in because we were doing the race again. That has proved to be a great experience for her, but it means she has been more like a student following her dad around the world from time to time.
“Also that means my wife has been a little more on her own this time around. My experience has been very different to when you have a little partner in crime going round the world with you and when you don’t.”
Read said the race was undeniably tough on the sailors’ children, particularly when they are old enough to comprehend the dangers.
“The day that my daughter realised that dad had a dangerous job was when she was a little kid and Hans Horrevoets got washed over the side,” he said.
“Before that, in her world, daddy went travelling and sailing, but nobody had told her that there was a possibility that daddy wouldn’t come home.
“The next time I left the dock I had that little kid holding on to my leg tighter than anything you have ever seen. That’s hard for her and it is tough on everyone concerned.”
Read said the advent of email communications between the sailors and their families and the multimedia output from the Media Crew Members, could at times be a double edged sword.
“It can be good and bad for the families,” he said. “In one way you know what is going on, but then you also now see what your husband or father is going through.
“There are way more emails to the boat when they expect the weather to be bad. Mostly that is about making contact rather than actually asking if you are OK. They really just want to get a short email back saying thanks for getting in touch.
Sanya’s Mike Sanderson considers himself to be the luckiest skipper in the race to have a wife with an illustrious professional sailing career of her own.
“Emma has an extensive background and has done legs of the Volvo Ocean Race, the Jules Verne, Route de Rhum, Jacques Vabre and all sorts of other things,” he said. “That means she ‘gets it’ and knows what I am going through.
“Emma knows how important things like sponsor relations and dealing with the media are and that it often means having to work at night. I am so lucky that she just gets it all.”
Sanderson acknowledged that his personal circumstances meant he viewed the life of a Volvo skipper with family through rose tinted spectacles.
“I realise it must be a lot tougher for the families who really have no idea what is going on each time their loved one heads off for three weeks at sea,” he said.
“The pivotal advantage is that it has not changed the way I sail the boat. I have definitely seen people previously changing their priorities and the way they do things when they have kids. It affects them at sea and how hard they are prepared to push the boat, but for me, that hasn’t been an issue.
“I know maybe that sounds a little bit irresponsible, but for me, it is always about winning the race, looking after my guys on board and getting the boat home in one piece.
"The reality is that, in the Volvo, we are ocean racing at the highest grand prix level,” Sanderson said. “Once you start to worry about family and taking your foot off the throttle, it is time to give it all up.”
Nevertheless, Sanderson said saying goodbye to his family at the start of every leg remained an emotional affair, which he preferred to deal with in private, rather than in public on the race village pontoon.
“It plays on you and you are already a bit fragile emotionally anyway,” he said. “Especially when the kids are at an age where they get it.
“It is easier when they are small enough that all they are excited about is getting on a plane to go somewhere fun and exciting. Now my kids are five and three they are a bit more upset that dad is going away.
Sanderson said saying goodbye to his family was of the hardest part of competing in the Volvo Ocean Race.
“It’s to the point where on the tricky legs -- like out of Auckland where we hadn’t properly recovered from the previous leg, or out of Sanya where I knew we were in for a three week leg -- I pretty much have to sign off at home in my own head.
“By the time I am down on the dock, I have gone already, and if I start thinking about them too much down there it is definitely distracting me from doing the job I have to do.”
“So instead, I spend some quality time with them the night before, or the morning when we get up, and although I don’t officially say goodbye to them, in my head I have done.”
That means when I am down on the dock I am much more going through the motions, but that is my little way of getting through it, I guess,” Sanderson said.
CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand skipper, Chris Nicholson, said he was constantly conscious of the toll the race can take on the crews’ families and appreciative of the support of his own wife and children.
“That’s why I am able to do this for a living,” he said. “For sure, I would not be able to do this job without their full support.
Nicholson said that the team had built families into their structure from the outset of their first ever Volvo Ocean Race campaign.
“All the guys’ families are a part of the whole team,” he said. “As an example, we all have dinner together every night; all the sailing team, all the shore team, the management and all the families.
“While you might think that would be a difficult thing to run harmoniously, we have not had a murmur through the whole race.
“I like the family environment we have and I know it goes a long way to helping the team stick together, and it just so happens that our approach lines up perfectly with the CAMPER organisation.
From a personal standpoint, Nicholson said he would prefer that his family wasn’t on the dock when the boats leave.
“But they prefer otherwise so I don’t try to overrule on that one,” he said.
“I do not like the departures and everyone would say the same. But you have to take the good with the bad, and the arrivals are so fantastic because that’s when you get to see your family again.
“At the end of the day, the pain of the departures is a small price to pay for sailing in a race like this,” Nicholson said. “I know my family like it and love it as much as I do.”
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