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Bob Fisher /PPL
To celebrate the Volvo Ocean Race's 40th birthday this September, we're running a series of short posts to re-tell our history in a new, and easily accessible way. There are plenty of traditional histories of the race out there but the great stories can sometimes get lost in the bigger narrative of winners and losers over the 12 editions and the 341,978 nautical miles officially sailed.

With that in mind, we've kept the focus on the people who actually sailed in the race – their courage, sacrifice and sheer sailing excellence – while still telling as complete a history as you can in 40 brief takes.

We'll be posting them at a rate of one per day up until the anniversary of that first Whitbread Round the World Race, which started on a fine Saturday morning at Portsmouth harbour, on September 8, 1973. Marvin Gaye was at number one in the Billboard Charts with Let's Get It On, which as a soundtrack for the start of this great undertaking sounds good to us. Before the first leg was over Billie Jean King had beaten Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, the Chilean government had fallen and Carl XVI Gustaf would be King of Sweden. 

1973-74: Portsmouth-Cape Town-Sydney-Rio de Janeiro-Portsmouth

Chapter 1. You can't fear what you don't know

A total of 324 sailors took part in the first edition of the Whitbread and only a handful had a real inkling of the 40-knot winds, 100-metre icebergs and bone-shaking cold that awaited them. There was no satellite navigation or weatherfax updates for the 19 teams in a race organised by the Royal Naval Sailing Association, and to call the PVC foul-weather clothing “waterproof” would have been bitterly ironic.

Three sailors were swept overboard and lost their lives at sea in that first edition. Paul Waterhouse, a British army corporal, was flung over the side of Tauranga and lost at sea, Dominique Guillet, co-skipper of 33 Export, was swept from the deck and Bernie Hosking, one of the crew of paratroopers on Great Britain II, fell overboard during a sail change.

There were many more injuries, breakages and near-disasters along the 27,000 nautical mile route. All of the competitors were pioneers in a race that defined the modern concept of ocean racing – but few of them at the time appreciated the sheer scale of what they were setting out to achieve.

“They wouldn't have had any idea how cold they were going to be and how wet they were going to get,” said Grant Dalton, who competed for the first time himself in 1981-82 on Flyer.

“You can’t fear what you don’t know.”


Next Roaring Forties tale: Winning like gentlemen

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Bob Fisher /PPL

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