Highs and lows

Text by Jonno Turner
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Highs and lows Text by Jonno Turner
Team SCA skipper Sam Davies sits on stage in Gothenburg, the final press conference of this epic race around the world.

She smiles, as camera flashes drench her face in bright light. The 2014-15 edition is about to come to an end – and it’s been one heck of a journey.

“It’s amazing to be able to compete in this race. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” she says.

"This race has changed me - I’ve learnt a lot about being the skipper of a big project at a high level.”

It’s been an arduous nine months on the water, but even longer on shore. It’s nearly three years since Team SCA announced that they would be the first all-female crew to enter the toughest race in the world in over a decade.

Their task was a huge one: to find a squad of 13 women, capable of learning fast and working together, to undertake one of the biggest challenges in sport.

At the time, many questions were asked: did this crew really have the physical might to be able to compete in a male-dominated, one-design environment?

Well, according the Sam, the doubters have been proved wrong. “We’re really proud of everything we’ve achieved,” she continues. “What we’ve done is huge.

“We’re racing against the best in the world and it’s an incredible feeling to have progressed this far.”

Indeed, it’s fitting that the culmination of their development as a team this edition brought them back to their very beginning – their home port of Gothenburg.

“Sailing into Sweden was a proud moment for the whole team,” says Sam. “The support was amazing, there were people lining the river all the way along with pink flags and banners, even in the rain.”

In fact, by June, that sea of magenta had become a constant fixture around the world – these offshore heroes catching the imagination of thousands of fans around the world.

And building that excitement and anticipation around all things SCA was a key motivation for the girls.

“We aimed to inspire and motivate people to do things that they didn’t think they were capable of doing,” explains Sam. “I think we’ve done that.”

Yes, as with all of the seven teams, the performance on the water didn’t always go to plan - but this adventure isn't just about the winning.

It may sound cliché, but that’s because it’s a fact - some things are simply more important than points or places.

“We’re some of the world’s last adventurers,” shrugs Sam. “You can’t beat the level we’re sailing at – not many people sail around the world.”

And all of the miles, all of the struggles, heartache, tiredness and emotional exhaustion, they were all to inspire those fans, in the same way that Sam was inspired watching this very race some two and a half decades ago.

“I watched Maiden win the Southern Ocean leg in the Whitbread as a little kid,” she remembers. “There’s no doubt that that’s why I’m here right now.”

“I think that being female means we get more media attention, but once we're out on the racecourse it doesn't change a thing.”

As the all-female crew tacked the toughest conditions on earth, battling toe to toe with their rivals in a race for inches, they had their fair share of highs and lows.

In terms of performance, they won two In-Port Races - that's even more than eventual series winners Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing - and came second in front of their home crowd in Sweden. But what memories stick out for the sailors?

"The Southern Ocean,” smiles Sara Hastreiter. “That for me was one of the biggest achievements I’ve ever felt. I was so proud for my team and as an individual.

“But it wasn’t just the team on the boat, as we arrived to shore and seeing our shore team and knowing that we couldn’t have done what we did without all of their support as well.

“I’ve changed a lot as a person but this race is so big in so many ways I don’t think you can fully understand what’s just happened to you until you actually take some time away afterwards.”

Her fellow American, Sally Barkow, agrees. “I think this race has really opened my eyes to ocean sailing and what that means. Before we started this, I had no idea or concept of what it meant to race out on the ocean.

“My high point? Definitely winning Leg 8,” she beams.

That victory into Lorient was real vindication for the girls after pushing the opposition so close during previous legs, but ultimately falling away.

“I think it was a culmination of everything we put together, making really good decisions on the water, working really well as a team, staying ahead and pushing the boat to a place where we were faster than the other teams,” adds Sally.

And what about the low points of this journey? “Losing Magnus Olsson,” says Carolijn Brouwer, solemnly.

The Swedish Volvo Ocean Race legend, known as Mange, was an inspirational coach and mentor to the girls until he sadly passed away in 2013.

But his fighting spirit and energy have stayed with the magenta boat all around the world. And his presence has been a constant reminder that some things are more important than racing.

As they navigated the gruelling Southern Ocean, the most extreme region of ocean on earth, the girls took a moment to remember and pay tribute to their hero.

“It was a beautiful sight, the pretty wild sea and the South American cliffs shooting up from the water,” wrote OBR Anna-Lena Elled, from Cape Horn. “We had a very special moment dropping a wreath for Mange in the water. It was powerful.”

Magnus competed in six editions of this race - he just kept on coming back for more, proving just how difficult it is to shake off.

One of his SCA protegés, tough Australian Sophie Ciszek, scooped the prestigious Hans Horrevoets Rookie Award as the most promising Under-30 of the edition - and is already looking forward to getting back on the water.

“Has this race changed me? Definitely! I’m a different person,” she says. “I would do this race again tomorrow, I definitely want to. I can’t wait."

But it’s not just the newbies who can see changes in themselves after this adventure. Just ask Carolijn Brouwer, who also sailed onboard Amer Sports Too back in 2001-02.

“I think this race has made me a more complete person,” she admits. “This time it was a different race for me compared to 12 years ago.

“I have a son now, I have a family, I have a lot more responsibilities. Sometimes different priorities and finding the balance in that wasn’t easy.

“It was a challenge - but I think I did pretty well, and I’ve learnt from it.”

I ask Sam for her highlights of what she admits has been a steep learning curve, fighting against the best sailors in the world, in the harshest environment of all.

She pauses, to think. And then, a smile full of pride. “Winning into Lorient, sailing into Gothenburg - and finishing with the same team as we started with."