On board with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

After nine months and 96,000km at sea, the victorious Volvo Ocean Race captain Ian Walker tells us what it takes to sail around the world.

Matthew Priest September 13, 2015

Relief win
The overriding feeling of sailing into the final port in Gothenburg was one of great relief. We’d done enough to win the Volvo Ocean Race by the penultimate Leg, but it was all about making sure we didn’t do anything stupid to jeopardise us getting into port.

The relief comes from a mixture of managing to bring the boat and crew back unharmed, and managing to accomplish what we set out to do so many months earlier – and that was win.

Pushing to the limit
The entire team is totally consumed by winning, but as skipper there’s a bit in the back of your mind reminding you that you have to get the boat and crew back safely. When you’re racing that intensely, it is easy to get pretty wrapped up in it.

There are times when you are pushing the boat and crew so hard that you start thinking: ‘this is insane. What are we doing?’ Most people wouldn’t dare sail in treacherous conditions, let alone be flogging the boat to death just to try and gain a half-mile advantage on a competitor. 

The race is run over nine months – and split over 10 stages, each of which last about three weeks. The longest we spent at sea was 25 consecutive days, on the first Leg, that can be very gruelling. 

Life aboard 
Days on the boat don’t really vary that much. The eight-man crew are split into pairs and work on four-hour shifts, constantly alternating. That means you have four hours sailing, four hours rest on a constant cycle. Day-in-day-out. Night and day. 

It can be pretty tough to get into that routine – with the motion and noise of the boat at first making it difficult to sleep. Eventually you get so tired that you can sleep anywhere, and then the issue changes to making sure you are able to stay awake during your watch shift. It’s important to adapt to the routine otherwise you will not get through. It normally takes me a couple of days.

Win some, lose some
This year’s race was relatively problem free – we even managed to break the IWC 24-hour Record by clocking 1020km in 24-hours! That sure beats what happened last time when we broke our mast on the first night, and later in the race when we delaminated the hull of our boat in the Southern Ocean about 1,500 miles from land – there was a point when we weren’t even sure that we were going to make it back to land. 

Recovery period
It can be tough getting back to normal life after the race. On the boat you revert to a very basic level of survival – you forget normal etiquette like manners. On the boat you live like a dog. You eat out of a bowl and shovel freeze-dried food into your mouth as quick as you can.

You simply concentrate on the job, and when you’re not on shift you focus on sleeping, eating and keeping warm. I think when you are that focused on a goal, it takes time to break out of that mindset. 

Breaking routine
I think that there is safety in routine. When I’m sailing I can tell you up to the minute what I’ll be doing for the next six months, but now it is weird to see my calendar empty, and I actually find it quite hard to relax. 

It seems to be a common trait for high-achieving business and sportspeople who are used to using up every minute they are awake to push towards their goal. You can actually become quite intolerant to people who don’t strive to be the best.

Ian Walker’s mind-boggling statistics

  • 38,739 – length of the Volvo Ocean Race in nautical miles
  • 2 – Olympic silver medals
  • 142 – his record in minutes to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight 
  • 550 – nautical miles sailed in 24 hours, a record
  • 2 – special limited edition VOR IWC Aquatimer watches

Details: Ian Walker is an IWC Ambassador. For more visit iwc.com