Welcome to the Volvo Ocean Race – the toughest sailing competition in the world.
Held every three years, this nine month long race around the world is an endurance challenge which pushes even the most tenacious and experienced sailors to breaking point.
This year, it’s even more important than ever. Why? Because for the first time in more than a decade, an all female crew is racing.
In October 2014, among the deafening cheers of the crowds which gathered on the shore to wish the teams good luck, seven boats left Alicante in Spain.
The 6,487 nautical mile long trip to Cape Town was the first leg of a journey which will see the boats cover almost 40,000 nautical miles as they sail through the most treacherous seas on earth.
It’s not for the faint hearted. The crews race night and day for up to 20 days at a time in temperatures ranging from -5°C to 40°C.
One team, Vestas Wind, has already been knocked out after its boat crashed into an Indian Ocean reef.
With nineteen nationalities taking part – from veterans to rookies plus the first female crew for a decade – it’s the most diverse fleet in years.
Sailing, like equestrian sports, sees male and female teams directly compete against each other. It’s a double edged sword.
On the one hand, female competitors get as much exposure from the media spotlight as their male counterparts. On the other, they’re coming into the competition at an immediate physical disadvantage.
Luckily, race organisers have adjusted the rules accordingly. While a male team races with eight sailors and one non sailing reporter, women teams race with eleven sailors and one non sailing reporter.
The teams are also able to swap crew members when they come into port to ensure the onboard crew are as fresh and strong as they can be to guarantee a competitive race.
But one crew member isn’t taking any breaks. Captain Sam Davies is leading the 15 strong crew of Team SCA through the nine month competition without stopping.
Originally from Portsmouth, Sam started sailing at the age of three on her family’s small yacht.
Later, she became part of Shirley Robertson’s crew in preparation for the 2004 Olympics before walking away in favour of French solo sailing and the challenge of off shore racing.
Team SCA crew member Sophie Ciszek, who was injured in the second leg of the race and returned home to Australia to recuperate, says she has nothing but the highest respect for Sam’s ambition.
“Sam is great, she has a very challenging role as skipper and I really admire her,” she says.
“All of the girls in this team are an inspiration. I honestly feel so lucky to work with them. We all come from such different backgrounds but we’ve come together to achieve the same goal.
“It’s super demanding and very tiring but the motivation to compete in the Volvo Ocean race is what keeps us going.”
There’s an increasing presence of women in sailing, thanks to the efforts of Sam and Team SCA, but there is still a long way to go.
Like most other extreme sports, sailing is traditionally thought of as a masculine sport and discrimination is still rife within the industry.
Consequently much fewer women are willing to give the sport a go, let alone professionally compete.
It is an attitude which, Sophie says, needs to change.
“There is always more to be done. For me, it’s a challenge to compete against the guys, but we need more women to get out there – that’s the only way women’s sailing will become bigger,” she says.
“I feel privileged to know that I am part of that and that Team SCA is inspiring women all over the world.”
Having just cast off from Auckland, the team are racing hard to the next stop, Itajai in Brazil.
It is the longest and most important leg of the race but with Team SCA still in the running, there’s everything to sail for.