Ocean’s Obsession…

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Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

The ShortAxle Blog returns! It’s been far too long and I intend to do something about it as I need somewhere to express my personal stuff in the way I can’t do in my various freelance activities. Expect more regular posts in future and a new look to the blog will be coming soon too. But at the start a warning – this first entry is a bit of an epic…

Quite a time to return after a weekend of pure sporting overload for this horsepower-biased writer. On Sunday I really needed one of those multi-monitor director’s consoles, trying to keep pace with the British Touring Cars from Croft (forced to miss being there this year due to other commitments), FIA WTCR from the Villa Real street track (with the inevitable mother and father of a shunt), NASCAR from the Sonoma road course, IndyCar at Road America, plus a World Cup football match in which England did rather better than anyone could have hoped…

My greatest attention yesterday, however, focused on a nine-month long race, involving just seven competing teams, with no horsepower and top speeds of around 30mph. You see, The Hague was the venue for a nail-biting conclusion to the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race.

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An exclusive race, but also an intense one, only for a special breed of sailor… Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

The what? Yes, three weeks ago that would have been my reaction. I’m no sailor – I can’t even swim – and previously I have had no interest in the sport. Many years ago I watched an interesting documentary on the America’s Cup, followed it for a while but then lost interest, and on a couple of previous car launches I have had a ride on a catamaran in the Mediterranean and crewed with round-the-world sailing star Ellen MacArthur in the Solent. But the sport hadn’t exactly floated my boat…

And then the Volvo Ocean Race scheduled the stopover between legs 9 and 10 of an 11-leg schedule in Cardiff, and Volvo invited a few journalists down to see what it was about. There was some test-driving of the Ocean Race limited edition of the V90 Cross Country involved, and a chance for Volvo to promote its ‘Turn the Tide on Plastic’ campaign fighting against plastic in the oceans, which thankfully the world now appears to be taking seriously. But basically, this was a Jolly – rare these days, at least in my bit of the motoring journalism world. So I gladly accepted.

By the time I arrived at the dockside in Cardiff, however, I was slightly perturbed. The original invite had included ‘Transfer to M32 Catamaran for a short sail’ which sounded okay. Yet the final instructions told us to ensure we arrived with soft-soled, preferably white, footwear, sun cream and the like because while no sailing experience was required we would be ‘part of the crew in a competitive race’ that ‘may not always be an easy ride’…

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Dongfeng at speed in the final leg. Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

So what is the Volvo Ocean Race? It is basically what was once the Whitbread Round the World Race, and does what it says on the tin – the latest version started in Alicante last October, headed to Cape Town in South Africa, then across the Southern Ocean where the waves can reach 150ft high, to Melbourne in Australia. From there the route went up to Hong Kong and China, back down to Auckland in New Zealand, more Southern Ocean to Ilatjai in Brazil, up to Newport, USA, across the Atlantic to Cardiff, around the top of the UK to Gothenburg and finally a sprint to The Hague.

The sheer expense of such an undertaking ensured just seven crews would attempt the race, all in identical Volvo 65 monohull boats (i.e not the high-tech catamarans that are increasingly the norm these days). These boats really were identical, this a sailing version of a one-make series with dire consequences we were told even if you cut a rope shorter without permission…

The crews featured the great and the good of the sailing world – former Ocean Race competitors, Olympians and America’s Cup stalwarts, three of them seeking, ultimately unsuccessfully to claim sailing’s ‘Triple Crown’ by adding success in this race to America’s Cup victory and Olympic Gold. Interestingly how many crew were on each boat depended on their gender, the emphasis on encouraging as many women as possible to join the men on board. All-male crews could number no more than seven, an equally mixed crew 10, all women 11. And at least two crew members must be aged under 30.

At Cardiff we were first shown around Volvo’s ‘own’ boat, Turn the Tide on Plastic, hosted by navigator Brian Thompson – his CV includes being the first British sailor to break the round-the-world record twice, and becoming the first to sail non-stop around the world four times. We were also given an insight to what it is really like to be an Ocean Race competitor by Annie Lush, a London 2012 Olympian who had started this year’s race with Team Brunel.

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Turn the Tide on Plastic navigator Brian Thompson at his station deep in the not very deep bowels of the boat. Photo: Andrew C

First impression – these boats are tiny! As the name suggests they are 65 feet long at the point where they sit on the water, and this means pretty cramped conditions. This was especially true below where Brian’s navigator station and two laptops were squeezed between tiny bunks for off-duty sleeping, with just the carbon-fibre hull between you and the slapping waves. Not that there was much sleeping, according to Annie. “You are supposed to have four hours on deck and four off, but it doesn’t really work like that,”  she told us.

“In your four hours off you are doing other jobs, just not required on deck. In a good 24 hours you will maybe get three lots of two hours’ sleep. When it’s bad maybe two hours total if you are lucky, and that can happen for several days in a row.”

Sleep deprivation is the worst of what are extreme conditions, wet, hot, cold, and Annie added that there is generally a lot of illness on board. No surprise really as bunks and sleeping bags are shared, exhausted crew climbing into them in their wet clothes – just one change of clothes is allowed on board.

Leg 3, Cape Town to Melbourne, day 01, start on board Brunel. Photo by Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race. 10 December, 2017.

Annie Lush in action on the Team Brunel boat in December 2017, before she was injured. Photo: Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race

As for food, no weight-adding tins are allowed so it’s all freeze-dried Pot Noodle-type rations, which Annie reckoned tasted like chicken curry no matter what it said on the packet. Proper washing is out, of course, and as for the toilet facilities – you really don’t want to know…

“At the end of nine months you can barely walk but you are still trying to race each other,” Annie added. “The team become your family, you know more about them than you ever want to…”

Annie is indicative of what drives the sailors in this race. Yes, she started in the Team Brunel boat, but by the time the fleet reached Cardiff she was reduced to an on-shore role, having been hit by a freak wave in the Southern Ocean, breaking two bones in her foot and one in her back. As they were in the middle of nowhere she had to spend five more days on the boat – the first two she was down below dosed up on painkillers, the rest she was back on deck, trying to carry on her duties and convince everyone she had only sprained her back. “The doctors when we reached Melbourne were not impressed,” she smiled…

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Took me a while to twig why this notice was mounted upside-down… Photo: Andrew C

“In the Southern Ocean the closest person to you is in space – if say you don’t sort out a capsize, no-one is coming to get you,” she added, and as if to prove that point then played us a video, showing just what conditions were like down there. Most remarkable in this viewer’s opinion are the waves that can routinely crash over the boat when conditions are at their most competitive, all the crew on deck getting routinely soaked by walls of water every 15 seconds or so…

At the end of the film, a short note dedicated it to John Fisher, Annie quietly explaining that he had been caught by a wave that knocked him off the Scallywag team boat, in an area of the Southern Ocean where even with full protective gear you would only survive 10 minutes. Sadly a full search failed to find him.

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You can’t have any qualms about getting wet when taking part in this race… Photo by Martin Keruzore/Volvo Ocean Race.

So why do it? Annie was clear in her reasons; “It’s a sporting event but a lot more, adventuring and racing at the same time, it’s epic…”

Remarkably after that, I found myself not more nervous about going out on a boat, but surprisingly enthused – while absolutely convinced that even if I was a lot fitter (and could swim) crewing in the race itself is something I could never do.

Our Pro-Am challenge would not involve catamarans but the actual Ocean 65s contesting the main event, and would see the seven boats compete against each other in two 40-minute races in Cardiff Bay. Each would be manned by six of the regular crew plus 10 guests, who would fill the missing crew roles – yes, we were expected to work.

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The jostling at the start is manic… Photo: Pedro Freitas/Volvo Ocean Race

Our journalist party was split up and colleague Robin Roberts and I found ourselves assigned to the Chinese boat of Dongfeng Racing, which just happened to be leading the race as they reached Cardiff. Our fellow guests included a father and daughter team of knowledgeable sailors and several from the boat’s home country, while in charge for the day was not skipper Charles Caudrelier but watch captain Daryl Wislang, a character of a New Zealander and a veteran of four Volvo Ocean races.

It’s difficult to sum up my impression of the race except that it was the most epic experience I have had in a long while – from the manic jostling of the boats before the start, missing each other by inches as they tacked around trying to be as close as possible, but not over, the line when the starter pressed go, through the speed we zipped along the water at what appeared a crazy leant-over angle (until I saw the angles they reach in the real race), to the amazing way in which the boats turned on a dime round the markers at each end of the course.

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How far over? The horizon is level… Photo: Andrew C

It was truly exhilarating as we fought our way to third at the finish of our race, and was followed by an equally fascinating close-up view of the action from a rib (a high-speed powered inflatable). We were transferred to this at sea, and then zipped in and out of the boats watching the other half of our guest party help take Dongfeng to victory in the second race.

Yes it was a superb day out but as my family will testify it also had a lasting effect – in the three weeks since they have got somewhat bored of my constant mentions of the Ocean Race, my religious following of the live tracker on the website as the final stages of the race played out. One thing this event does extremely well is its media, each boat having an onboard photographer alongside the crew and employing drones and helicopters to provide endless photos, videos, live reports, TV shows – keeping in touch has been very easy. Have a look here to see what I mean.

After Cardiff, of course, Dongfeng was very much ‘my’ boat. And going into the final short, 700-mile leg between Gothenburg and The Hague it was in a remarkable three-way tie at the head of the points with rivals MAPFRE and Team Brunel – it would be winner-takes-all at the finish.

And in the end a tactical decision at the end of the penultimate day, which saw Dongfeng choose to take a path close to the shore of Holland while its rivals searched for stronger winds further out to sea, saw my boat come home first to a rapturous reception – just 17 minutes in front of MAPFRE, after nine months and 45,000 nautical miles of racing…

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Final sprint to the final line – and success for Dongfeng. Photo: Jen Edney/Volvo Ocean Race

Leg 11 from Gothenburg to The Hague. Finish at The Hague. 24 June, 2018.

Reward for nine months of effort… Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

So if you’ve reached here, well done for sticking with me! My name is Andrew Charman and yes I am now a passionate fan of the Volvo Ocean Race. My only regret is that I got into this nine-month long event three weeks before it finished, with three years to wait before the next one…

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Not my comfort zone but you know what? I didn’t care… Photo: Pedro Freitas/Volvo Ocean Race

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Geneva Motor Show 2017

Geneva Show? It’s great, except for…

I am convinced the woman sitting directly behind me on the plane has The Only Way is Essex series-linked on her Sky box. From the moment we sit down she is talking, loudly, ostensibly to the person sitting next to her but effectively to everyone for three rows either side. She constantly name drops various supercars she has ridden in, not driven of course, while adding repeatedly how “very very excited” she is.

Clearly Essex woman has not been to the Geneva Motor Show before, whereas for a moment I consider ruefully that my visits are now well into the twenties. You will struggle to find anyone on this crack-of-dawn departure from Gatwick who is not connected in some way with the motor industry – myself and fellow journos, some recognised and greeted with a knowing smile, interspersed amongst manufacturer execs, PRs and the litany of hangers-on that always manage to get into Geneva’s press day.

It does amuse me that the one airport that allows me to make the most effective use of my limited time at the show is the one I used to live half a mile from, and which I now live 230 miles from. But the trip south on the previous afternoon and the overnighter at the in-laws is time well spent – I really enjoy Geneva and am just glad to be here, having had to cancel my trip to last year’s show at the last minute when I discovered just before setting off from home that my passport had disappeared, never to be seen again.

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I wasn’t sure but I think Audi had some new metal on its stand…

Small show, large importance

Why do I love Geneva? A combination of its importance and its practicality. For the global auto industry the show ranks above just about all others and the new metal on display runs into three figures. But all of this is squeezed into a compact exhibition centre that one can easily traverse several times in a single day, especially as said centre is a mere 10-minute walk from the terminal of Geneva airport.

So I enjoy my day of door-stepping all the new stuff, even though this year as the representative of a news website I’m rushing around with more urgency than usual to picture the relevant metal and feed the shots back to the office for our coverage on The Car Expert.

Even while ensuring I capture the important if ordinary mainstream metal I can find time to gaze at the good stuff. The new McLaren is simply gorgeous – I no longer lust after McLarens in vain hope, having finally got to drive one last year (story here), but oh I want to drive this 720S. The Kia Stinger – in the metal it is every bit as good as the pictures we first saw from Detroit in January. I finally get to see the Alpine, and it’s one cute little sports car, and while Land Rover stuff doesn’t normally float my boat I admit the new Range Rover Velar looks impressive.

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All glitz and glamour as this year’s stars make their grand entrances…

Not what you see…

For a freelance like me Geneva is also about that horrible word ‘networking’ – it’s a chance to remind some manufacturers that you are still around and working. And it’s always good to catch up on the latest industry gossip, which on this occasion is dominated by the announcement just a day earlier that Vauxhall-Opel is to be taken over by PSA Group, parent of Peugeot-Citroën (or if you read the BBC business twitter feed, Peugot Citron. I kid you not…). I just about get away with asking PSA’s UK head of PR whether he’s been to Vauxhall at Luton yet to measure up for curtains, while wherever I go at the show PSA boss Carlos Tavares seems to be there already, popping up at every press conference, including the Citroën one I’m dragged into.

I normally avoid such press conferences like the plague. They usually involve a huge scrum of media scrabbling to hear an industry boss say nothing new which in any case one can download from the press website within minutes, then quaffing the offered champagne coz one feels duty-bound to while trying to photograph the newly unveiled car whilst everyone else is trying to – far better to come back later, when the scrum has moved on to the next conference.

Photographing the cars does expose the darker side of Geneva, however, basically the sheer breadth of people who are allowed in on press day. A volley of complaints a few years ago has at least resulted in fewer children wandering the halls amongst the media horde, but an ever-present are the Far-Eastern spies.

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The new Kia Stinger, a super car. But what’s happening on the left?

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Yes, it’s a spy!

Spies? Basically it seems that manufacturers, particularly those from Japan, China or Korea, send a legion of staff to press day, armed with clipboards and compact cameras. They then proceed to touch, operate, caress and photograph every bit of each new model, from boot catches to door trim panels, making copious notes to no doubt take back to the team designing their own rival contender, and totally frustrating the ‘normal’ photographers who just want them to get out of the bloody way so we can photograph the whole car!

This year, however, your correspondent noticed a new pest in the halls, and it comes from our own ranks – or at least those who consider themselves among us but who probably aren’t really…

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“Oh look just how sexily the trim flows into the corner of the screen…”

I’m on the phone…

These are the ‘Vloggers’ – video bloggers, who arrive at the show with the aim of producing coverage just like they’ve seen on the TV, and more importantly to try to convince people, mainly themselves, just how vital a part of this circus they really are.

Their weapons are the video function of a smartphone and a microphone on a lead, like one sees commuters using when having animated conversations on London stations without that tiring aspect of actually holding the phone to one’s ear.

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“Wow that’s some high-tech equipment you are toting there…”

Armed with this combination, they proceed to march across the Geneva halls, staring and talking loudly into the phone screen that is held in front of their faces and therefore not caring who they knock out of the way in the process, and then panning across to focus on bits of cars before striding purposefully onto the next one.

They then take these films home and slap them onto the worldwide web, because anyone with a laptop or even a tablet can have their own website these days, and settle back in contentment, thinking because they have done this they really are the same as those guys on Top Gear and oh so important. In reality, they are a menace, and just one more of the less agreeable aspects of covering the Geneva Motor Show.

Thankfully, however, the good bits of Geneva still very much outweigh the bad bits, and I’ll be back again next year…

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“They wouldn’t let me fly a drone…”

A man, filming himself carrying an enormous Swiss horn down the stairs at a motor show – at Geneva this is normal…