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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An alternative to the digital dictator?

Followers of my social media feeds will recall that a couple of weeks ago I shared a quote I’d forgotten about from the late, great motoring writer Russell Bulgin, comparing the role of a freelance to that of a jobbing actor.

Discovering said quote encouraged me to read again the book documenting some of Bulgin’s finest work, published after his tragically early death from cancer in 2002 with proceeds going to the Royal Marsden Hospital where he had been treated.

Russell was just 43 when he died – I didn’t know him well, encountering him mostly, as with so many of my associates in this business, on car launches. We only ever shared a car once, a Vauxhall Omega, and I recall that we broke it, driving it back towards Glasgow airport with ominous noises coming from the rear end.

So having extracted the slim but packed tome from the bookcase in which it had slept undisturbed for a few years, last night I settled down for a good read. And as I again so enjoyed Bulgin’s writing, his ability, so eloquently summed up in a tribute by colleague Gavin Green, to like all great artists paint such grand pictures with so few words, a chilling realisation came over me. Bulgin would not have enjoyed writing for the Internet…

He passed away before ‘Online’ as a specific area of journalism really took off, before the emergence of a new phrase for the dictionaries, the ‘Blog’. To make Blogs possible we gained the Internet equivalent of the printed page, clever pieces of software called Content Management Systems (CMS), of which the best-known today is probably WordPress. And within each CMS rose a dictator that today affects the working life of myself and so many others on virtually a daily basis – SEO.

It’s all about the rankings…

For those of you who are unaware, SEO is Search Engine Optimisation, what the truly net-savvy would call ‘guidelines’ but which are virtually rules, governing the way one writes online copy. These rules help such copy to be more easily found, and therefore sit higher up, those pages always turned to when we want to find out anything on the net – basically Google, Google, and errr, Google…

CMS systems vary in the way they work but most are quite similar. While allowing you to produce and format your work, they also insist on telling you how SEO-friendly the finished prose is, and, guess what, how well the CMS thinks you have written a piece!

The big problem with SEO, I reckon, is that it turns everything formulaic. A typical motoring story, for example, will generally focus on a particular car – let’s say manufacturer Fandango is launching a new model dubbed the Night Out. As far as this correspondent understands (and my crash course on internet-friendly writing has come in the most recent year of a career stretching back more than 30 so I’m probably getting it all wrong…) CMS works around a ‘Focus Keyword’. This doesn’t have to be a single word but can be a phrase, and in our example would likely be ‘Fandango Night Out’.

The problem is, SEO then demands that you use the full focus keyword in the heading and often the first paragraph of your copy. And don’t think you can be witty and post a heading along the lines of ‘Fandango goes for Night Out’ – in the eyes of SEO, splitting up your focus keyword is a very serious crime. While the online journalist is being neutered, the headline writer is becoming a skill of the past…

Don’t believe me? Take a scan through any of the leading motoring news websites – the headings and first paragraphs of each story follow a disturbingly similar pattern…

Welcome back to journalist school...

Welcome back to journalist school…

As for readability – you might have been writing for years, you might have won every award going, but paste your copy into a CMS and it will instantly tell you that your sentences are too long, that you are using too many ‘passive words’, not enough ‘transition’ ones… It may tell you this in a friendly, patronising way – “Try writing fewer words…” but you are still being told.

Now this would all be very well if the admonishment was being dished out by a grizzled old sub-editor who had seen it all before, and who had read your copy, understood its context and where perhaps it could be sharpened up. But no, in the online universe, the quality or otherwise of the work you have slaved over is decided by nothing more, when one gets down to it, than a load of binary numbers…

Why print still matters

Thankfully I don’t think a truly great writer such as Bulgin would have had to endure such insults to his talent, to have some young digital geek tell him he needed to turn commas into full stops and flowing prose into staccato bullet points. Had he survived into today’s world he would have been the leading light on one of the top-level printed motoring titles, his words a major reason why readers bought each month’s issue.

The thing about print media is that it is a very good filter. On a print title, with one or two glaring exceptions, the truly good writers will rise to the top, while those that think they are brilliant wordsmiths but clearly aren’t will eventually get found out, and go and do something else.

The Internet isn’t like that. Anyone with a computer, even a phone, can in a very short time live out their dreams as a journalist, posting what they like with the only supposed quality monitor the dumbing-down exercise that is SEO. They don’t necessarily have to be able to write well – if they learn to follow the rule set laid down by SEO, they could very easily find themselves ranked on the online billboard of Google alongside or even above true talents such as a Bulgin.

This problem is not going to go away. As print titles slowly but surely decline in number while the Internet continues to mushroom, something is needed to sort the few grains of wheat from the millions, perhaps billions, of words of chaff added to the information superhighway each and every day. SEO is currently that sorter.

So am I a dinosaur, a throwback to the slowly dying print world, to even suggest that the direction we are going in is wrong? Or can there be a better way? Answers on a postcard please – yes, proper hard copy required, so that SEO can’t get at it…