A bright pink flash in the waters off Puerto Calero, on the south coast of Lanzarote, has been burning itself on to the retinas of local islanders since February. “Yeah, the boat is a little bit loud. We are getting a lot of teasing about the pink thing at headquarters,” admits Alicante yachtsman Pepe Ribes. Together with other top sailors, including three-time round-the-world winner Brad Jackson (New Zealand) and Brazil’s Joca Signorini, Ribes is trying to mold the Team SCA project, set to become the first entirely female crew to take part in the Volvo Ocean Race for 12 years.
“It was about time,” says Ribes ahead of the challenge that will commence on October 4, 2014, when the starting gun will fire on a nautical marathon lasting nine months. Eight yachts will set out on the 40,000-nautical-mile route, with its promises of 30-meter waves, sleep deprivation, freeze-dried food and physical torture.
“We are giving it our all to make this a success,” says the Australian Liz Wardley, one of the five sailors who have been selected for the SCA team thus far, along with her compatriot, Sophie Cizcek, the British pair of Sam Davies and Annie Lush, and Dutchwoman Carolijn Brouwer. Spain’s Támara Echegoyen (Olympic gold medalist in 2012), Alicia Ageno and Natalia Vía-Dufresne have also participated in the project. The latter, a silver-medal-winner at the 2004 Athens Games, says: “This is no second-rate project, but a truly top-level one. I know a bit about this and we have all the skill you need.”
“They have a lot of natural talent and the necessary tools,” agrees team director Richard Brisius, adding: “Gender does not matter.” Be that as it may, only four female teams have taken part in the entire history of the race, with the most recent case coming in 2001, when Lisa Charles skippered Amer Sports Too. Tracy Edwards’ Maiden was the first all-women’s yacht to brave the round-the-world race conditions in 1989.
The big old Volvo 70 boats required a huge degree of brute force”
“The absence of women meant that we were not representing half of humanity,” Volvo Race executive director Knut Frostad has admitted.
“The sailing world isn’t sexist,” argues Ribes. “In fact, we can boast extraordinary sportswomen, Olympic medalists and girls who are just as skilled as the boys. The problem was that the old boats, the Volvo 70s, required a huge degree of specialization as much due to their dimensions as the brute force that was involved.”
And on this point, changes to the regulations — there will be 11 female crewmembers to eight for men’s teams — and boat specifications — the same design for all competitors — have been key. The new 65-foot-long hulls give the women a fair crack at competing with men.
“They will have to give it 100 percent or they won’t be up to it,” says Ribes. “They have to learn to suffer because all that they are going through [in their preparations] will only be a tenth of what they will face in the regatta. But we are on the right path. We are the first to get into the water and will be the first to get the new boat — so far they are still using an old 70; in October they will get the official model and start to sail with it.”
“We are prepared; ready to rock ‘n’ roll,” says Wardley. “This is our moment. Our team structure and support staff are top level; we have no need to envy anyone,” the Australian adds.
“This only happens once in a lifetime,” says Cizcek. “At last we can compete with them on a level footing.”
Until that day, the women must stick to an infernal routine: the bugle sounds in Puerto Calero at 6am at the start of a long day of sailing practice and heavy gym sessions. All to make sure that a pink flash catches spectators’ eyes in the port of Gothenburg on June 27, 2015.