Team Brunel’s Boat Captain takes a well earned break from the Volvo Ocean Race and shares the highs and lows of offshore racing’s toughest challenge
The Sailing Show is brought to you in partnership with The Magenta Project and presented by Chris Stafford
Podcast length 21’18”
Abby Ehler knows what it’s like to sail around the world having been the Boat Captain on Team SCA in the 2015/6 Edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. The grueling intensity of ever-changing conditions combined with sleep deprivation and dried food test the best but the lure of the ocean and battling the elements in all corners of the globe brings them back for more. This time Abby is Boat Captain for Team Brunel and as the race stops over in Hong Kong, she is taking a leg off and will return to the boat in Auckland refreshed and driven to lead the fleet as they set sail into the Southern Ocean once more. Abby will be racing to the finish line and relishes the challenges ahead. Chris caught up with her while she was home in England for some R& R, fresh food and family time to hear what has been the most intense part of the race so far and why she’s enjoying being on a mixed team.
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FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THIS EPISODE:
[00:00:02] And Abby joins me now back home in England for a little break of the Volvo Ocean Race. Abby nice to hear from you again. How are you.
[00:00:09] Yeah I’m good. Thank you Chris. Thanks for having me on. As you said I’ve opted to take a leg off and I think having learnt from my experience with the previous race with Team SCA I finished the race pretty wiped out physically.
[00:00:25] So yeah I’ve taken taken the option to take a leg out and so now means I get four weeks at home and the crew will sail from Hong Kong to Auckland without me and I’ll rejoin them in Auckland.
[00:00:40] Was it the first time when you sailed from Melbourne to Hong Kong that you had sailed into Hong Kong
[00:00:46] Yeah yeah. First some sailing into Hong Kong and I’d literally only been to Hong Kong for a very short visit about 10 years ago to put a racing yacht together for an owner in Hong Kong so limited experience of that area and it was a fantastic kind of experience sailing up the river there and coming into such a vast city and having been at sea you know virtually seeing nothing for weeks on end to suddenly arrive in a very vibrant and light intensity. It was a real contrast but very nice experience.
[00:01:24] Yeah it’s extraordinary place isn’t it whichever way you approach it with you were approached by air or by sea and it is very intense. So I would imagine getting through the islands and navigating the waterways because it’s such a shipping magnate right there isn’t it
[00:01:39] Yeah I think we were lucky we came in during daylight and so it was indeed the route that we took in. It is you know we’re fairly governed by debt where we can and can’t go. So yet it was fairly a fairly picturesque sailing through the islands into Hong Kong’s River and then a very short trip up the river to the marina where it’s actually the cruise dock where the race villages in Hong Kong and where we were welcomed in so it was a very nice experience and great to do sort of early hours in the morning in daylight and to say Oh yeah very special.
[00:02:16] I’m sure you do get a chance to take many pictures yourself on your phones when you’re in the final approach.
[00:02:24] What’s your finish line.
[00:02:26] No we’re pretty techno in the dot at No because we don’t have we’re not allowed to have phones on board. Some of us take iPod switches so that we can listen to music or watch some movies for them. Now I guess in those final moments it’s pretty intense with sound maneuvers and and having to watch our way between buoys and ships and what have you so there’s definitely time for taking photos and we’re lucky that we’ve got an onboard reporter who documents all those intense moments.
[00:03:03] Yeah I was just imagining you know what you past the finish line. And you know you’re sort of kind of drifting into the dock in there. I wondered if that was a chance where you know you have a moment to yourself but there’s still work to be done on board.
[00:03:15] Yeah exactly. No I think it’s some you probably don’t get that first moment to yourself until you’ve shut the door in your hotel room because even on arrival there’s a lot of people there to welcome you there’s a lot of interviews to be done and just to catch up with other teammates or your shore team. And then of course food is fairly high on the agenda at that point; food and a beer or some sort of drink. Then by the time you’ve kind of rounded up all your personal kit and you’re shuffled off to your hotel. So it’s really it’s yeah closing the door in your hotel room and that’s your first moment of being on your own. We can either phone home or enjoy the first shower or some hours of sleep in a dry non-moving bed yeah.
[00:04:04] I mean that must be an enormous relief and I want to talk about your experiences so far because you know it’s been a long way already and you’ve had your frustrations of course, you’ve had some successes with Team Brunel and you’ve had some frustrations as well. So give us a snapshot of the biggest experiences, what you’ve taken away from the race so far Abby.
[00:04:24] Yeah I think like you said I mean we’ve had our ups and downs and really just haven’t been as far up the the results board as we would like to be and maybe not able to pinpoint one exact factor that’s either causing our lack of results so I think part of it comes down to being so late to the start line and really just playing catch up with the hours on the water and training time as a team. In comparison to the likes of Dongfeng and Mapre who have both clocked up a number of miles sailing as a team and prior to the race starting so it I think that’s that’s kind of really put us on the back foot. A lot of catch up to play and yes it hasn’t been helped with perhaps just a few crew changes along the way where we’ve had to sort of re reinvent ourselves as a team and we’re struggling at certain angles so to get the boat to to perform. So yes just as just a number of things that seemed to have notched up and but in terms of what I’m taking away from this race it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to so with some of the guys that are backing who have racked up a number of races and experience in this particular race and to learn from them and it’s just been fantastic. It’s something that I haven’t had the pleasure of doing before or the opportunity to do before sailing with people who are more experienced than myself so it’s been it’s been great. From that point of view a great learning experience.
[00:06:11] When Annie Lush was on the show a few weeks ago of course the enforced leave for her off the boat with injury. We talked a little bit about the mixed gender and when you mentioned the experience you’re getting from these guys who have so much experience it seems to me that the mixed gender rule now is working for everybody.
[00:06:32] Yeah I mean I certainly feel for the girls and part of these teams I mean the experience that they are gaining is second to none and it’s certainly it’s you know it’s a big learning experience and what we could have done is an all female team and it’s small things but it all adds up to to make a big difference. But I think it’s it’s what’s going to happen in the future that’s going to be the key question What will the next Volvo Ocean look like. What will these girls going to do post this race. And that’s that’s the critical part and that’s going to be the key for the magenta project and other organizations who are trying to advance women in the sport.
[00:07:18] Sailing will be key. You know what happens in the future.
[00:07:24] Now you talked about the crew changes. Just give us a picture of how those are made. What is that done on the fly or and how you decide who is off the boat or not. Apart from injuries of course you know when crewmembers will take a break because some are on the boat for the entire race. And there are other changes. Who decides that. And do you plan ahead. How does it work.
[00:07:48] Yeah I mean in general we had made a plan to to make a number of changes in the stopover of Melbourne and partly due to the route that didn’t allow sailors who had been on the prior leg to work on the boat and and because it was such a short stopover with a 20 day lead before it and a 20 day lag after it. And we thought it was a valuable time to change some crew and bringing fresh fresh team members who can work on the boat in that short period of time in Melbourne and then be fresh the leg ahead. And then what actually turns out we lost two due to injury and family commitments and so that added to the changes that we were already making. So in the end it was almost 50 percent of the team that we changed obviously some were planned and some unplanned which meant it was a bit of a bit of a learning curve to get us back on the same page and perhaps we we weren’t as aggressive in it at the start of that leg as we would have liked to have been. Just obviously trying to find our feet. Yes a. In general we way our crew is set in advance and as obviously as you go along this injury as you said or unforeseen circumstances that we have to plan for. And luckily we have a squad that we can pull from now.
[00:09:16] Hong Kong of course is happening now as the import race tomorrow isn’t it in Guangzhou. How do you predict that. And I’m curious about one little detour up there what was that about because it seemed so brief
[00:09:29] Yeah I think it’s I think it ultimately is very commercially driven as Dongfeng are based in obviously in mainland China. They have a huge commitment to this. The Volvo Ocean Race. So I think yes for Dongfeng here the home team to visit mainland China was very important for them. And so yeah all the teams have done a kind of a delivery package up there. They’ll do some pro-am racing and as you said the in-port race tomorrow. They’ll come back to Hong Kong and they will restart the race from Hong Kong Island going to Auckland.
[00:10:10] And that starts next week of course, they leave I think on Wednesday don’t they from Hong Kong
[00:10:14] That’s right to Auckland.
[00:10:18] Going back through those doldrums now the doldrums have really challenged you so far. You’ve been through them twice haven’t you. It must be enormously frustrating when you’re just sitting on a mill pond.
[00:10:28] It is. I think it’s the most frustrating point of sailing is you know you’re totally reliant on wind to power the boat. And when there is no wind there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it and you just everybody’s you know itching tense you know almost trying anything to get its boat to move. It’s kind of you can deal with it for short periods and then when it starts to drag over two to three days I mean you’re really starting to tell you out at the end of that day and I can’t tell you how good a feeling is when you just get the slightest puff of wind and you suddenly feel like you’re doing 20 knots when you’re only doing three knots but it’s an amazing feeling. And yeah when as soon as we were out of the doldrums I think the mood onboard was just lifted massively.
[00:11:22] Yes I got a sense of that just for those who are not familiar with what the doldrums are just give us a snapshot of what it is and why it captures you. There is no wind.
[00:11:32] Yeah I’m not really the meteorologist but let’s just say that it’s it’s around the equator zone of and it’s basically where the Northern weather systems are meeting with the southern weather systems and they don’t quite get on. So the end result is you get no wind. Obviously very hot.
[00:11:53] So yeah it just results in this area around the equator being known as the doldrums and it’s just very little wind and it can be that can be you know extend for many months as it did on this leg like to when we was heading south and crossed the equator it was a much lesser area of light winds so it kind of depends on the time of year in which particular line that you cross the equator apparently I hear that the next leg will be much less painful experience so hopefully they’ll be fairly quick through the doldrums less prostration and then you have to go through to gain from the Brazilian coach don’t you when you do.
[00:12:41] That’s right. Yeah go from Itajai in Brazil up to Newport on the East Coast of the States. So yeah we passed the equator again but I think on that crossing you can be quite close to the land and therefore pick up land or sea breezes.
[00:12:59] So whereas on the on the route down your much further east where the doldrums tend to extend further. So yeah hopefully that that northerly passage we should be fairly speedy through.
[00:13:11] So so you’re going to miss out going through the doldrums back down to Auckland but you’re going to pick up the boat there in Auckland. So once again around that Southern Ocean which seems to be the biggest challenge for sailors what do you find so invigorating about it was a sailor Abby
[00:13:29] I think it’s the extreme conditions I mean you don’t – you basically you’re sailing fast and you’re sailing in a big sea way for days on end. I mean normally in sailing sort of you know around coastal waters you’d be lucky if you get a period of big swell and big win for you know maybe an hour maybe a few hours on end. But the difference when you’re down south is it’s just relentless it’s just that continual speed continue slamming or continue acceleration and deceleration. So as much as it’s exhilarating sailing it also is very intense but I think the bad and the good equally each other out in the end a complete opposite to the doldrums he couldn’t get further away from your experience.
[00:14:24] Everything okay so tell us what your plans are then you will pick up the boat in Auckland on you go to Itajai then up to Newport. Are you going to be on the rest of the race or do you take another break Abby is that the plan.
[00:14:38] No, the plan is to see the rest of the race out. I mean we follow in the leg toItajai through the Southern Ocean generally then the legs will start to get shorter so the crossing from Newport to Cardiff in the UK will be roughly somewhere between 10 and 14 days and then a short hop round to Gothenburg which will be three to four days and then finish in the Hague. So we’re really kind of almost on the home straight after you’ve got to Newport really.
[00:15:10] Yeah for sure what you’re going to do but we’ll see you there once again hopefully to catch up with you will there. Just before you go t your boat captain on Team SCA and your boat captain again now just to give us an idea of the responsibilities that you face and of course somebody standing in for you now on the next leg. But it seems that that’s a big responsibility to be Boat Captain.
[00:15:35] Yeah I guess I mean it kind of is because you’re at sea for so long and we don’t have you know that pull in line as she would in a pit lane in a Formula One race for a team of guys or girls to come and fix you then we can’t pull in any shops along the way. So it really comes down to the boat captain who’s got that overall view of the yacht and is able to effect repairs and maintenance.
[00:16:03] It’s obviously looking to prevent any breakage. So you’re constantly having to check areas. We have a lot of systems on board whether it be hydraulic engine you know running rigging sounds so that there’s a lot of areas to to keep track of. And then on top of that we need to be able to fix stuff. So while we’re at sea will take care spares with us to be able to to repair stuff as we go. We obviously can’t take everything including the kitchen sink so you have to manage the weight of the spares from a performance point of view. So it is yeah it’s definitely a fairly intense sort of period leading up to the start of a leg deciding on what you’re going to take even down to you know your food you feel how much gas you’re going to take to be up to the males. So there’s definitely an eye for detail and a sort of a conscientious lookout for everything.
[00:17:04] Well for anyone that’s been following this any young sailors maybe listening thinking well this is one heck of a challenge it is the race of all races. Some of the things that you have to endure the frustrations the sleep deprivation and the food and all of those things out of it of course it makes you come back. You sailor seem to just want more of it if you had to sum it up what would it be that you would tell young soldiers why they should strive for this ultimate race if they if they want to be official sailors.
[00:17:33] I think you know it deep down if this is the sort of racing that you’re aspiring to do then I think you know yourself that this is what you’re aspiring to do and everything along your path will point in that direction. I can’t really say what draws me back and I’ve thought about it long and hard but I think it’s just the challenge and whether that’s the challenge personally or the challenge of the style of sailing. You come back having learned so much about sailing about yourself about your barriers and I think generally it’s just a fantastic experience to sail in these parts of the world that not many people get to sail and being able to sound at you being able to say that you’ve sold around the world is obviously an achievement. And yeah I think it’s the challenge and constantly trying to be a better person that brings them back and all the experience you’re getting of course with each mile.
[00:18:35] Well we’re going to catch up with you in Auckland then before you set off on that lake to Itajai and round the Southern Ocean again get find out what else is happening on the race. But also more about The Magenta Project as well because there’s a lot more happening for women in sailing generally not least of all thanks to the efforts of The Magenta Project.
[00:18:54] Indeed. Yes. Look forward to catching up with you in Auckland. And it will also be International Women’s Day while we’re there so we’re hoping for a big day of events themed around the sailing industry as a whole which The Magenta Project is hoping to host some event there. So we’ll keep in touch and forward to chatting to you again from Auckland.
[00:19:15] Fabulous and enjoy the rest of your break there Abby and thank you for taking the time to come on the program.
[00:19:20] Many thanks Chris.