By Casey Quackenbush / Hong Kong
Updated: February 16, 2018 1:08 AM ET

There are grueling sports and then there’s the Volvo Ocean Race.

The “Everest of sailing” is a triennial sporting event that sees seven teams battle it out on the world’s oceans. For nine months, the 66 ft. racing vessels pursue a 45,000 nautical-mile marathon, stopping in 12 cities in five continents before crossing the finishing line at the Hague, on the west coast of the Netherlands, in June.

“Imagine that you’re sitting there in your little boats in the middle of the ocean,” Bouwe Bekking, the Dutch skipper of Team Brunel, recently told TIME during a stopover in Hong Kong after a 5,600 nautical mile fourth leg from Melbourne, Australia. “There are huge waves, huge winds, and you’re just on a tiny nutshell in the middle of nowhere. You realize actually how vulnerable you are.

Bekking, 54, is the most experienced sailor in the race’s history. This year is his eighth attempt at winning. During an in-port race in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, his eight crew members demonstrated the agility of the yacht they call home for most of a year. They haul at ropes and heave on grinders that winch the main sail up the 30 ft mast. The boat heels suddenly while the crew lets out a ballooning spinnaker to catch even more wind as Team Brunel swerves to within a few meters of a competitor. For a non-sailor, it’s a hair-rising ride. For Team Brunel, it’s nothing compared to the untrammeled fury of the open ocean.

“It’s a very wet job. When we’re sailing faster than 30-40 knots, there’s water on the deck all the time,” Bekking says. “But it’s a special thing, especially because it’s 24/7, and I think that’s what makes it so unique.”

It began as an adventure. In 1973, British brewing company, Whitbread, and the British Royal Navy Sailing Association, teamed up to sponsor a global regatta. The Whitbread Round the World Race, as it was then called, followed a 27,000 nautical mile route once plied by nineteenth century cargo ships.

“It used to be an ocean voyage,” says Barry Pickthall, author of Sailing Legends: Volvo Ocean Race. “Now, it’s an ocean sprint.”

Today, the race is a professional machine, with millions of corporate dollars pumped into it. The course length has nearly doubled and teams sail identical 12,500 kilogram carbon yachts. With on-board reporters documenting each day, fans can practically live stream the race through social media. The race has become a vanguard in the sport of sailing, with an “important trickle down effect” for the advancement of sail design and technology, says Pickthall. “It’s the pinnacle of the sport.”

But for all its technological innovations, life on board is primitive. Each leg spans 20 to 25 days. To reduce weight, the crew subsists on freeze dried food. There’s nowhere to shower or wash clothes. It’s cold, it’s wet, and there’s no privacy. Sleep takes place in narrow net bunks hung below deck, where it’s noisy. On a good night, crew members get two to four hours of sleep.

Leg 6 to Auckland, day 7 on board Team Brunel on Feb. 13, 2018.
Yann Riou—Volvo Ocean Race

“You just get on with it,” says Team Brunel helmsman Peter Burling, a New Zealand Olympic gold medalist and 2017 World Sailor of the Year. “That’s part of offshore racing.”

When mother nature is referee, things can go horribly wrong. Take Annie Lush, a Team Brunel trimmer, who’s previously competed in the Olympics and the Volvo Ocean race once before. During Leg 3 from Cape Town to Melbourne, the team was battling relentless winds of up to 60 knots (about 69 mph). A massive wave crashed down on the boat, slamming Lush several meters back against the deck. She broke three bones: two in her foot, one in her back — and the boat was not even halfway through the voyage. Lush was crippled for ten days on the roaring seas, thousands of miles away from a doctor’s aid, until the crew reached land on Christmas Eve.

“When you choose to do something like the Volvo Ocean Race … it has dangers with it as it would if you were going to climb Everest, or I suppose anything where you’re somewhere where you won’t be able to get rescued,” says Lush.

“It might sound horrific, which it is sometimes,” Lush says. “But it’s also amazing. I can’t really say words that would justify some of the sunrises and sunsets you see. We see some pretty beautiful things — whales feeding, dolphins — everything you can imagine.”

They see some shocking things too. No matter how far from land these crews sail, from Chile’s southernmost Cape Horn to the fringes of Antarctica, issues such as pollution and plastics are inescapable.

Lush recounts seeing rubbish along countless coastlines, trash caught on the boat’s keel, and a seal playing with a plastic bag somewhere in the expanse of the Southern Ocean.

“We travel to some of the most remote places on the planet, and sadly we’re seeing the reality that microplastics are existing, even in the Southern Ocean,” says Dee Caffari, legendary British sailor who was the first woman to sail solo, nonstop around the world in both directions.

Her team, Turn the Tide on Plastic, is promoting the United Nations’ Clean Seas campaign to rid the ocean of marine plastic litter. The boat is also doubling as a laboratory for ocean health. Volvo has equipped each vessel with instruments to collect data on ocean pollution over the course of the race, but Turn the Tide on Plastic is testing specifically for microplastics — tiny plastic fragments that can ultimately contaminate the food chain. The ultimate goal is to build a map of microplastic concentrations around the world.

Leg 6 to Auckland, day 05 on board Brunel. Reaching. Wet deck. Louis Balcaen. 11 February, 2018.
Yann Riou—Volvo Ocean Race Leg 6 to Auckland, day 5 on board Brunel. Reaching on Feb. 11, 2018.

Every year, eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s seas. Coral reefs, sometimes called the rainforests of the sea, are being infected by billions of pieces of plastic. And according to some estimates, by 2050 the world’s oceans will be filled with more plastic mass than fish mass.

“This year we decided to take a step further integrating sustainability … especially tacking plastic pollution,” says Anne-Cecil Turner, sustainability program leader of the race. “Empowering people to take action at every level, from the general public to the government.”

Research from Turn the Tide on Plastic found microplastic particles in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, west of South Africa, in Australian waters, and even near the far reaches of the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone.

Says Caffari, who’s the only female skipper in this year’s race: “This is my sixth time around the world and I see it deteriorating each time I go around.”

Since departing Hong Kong last week, the yachts are now on Leg 6, charging their way through the Coral Sea to Auckland, New Zealand. After a stopover in Auckland the crews will take on the toughest and most important leg — 7,600 nautical miles across the mighty Southern Ocean, where they will contend with storms, huge waves, icebergs and the legendary Cape Horn — as they race to the Brazilian city of Itajaí.

Write to Casey Quackenbush at casey.quackenbush@timeinc.com.

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