x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Volvo Ocean Race is the time of the 'ancient' mariner

Ken Read is not the first 50 year old doing the Volvo Ocean Race, but he's surely one of the liveliest. His energy changes rooms, writes Chuck Culpepper.

Skipper Ken Read onboard PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)
Skipper Ken Read onboard PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)

Like so much else, age 50 isn't what it used to be, and bully for that.

Here in Sanya the Volvo Ocean Race starts barrelling toward its ultimate gruel. Here it has stopped in the southernmost city of the People's Republic of China. Here it will leave on Sunday for its 5,220-nautical-mile push on Leg 4 toward New Zealand, and from there it will find its ultimate duress when it traipses into - cue doom music - the Southern Ocean, on Leg 5 from Auckland to Itajai, Brazil.

All of this would seem suited for the young, and so it is. It's just that sometimes 50 seems to have elbowed into the realm of young.

When they told Ken Read last year that some older sailors from last time would not participate and so he would become the oldest of the 66 men aboard the six boats, he briefly felt - what's the word? - miffed, which is not exactly the word.

The race's lone American skipper certainly does not feel at 50 the way he thought at 25 he would feel at 50, but then, the vitality of 50 nowadays often trounces the vitality of 50 prior to nowadays.

Way back in Alicante, Spain, before the legs through Cape Town and Abu Dhabi to here, the Azzam skipper Ian Walker needled the gathered press that it had failed to ask about a crucial issue, that being a 50-year-old geezer in the race. (Note: He did not use that particular word, but pretty much meant it.) Read, from down the panel, replied that at least his head featured the splendour of hair while Walker's did not. (Note: He did not use the word "splendour", but pretty much meant it.)

That exemplified the rarefied friendliness between Abu Dhabi and Puma, but the thing is, Walker might have been right in an unintended direction. Maybe we should have asked. Surely it does tell us something - maybe a hundred things - that a 50-year-old man handles this voluntary ordeal.

And just look at Read: he's not the first 50 year old doing this, but he's surely one of the liveliest. His energy changes rooms. In an interview in Abu Dhabi, he said he feels no increase in fatigue from half a life ago. Aches don't really visit all that much. With an older young man's vantage point, in his second go at this (second place, Puma, 2008/09), he can talk for paragraphs about what he deems his biggest responsibility: the constant safeguarding against having to call a crew member's wife or parent with the worst news.

The Team Sanya Chinese sailor "Tiger" Teng Jiang, just getting going at this at 37, told the race website he foresees a long future partly because he looks at Read.

As well, Read is the guy who made - or approved - the most daring decision of the ocean segment of Leg 3. While the other boats hugged the Vietnam coast late in the leg, Puma ventured out to sea, and ultimately, Read said, "It didn't work, and I put my hand up for that".

Can't ask for more than that.

How many people, in the same lifetime, made All-American sailor at Boston University in the prehistoric era of 1981-83 and also weathered a marooning in the world's remotest inhabited island in late 2011?

Answer: one. There was Read, after Puma broke its mast and alighted in Tristan da Cunha in the Atlantic, frank as usual: "To say we're disappointed would be the understatement of the century."

There was Read, when the umpires penalised Puma after an encounter with Telefonica in the Abu Dhabi in-port race, barking that Telefonica "turned back up aggressively" and "clearly tried to fake out the umpires" and, finally, "Sure enough, they got the call."

Like Walker, he remains conscious of translating a deeply technical game toward the public as much as possible. From this quotation early on, a novice really could get one worthy glimpse of the Volvo Ocean Race: "Even when the rules try to scale them back some," the boats "just simply get faster. This constant pushing of the envelope is something that we all enjoy. What we do, we push the envelope with all these parts and shapes and crazy things in the boat. It's what makes this thing fun. I think the customisation is what makes this event so special."

That would be the insight of the seasoned, with seasoned never any further from decrepit.

cculpepper@thenational.ae