Age is just a number, right? Well, yes – according to some of the sailors who’ve tackled the world’s toughest ocean test. Here, we look back at some of the most iconic young sailors in the race’s four-and-a-half decade history.
Sir Peter Blake
When: 1973-74, Burton Cutter
He’s known now as one of the Race’s biggest legends, having competed five times and won once, leading Steinlager 2 to an unprecedented clean sweep of line, handicap and overall honours in 1989-90. But Blake made his first appearance in the race over a decade and a half earlier, as watch captain onboard Burton Cutter – leading them to a first leg win into Cape Town.
Liu Xue (‘Black’)
When: 2014-15, Dongfeng Race Team
Dongfeng’s Chinese star almost didn’t make it to the start line – quitting during training due to homesickness – and it was only some persuasion from team manager, Bruno Dubois, who convinced him to rejoin the troops a few months before the race began. He captured hearts across China, and went on to win the media war – ending the race as the most mentioned Chinese sailor online.
When: 1985-86, L’Esprit d’Equipe
The fourth edition was all about the story of an old boat – and the youngest winning skipper in the race’s history. With a crew of eight and a 58-foot boat, France’s Péan saw his team battle with UBS Switzerland all around the world, triumphing on overall handicap to scoop the trophy. A full 25 years later, Péan would once again skipper L’Esprit d’Equipe to victory in the first Legends Regatta and Renunion, complete with his original crew, on the eve of the race start in 2011-12 from Alicante.
Simon Le Bon
When: 1985-86, Drum
What do you do when you’re a global popstar looking to change your lifestyle? Well, you could ditch the microphone, and join a Whitbread Round the World Race (Volvo Ocean Race) campaign – at least that’s what Duran Duran’s frontman Simon Le Bon did during a band hiatus in the mid-80s. But the singer didn’t just hop on for the ride, he was determined to do the race as a full crewmember. “We work the same, sleep the same, eat the same, and that’s how Simon wants it,” said Drum skipper Skip Novak.
When: 1989-90, Maiden
When Tracy Edwards had the idea to take part in the Whitbread in 1989-90, she was a 23-year-old charter boat cook with no crew, no sponsorship and no boat. Hardly anyone believed that she could put a team together to compete. No all-female team had rounded Cape Horn before – but out on the racetrack, Edwards and her crew made a mockery of predictions that they would not have the strength or the stamina to withstand the world’s most gruelling contest. Not only did they survive, they proved seriously competitive and won both the Southern Ocean legs of the race in Division D.
When: 1981-82, Flyer II
Tough Kiwi Grant has five Volvo Ocean Races under his belt, and got his hands on the trophy at the first time of asking, sailing with Dutch legend Conny van Rietschoten onboard Flyer II in the early 80s. This was Dalton’s first ride in the Whitbread, starting out as a sailmaker, his dream of competing fuelled by the sight of maxis finishing in his home harbour of Auckland four years before.
When: 1973-74, Otago
Iwona Pienkawa, a tom-boyish, pipe-smoking girl from Gdansk, is one of the forgotten heroes of the race – a pioneer who was one of the first women in the world to sail around Cape Horn and one of the youngest people ever to complete the Whitbread. At just 18 she managed to convince her father not only to enter a team but also to include her as crew. She delayed her architecture studies at the Technical University to jump onboard Otago, principally as a chef but with an agreement to spend a week out of the galley per leg. She completed all four legs – and received a special trophy from HRH Prince Philip at the prizegiving in 1974. Sadly, Iwona died in a car accident on March 31, 1975 – 17 days before her 20th birthday. Still, her story lives on in Poland. The book she wrote about her experiences in the first Whitbread was published after her death and achieved bestseller status. “She was an athlete, an artist, a philosopher and a daredevil,” remembers her younger sister Renata.
When: 1993-94, Dolphin & Youth/Reebok
A five-time race veteran, Matt remains the youngest skipper in the history of the competition, having led Dolphin & Youth/Reebok at just 22 years old. He completed his first race aged 18, four years earlier, on With Integrity. It was a real test of his leadership skills, as, heading towards Cape Horn, the crew discovered that two keel bolts had sheared, water was pouring in, and the keel was wobbling dangerously. “We left as boys and came back as men,” Humphries said.
When: 1993-94 Dolphin & Youth/Reebok
Navigator Steve Hayles was only 20 when he took on the role of navigator on Dolphin and Youth in 1993-94, making him the youngest navigator in the race ever. “The attitude you have to take is ‘take it on and prove yourself as a young sailor’,” he said in an interview some years later. Completing the race onboard Dolphin & Youth was the launch pad for Hayles into a highly successful professional racing career.
When: 1977-78, 33 Export
The Frenchman was the youngest skipper at his first attempt in the race – and it proved to be an experience he would never forget. On Leg 3 from Auckland to Rio de Janeiro, the boat was rolled 140 degrees and the contents of the chart table emptied into the toilet, leaving spanners, files and screwdrivers embedded in the deck head of the galley, floorboards loose and battery boxes smashed all over the floor. Later, on the same leg, 33 Export broached – water surging across the deck, and slamming Eric Letrosne against the life-rails with such force, it fractured his leg. He needed urgent attention so when the call for medical help went out, Dr Jean Louis Sabarly on Japy-Hermés reported they were preparing for a rendez-vous. When a huge swell prevented that, Dr Sabarly jumped into the sea and swam to 33 Export, where he looked after his patient until the boat docked.