Once the starting gun goes off in Alicante, Spain, on October 4, all that’s sure in the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race is uncertainty. Fall on the Mediterranean Sea is unpredictable: The water is warm, the air is cold, and storms are frequent. Conditions like these create chop—small waves the boats pound over like ruts in a road.
The weather itself can be a fierce competitor in this nine-month, 38,739-nautical-mile race. The stakes are high—three people died in the inaugural 1973 event, and casualties have piled on since—and the financial rewards are low. Unlike the America’s Cup, there’s no jackpot for the grueling first place. Competitors are racing for prestige alone.
This year, an all-female team will compete for that top prize in this traditionally male-dominated sport. While there have been co-ed teams before, this is only the second time that a team comprised of just women has competed in the race. In the 10 years since, technology has changed sailing dramatically, and Team SCA plans to do better than their predecessors—who finished dead last. While definitely a dark horse, decorated skipper Sam Davies has years of experience, and few would say the women don’t have at least a shot at winning.
When the race begins, the 12 women on their bright-pink boat sponsored by global hygiene brand SCA will circle the starting line. By the time they finish, they’ll have hit ports in 11 cities in 11 countries—Spain, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, China, New Zealand, Brazil, United States, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden.
Unlike the America’s Cup and other high-profile races where teams are given some latitude to make small, cutting-edge tech modifications (which can play a big role on the water), Volvo Ocean Race competitors are racing on boats that are mirror images of one another. Everyone will compete on the new Volvo Ocean 65 design, the idea being that by sailing identical boats the race will test the mettle of the athletes, not the pocketbook of the owners.
The seven teams will spend up to 25 days at sea at a time, in temperatures as low as 5 below zero and in waters with a known history of pirates. (In 2012, the risk of pirates was deemed so high that the Cape Town-to-Abu Dhabi leg was aborted. All teams had to sail to a secret destination, where they were loaded onto an armed ship and transported up to the relatively safer Sharjah coastline.)
The intense competition starts with building a team. In a sport with disproportionately few opportunities for women, the battle to get onto Team SCA was fierce.
Sara Hastreiter, a 29-year-old Wyoming native with dirty blonde hair, wasn’t a shoe-in, having never stepped foot on a sailboat before 2010. Growing up, she competed in rodeos, “barrel racing things to one end of an arena, where you eat a doughnut and get back on your horse with no saddle,” she says.
“No one has ever heard of anyone from Wyoming in sailing,” Hastreiter explains. She came to the sport accidentally: After graduating in the “pit of economic despair,” Hastreiter moved to St. Croix to work on HIV/AIDS issues, where a friend introduced her to a skipper. In a typical move, she says, “My first 24 hours at sea [were the start of what] ended up a 6,000-mile trip.” Since then, she’s clocked more time on the water than on shore. But Hastreiter’s challenges didn’t end there. After applying as one of 400 initial applicants for Team SCA, she broke her ribs. Like an NFL rookie at training camp, the injured Hastreiter stuck it out for five months until she finally got a contract. “I just knew I had to show dedication at all times,” she says.
Newbie or not, Hastreiter joins a team with decades of accumulated experience. Crew member Abby Ehler was a boat captain in the 2002 Volvo race and was working on a 2013 America’s Cup shore-based logistics team when she received an offer to join Team SCA. She jumped at the chance. “The Volvo race was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Ehler says.
It’s also a historic opportunity to show the world that sailing isn’t just a men’s sport. Team SCA will face increased scrutiny, but this isn’t anything new.
“You always have to be one step further than the guys,” says Sally Barkow, an SCA team member who’s been on the Olympic circuit for the past 10 years. “You have to have something else to give.”
Outside Television will broadcast the Volvo Ocean Race as a part of its Life at the Extreme documentary series. Starting Monday, October 20 at 10:30 p.m. EST, the Life at the Extreme series will premiere with new episodes every Monday for 39 consecutive weeks.