After months of covering the Volvo Ocean Race from afar, I got the chance to head down to Miami while the six teams were in port, resting in the midst of the world's toughest and longest sailing competition. When PUMA Ocean Racing invited me on board the Mar Mostro for a practice in-port race, I got a small taste of just how fast these yachts are, and how tough the sailors that man them are.
Here's how it went down.
Media crew member Amory Ross played tour guide and chaperone to the small group of journalists and guests on board for the race. He took a minute- it didn't take much longer than that- to show us the "living" quarters of the Mar Mostro.
To maximize speed, everything is kept as light as possible. There are only enough bunks for half the eleven man crew (there's never a time when everyone is asleep), and those bunks aren't really big enough for grown men.
When one especially big wave hit the side of the boat, Ross told us, those asleep were thrown clear out of their bunks- not a fun way to wake up.
Based on how the boat works, one side is always higher than the other, but the more level the two sides are, the faster the sailing. That means that everything is moved to the high side to weigh it down. Even the navigation station, the decision-making heart of the Mar Mostro, can be swung around on an axis.
The crew also needs to make sure all the sails that are stored below deck are on the high side; that's also where they sleep.
The less you weigh, the faster you move. With that rule in mind, the Mar Mostro is designed to be as light as possible. Just about the entire thing is made of carbon fiber, even the toilet. Of course, adding a door, or even a curtain, for some privacy, isn't worth the weight.
There are six teams in the Volvo Ocean Race, which consists of nine legs over nine months. This week, the fleet is due for its final arrival in Galway, where the winner will be crowned.
They left Spain in October, and have since stopped in South Africa, Abu Dhabi, China, New Zealand, Brazil, Miami, Portugal and France.
Each port stop includes an in-port race, a 100 yard dash compared to the marathon legs. I was on board for the practice in-port race, which lasted about an hour - it takes the fleet two to three weeks to go from one port to the next.
The course is a simple triangle, whose points are marked by buoys.
Australian Casey Smith and German Michael Mueller get the Mar Mostro up to speed. Starting a sailing race is tricky stuff: the goal is to cross the start line as soon as possible after the horn sounds, without getting there too early.
For the practice race, skipper Ken Read tried a risky opening maneuver. He approached the line from the left, while the rest of the fleet went right.
Unfortunately for PUMA, that approach put them on a collision course with Telefonica, the two boats nearly smashed into one another. A race official (they patrol the course in motor boats) determined that Read and his crew had violated Telefonica's right of way. The penalty is a mandatory 360 degree turn- a major loss of time.
After the race, Read called the penalty "the difference between winning and losing." Had the official decided otherwise, the Mar Mostro would have been on course for an easy victory.
Every time a sailboat tacks, or turns, the main sail moves from one side of the boat to the other, and the boom (the heavy, concussion-dealing bar that runs parallel to the water) swings with it. On the open ocean, you can go days at a time without tacking. But in a short race like this one, it's a very frequent occurrence.
I and the other guests on board quickly got used to literally hitting the deck as the boom swung overhead, then scrambling to the newly high side of the Mar Mostro.
The 360 degree turn effectively put PUMA out of the running; Read's crew finished in sixth place. But, he said, "we learned something" from the penalty, valuable information for the real in-port race the next day- where they came in second.