The irresistible call of the liquid Himalayas

Stu Bannatyne has earned the right to the title of ‘King of the Southern Ocean’. Every three years, for a quarter of a century, the Kiwi sailor has been lured south to conquer the “liquid Himalayas”.

This year is no exception, as he lines up to compete in the round-the-world yacht race for an unprecedented eighth time.

Bannatyne - a father-of-four and a sails guru, who just turned 46 - will set off in the 45,000 nautical mile Volvo Ocean Race with the strong Chinese team, Dongfeng.

This week his crew won the Fastnet Race by a mere 56 seconds – after two-and-a-half days of intense match-racing against the crew of the Spanish boat Mapfre (which includes America’s Cup winner Blair Tuke). It’s the kind of adrenalin rush that keeps Bannatyne turning up for more.

But, above all else, it is the Southern Ocean - with its monstrous walls of water and hazardously-hidden icebergs - that calls to him, like an unrelenting mermaid.

“At the end of the day, it is the best sailing in the world, diving into the Southern Ocean,” Bannatyne says. “It’s worth coming back every time just to get those days of really fast downwind sailing. And it’s great not having a bottom mark to worry about turning around.

“It can sometimes be the worst sailing in the world. But for whatever reason, the human mind tends to forget the bad times quickly, and just remembers the good ones.”

This edition of the race is already being described as much tougher than those before it, with more miles sailed in the extreme conditions of the Southern Ocean. The legs between Cape Town and Melbourne, and from Auckland to Brazil, will carry double points to recognise the perils.

Bannatyne sailed in his first round-the-world race in 1993, as a pitman on board Grant Dalton’s victorious maxi New Zealand Endeavour. The veteran yachtie has now won the race three times, and is gunning for a fourth.

“I just haven’t reached the point yet where I don’t want to be involved in this race.”

Stu Bannatyne

“This race can’t quite get rid of me yet,” he laughs.

Dongfeng has one of most diverse crews in the history of the race – with French skipper Charles Caudrelier, Chinese and Kiwi crew, and two women sailors, Olympians Carolijn Brouwer and Marie Riou.

Bannatyne will share the watch captain duties with fellow Kiwi Darryl Wislang, who’s making his fifth circumnavigation of the globe. “I have a reasonable record of knowing what’s required to win these races, as well as the experience of keeping the boats going fast in the extreme conditions. I hope that’s what I bring to the team,” Bannatyne says.

Even though the Dongfeng team line up as one of the favourites when the race starts from Alicante on October 22, Bannatyne is wise enough to know that anything can – and has - happened in this race.

And he guarantees that the seven-boat fleet will be closer than ever, because of the new qualification system. The Fastnet Race was part of “Leg Zero” – a qualifying series that all boats must complete in order to start in the Volvo Ocean Race. Right now, the boats are racing from Plymouth to France, and then on to Lisbon in their pre-race preparation.

“It’s a great opportunity for the late-starting teams to get up to speed and catch up to teams like Dongfeng and Mapfre. I expect all of the teams to be very competitive by the time the start rolls around,” Bannatyne says.

Dongfeng Race Team leads out at the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race. Photo: Eloi Stichelbaut / Dongfeng Race Team

He has seen a host of changes in the race in the last 25 years. The Whitbread race became the Volvo, sailors have evolved from amateurs to professionals, and the boats have been through a number of iterations.

“The biggest change is the boats and the equipment,” he says. “Right back when I started racing, and indeed right up until the last race, a fairly big component of your success in a race was preparing well, choosing the right boat designer, and having smart people on your team to work with the designers and builders.

“Many races were virtually won before they began, by the teams who had started early and put in enough resources and time to make sure they had the best of everything. To be honest, that’s one of the things that has always appealed to me about doing the race.

“But now the boats are all one-design; everyone has to use the same equipment. It presents new challenges, around selecting crew who have the best boat-on-boat sailing skills, and can get the best out of the boat.”

Bannatyne misses the technical developments of the boats, and also the longer stopovers in port. In a more commercially-driven era, the 11-city stops are more condensed than the 2-3 weeks sailors once enjoyed on land.

“It makes it a lot tougher on the sailors. The time off you have is purely to rest and recover, without the opportunity to explore the city you’re in. The racing certainly hasn’t got any easier, so the recovery time is welcome,” he says.

At almost twice the age of some of his crew-mates, Bannatyne admits he needs the rest more than ever. But the professionalism of round-the-world teams has also grown over the years, and he praises the work of Dongfeng’s support staff, who deal with the fitness, nutrition and psychology training of the crew.

It’s been a tough year for Bannatyne on the home front – spending much of it away from his wife Amanda, and their four children aged from 10 to 16, back in rural Auckland. He has also been sailing on other race circuits around the world, and working for Doyle Sails.

His family will travel to some of the race stopovers to reunite with Bannatyne, who so far is rostered on to do the first three legs of the race. Dongfeng will rotate their crew, to avoid exhaustion. Bannatyne is happy to do more.

Right now, he won’t say no to a ninth Volvo race, in two years’ time, to be raced in foiling monohulls.

“No doubt those boats will be pretty cool. I will never say never, but I’ll wait to see how they develop. But I would love to have a go at sailing them,” he says. “I just haven’t reached the point yet where I don’t want to be involved in this race.”

Bannatyne will be joined in the race by Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling. The America's Cup winner an d Olympic champion will chase an unprecedented 'Triple Crown' as a member of Team Brunel.

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