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Rugged life of an avid ocean racer

DESCRIBED as the "Mount Everest of sailing,?the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread Round the World Race) is an exceptional test of prowess, and arguably the longest, most demanding and perilous sporting contest in the world.

The ongoing Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09, held every three years, set off in Alicante, Spain in October 2008 and will conclude in St Petersburg, Russia, during late June. Over nine months, the eight competing teams will sail over 37,000 nautical miles (1 nautical mile is about 1.85 kilometers) of the world's most treacherous seas, calling at 11 cities. Seven in-port races, including one in Qingdao, Shandong Province, last month are held as part of the race.

Crews experience life at the extreme during the race: no fresh food, temperature variations from minus 5 to 40 degrees Celsius and only one change of clothes to keep the boat as light as possible; sometimes they race day and night for more than 30 days at a time.

Ken Read (pictured below), skipper of team Puma Ocean Racing, is an experienced US sailor who has racked up nearly 50 world, national and North American championships, helmed two America's Cup campaigns and twice been named the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. He talked in Qingdao about the tough game he got "hooked on.?

Q: What inspired you to participate in the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR)?

A: It is the ultimate challenge for a sailor. To sail at this level, against some of the best sailors in the world is an amazing opportunity. I had my first taste of VOR sailing during the final four legs of the last race with team Ericsson. As you can see, I am back for an entire trip this time. VOR is a race I believe in and one that is very good for the sport of sailing.

Q: How did you form the team?

A: I searched the world for the best people I could find. There were a lot of applications for only 11 spots on "il mostro?(the Puma boat's name). At the end of the day, you need to have a crew that are: excellent sailors; able to step in to every position onboard and get along.

I couldn't be happier with our team. Onboard we have sailors from six different countries and while there are a lot of good sailors in the world, we had to find those who can do other things besides sailing. For example, there will be two sailors that have had medical training, as well as a sail maker, an engineer and a media specialist.

Q: What kind of food do you have while racing?

A: We eat freeze-dried food ?the type astronauts eat in space. It is powdered food that comes in packets, that you mix with boiling water. You leave it to stand for about 15 minutes, as it reconstitutes. But it tastes pretty awful! There are a few different flavors but most of it tastes like dog food!

It's really hard to take on enough calories while you are racing, as you are working so physically hard the whole time. We also eat energy bars and take some dietary supplements since we don't have any fresh food onboard. We are always looking for new things to supplement our diets. In Singapore, we picked up some dried BBQ pork. It's been good to have something different to chew on.

Q: How long have you been sailing? How were you introduced to the sport?

A: I have been sailing all my life. My mother would say I have been sailing since before I was born in her stomach (laughs). I sailed and raced competitively when I was growing up. As a kid I learnt to sail in little boats called "Sunfish?back home in Newport, Rhode Island, near Boston in the United States.

Sailing is the sport I love and I grew up doing it because my family sailed and it's become a big part of my life as I have made a career out of the sport. Why do I do it? I race because I want to win. I'm Mr Competitive. That's the reason I am doing this crazy 37,000-nautical-mile race round the world ?because I want to win.

Q: What do you think of Qingdao? Do you have some suggestions for loyal and potential fans of sailing in China?

A: We're thrilled to be able to bring this amazing race to the shores of China, and we want to share our stories with everyone. One day, perhaps there will be an all-Chinese entry in the race. That would be cool. I know you have some good young sailors; we'd love to help inspire them.

Qingdao is an amazing city and we love every minute of it here. We have been to many ports around the world and this port is clearly one of the best-developed. You have to use the place more, advertise it and get in big events like VOR to show the world how wonderful the facility is. Then more events will come.

However, it would be better to invite people to come in the summer. We don't want to sail here in the winter ?it's too cold (laughs).

Q: The next leg, from Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro, is said to be the longest and most dangerous of the whole race. What are your expectations?

A: Each leg of the VOR to date has been difficult for its own reasons. We have never sailed the route from Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro before so it's rather unpredictable. However, I don't see anything dangerous at this point. It's a position that we knew we had to do, and we knew we have to go there. We take the conditions as they come and deal with them. We just try our best to win the leg. That's our goal.

Q: Have you ever thought of retiring?

A: Come to Russia, where the race ends. By that time I will probably be very skinny, my eyes will be droopy and I will be knackered. If you ask me the question then, I will probably tell you I'm retiring right there. No more, ever again (laughs).

But somehow, we sailors have short memories. We forget very quickly how miserable was the last leg. Once we get rested, we forget about everything and want to do it again. It's always been highs and lows, ups and downs for us.

Q: Is that (highs and lows, ups and downs) the most exciting part of the game?

A: To me, the most exciting part of the game is putting a whole team together. It's not necessarily sailing on one particular angle on one particular day.

It's a dream come true for me being able to put a team like this together, manage it like this and lead it to be successful. We will never stop trying.


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