The human challenge that we now know as the Volvo Ocean Race first set sail almost 45 years ago. In that time the thrilling combination of drama, excitement, endurance and skill has led to the race being recognised as sailing’s ultimate test. With the 2017–18 edition presently underway, we decided to set sail for the past and take a look back to where it all began: a little tavern in the English port city of Portsmouth.

Today, images of the Volvo Ocean Race depict streamlined, state-of-the-art boats cutting through the waves in a death- defying race against time. But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, for sailors who took part in the rst incarnation of the race, setting foot onboard the modern boats of today would be like setting foot on an alien planet. So how did the Volvo Ocean Race evolve from its humble, somewhat amateur beginnings, to become the most extreme, off-shore sailing event in the world? To find out, let’s hoist the mainsail and travel back to 1869.


The birth of what was to become the Volvo Ocean Race can be traced back to two important events: the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. These two miracles of modern construction represent two of the greatest maritime shortcuts in history. Not only did they make trade routes shorter and more accessible for the huge, square-rigged ships of the time, they also made previously perilous journeys less dangerous. Now, sailors would no longer have to navigate their way across the unforgiving waters of the Southern Ocean to deliver their cargo between Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. But not everyone was looking for accessibility and ease; some sailors were still fully focused on finding adventure. One of these men was the English sailor Sir William Robert Patrick “Robin” Knox-Johnston.

In 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and became the rst man to complete a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Exhilarated by his adventure he convinced two sailing journalists, Guy Pearce and Anthony Churchill, of the potential of a round-the-world crewed race following the routes taken by the old square-rigged ships. Together, they hatched a plan that would soon see sailors return to the same challenging waters and routes used before the construction of the Suez and Panama shortcuts – but this time, they would return in the name of sport.


A sailor’s life has always attracted those with a sense of adventure, so nding people willing to accept the challenge was the easy part – nding a sponsor, however, proved a little more dif cult. It wasn’t until Pearce and Churchill approached the Royal Naval Sailing Association in 1971 that their plan began to come together. According to legend, Otto Steiner of the Royal Sailing Naval Association met with Colonel Bill Whitbread – whose family brewing business would become the rst sponsor of the race – to discuss the proposal over a drink in a pub in Portsmouth. And it was in these humble surroundings that the rst incarnation of the Volvo Ocean Race was born.

The first Volvo Ocean Race, or Whitbread Round the World Ocean Race as it was then known, set off from Portsmouth on September 8th 1973. 17 private boats of varying shapes and sizes from seven different countries took part in the competition that lasted seven months and covered 43,500 kilometres over four legs. The race began by heading for Cape Town in South Africa before travelling to Sydney, stopping off in Rio de Janeiro and then starting the long journey back to Portsmouth.

It’s probably fair to say the majority of sailors taking part in the 1973 race would not really have known what was waiting for them out on the oceans.

And photos from the time certainly paint a very different picture to the ruthless professionalism and meticulous preparation we associate with the race today. Shirtless men sit on deck strumming guitars and playing cards, while others smoke pipes and chat amiably. It looks more like the start of a jovial summer cruise than a serious nautical challenge.


The Volvo Ocean Race is a remarkable feat of sportsmanship, teamwork, technology and dedication. Here’s an selection of key facts for 2017-18.

  • The race begins on Saturday October 14th, 2017 in Alicante, Spain. The race village there opens three days beforehand – in the 2014-15 event, more than 2.4 million people visited the race villages worldwide.
  • After ten legs, the race will end with a nal in-port race in The Hague, on June 30th, 2018.
  • The route is approximately 38,739 nautical miles long – that’s more than 71,000 kilometres. This map shows the journey the race takes around the globe.

This year, two boats from The Netherlands are competing: Team Brunel, skippered by Bouwe Bekking, and Team AkzoNobel, skippered by Simeon Tienpont.

Read more about the Volvo Ocean Race