These million-dollar sailboats are racing around the world

45,000 nautical miles.

Just think about that for a moment. The Volvo Ocean Race is about 52,000 miles sailing around the world. The famed event, which started in Alicante, Spain, on Oct. 22 will take sailors across four oceans, touch six continents, and sail into 12 cities.

Thirty two knots may not sound like much but being aboard a sailboat going almost 50 mph is serious excitement. Photo Courtesy of Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race

All seven teams will be spending a lot of time at sea over the course of the next eight months and it’s fascinating to think about the high-tech craft that will propel them around the globe using nothing but wind.

For this race and the last (2014-2015) the event has been committed to using a one-design Volvo Ocean 65 sailboat.

Veteran Helmsman and owner of North Sails, Ken Read, explains the principals of the one-design boats used in the Volvo Ocean Race. Photo Courtesy of Ian Roman/Volvo Ocean Race

“What one-design means in the sail racing world is that every team is using the same boat with the same design specifications, built by one builder to make exact replicas of each other. Only small modifications can be made by the teams,” says former America’s Cup helmsman, two-time U.S. Yachtsman of the Year and President of North Sails, Ken Read.

Read led his team to a second-place finish in the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09.

“This decision was taken by the race for three primary reasons. One, to cut down on cost of entering the Volvo Ocean Race for sponsors. Two, to make the boats more structurally sound overall. And three, to level the playing field for all teams,” explains Read.

When teams were designing their own boats, the design got very pricey. Even now, Read estimates construction cost at $1 million for each boat. Today, instead of the emphasis being on designing the fastest, most advanced boat, it’s more of a race among sailors with similar boats, all cutting edge.

All of the vessels were designed by Farr Yacht Design in Annapolis, Maryland and put together manually at Green Marine in Southern England.

Each boat in the event is designed at Farr Yacht Design in Annapolis, Maryland and built at Green Marine in England. Photo Courtesy of Jesus Renedo/Volvo Ocean Race

“When the Volvo race made the decision to go one-design, they enlisted a consortium of some of the world’s best boat builders and manufacturers to put the Volvo Ocean 65 together. It included five different companies including a US-based designer along with Italian, Swiss, French and British boat builders. The various parts of the boats come from all over and are assembled at Green Marine in Southern England,” Read adds.

There are, of course, a lot of fittings, electronics like satellite communications and parts that still needed to be added, most of which comes from partners like North Sails, who works with the race on the sail program and all the sails carried by the teams around the world.

The boats do top speeds of 32 knots, which is almost 50 mph.

“Given that you are on a wild ride through ocean swells with waves breaking over the boat in these types of conditions, 32 knots is nothing to sneeze at​,” says Read. “There are some pretty heinous conditions out there. You’re often on the edge of control. But with canting keel systems and twin rudders the days of ‘broaches’ are almost non-existent. The twin rudders work amazing at very high speed.”

The boats have to be built to withstand any conditions at sea. Photo Courtesy of Martin Keruzore/Volvo Ocean Race

But for all the exhilaration, Read says it’s most like a game of chess.

“Weather systems and small cells can often make or break a leg. We’re basically chasing storms in these things trying to push it to the limits,” Read continues. “It’s a little luck but also a lot of understanding.

“That zone is when you have hooked into a system and the others are left behind. That’s a very good feeling and doesn’t happen often​. People have tried to compare this to extreme sport like mountain climbing, but to me it is a lot different. The mental game of being in a 24-hour-a-day race that lasts for weeks at a time can be a bit draining as you can imagine.

“I’m not sure if there’s any endurance or adventure racing out there with nine-months of competition. But the competitive nature of the race far outweighs the human discomfort element.”

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