It’s always been human nature that once we figure out that we can do something, we want to do it the fastest. Running, driving cars, eating hot dogs … and sailing. We’ve been sailing ships around the world for centuries now, but racing that epic voyage?
Only a minute percentage of sailors are up for that task.
But, over the years, that task has been the driving force of the legendary Volvo Ocean Race. This amazing round-the-world sailing event happens only every few years, and only the most elite skippers and crew can handle the route.
We caught up with photographer/filmmaker Matt Knighton, the onboard reporter of last year’s winning boat, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, to pick his brain on what that amazing journey was like.
What was the route you followed for the Volvo Ocean Race and how long did it take your team?
The Volvo Ocean Race is held every three years and is considered the Mount Everest of professional sailing. The route changes each edition, but for the 2014-15 race we started in Alicante, Spain, in Oct. 2014 and finished in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June 2015.
So, the race took nine months and in total we sailed over 60,000 nautical miles. There were nine different stopovers through the race: Cape Town, Abu Dhabi, Sanya, Auckland, Itajai, Newport, Lisbon, Lorient and the Hague. The longest leg lasted 25 days (Leg 1, from Alicante to Cape Town) and several of the other legs were almost as long — some over three weeks covering thousands of miles and multiple weather systems.
What was your role on the boat? Did you have much sailing experience before this?
The Volvo Ocean Race is unique in that it requires each team to employ a dedicated media producer within the sailing team, called an onboard reporter, who would generate finished photography, video content and written articles every 24 hours via satellite.
We’re actually not allowed to help sail the boat; we’re solely there to create content telling the sailors’ stories (while still functioning as part of the crew [by] managing food, cleaning the boat, making coffee, etc.).
Over 2,000 people applied for the role. All the OBRs had different sailing backgrounds, but my pedigree came with over 10,000 nautical miles logged in my own offshore racing career in San Diego. I had been pursuing offshore racing seriously for four years prior to the race alongside being a documentary filmmaker.
What were some incredible things you saw along the way?
I saw things during the race that few others will ever get to see, and that remains a highlight of the experience. We sailed through phosphorescent algae in the Gulf of Oman so bright, their blue light lit up the sails like flashlights. We had dolphins swimming next to the boat who would stare right into my GoPro while it was underwater and investigate it for minutes on end.
We raced between literally hundreds of anchored tankers in the Singapore Straits, coming as close as a few meters to huge anchor chains while doing 18 knots. We surfed down 40-foot waves doing speeds of over 35 knots in 4 [degree] Celsius waters just north of Antarctica.
We got threatened by the Pakistani Navy for invading territorial waters — a radio conversation where my skipper jokingly outed me as being the only American onboard. The list goes on and on.
Are pirates ever an issue for you guys?
Pirates are an issue especially off the coast of Africa and in the Straits of Malacca off Malaysia. To keep us out of harm’s way, the race actually set an exclusion zone off the African coast and employed full-time monitoring of naval reports of pirate activity in the area to feed back to race control.
To be honest, the Malaysian pirates are worse. The Somali pirates are businesslike: Kidnap and pay a ransom. Off Malaysia, the pirates want to steal everything you have onboard and don’t care if they need to shoot you to get it.