As seven boats set off on one of the longest and toughest sporting events on the globe, Suzanne McFadden talks to two rookie Kiwis in, and one legendary veteran suddenly out of the 45,000 nautical mile Volvo Ocean Race.

Brad Jackson – on-again, off-again skipper

Brad Jackson’s seventh round-the-world race is shockingly over before it even began.

The Kiwi described as the epitome of a round-the-world race veteran – cool, calm and accomplished – was the freshly-appointed skipper of the Dutch boat AkzoNobel. But when the yacht left the dock at Alicante early Monday morning, on the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race bound for Lisbon, Jackson was not on board.

The puzzling affairs of the Dutch team had taken another bizarre turn while still at the dock.

For one week, Jackson was promoted to skipper of this team. He replaced Dutch skipper Simeon Tienpont, abruptly axed for breach of contract after a dispute over his own company’s running of the campaign.

But, hours before the start-gun, Tienpont returned to Alicante having won his arbitration hearing, and was reinstated as skipper. Jackson walked off, along with fellow watch captain Joca Signorini, navigator Jules Salter and helmsman Rome Kirby.

Jackson is a yachtsman who doesn’t get flustered. When he made his round-the-world debut at 25 on winning maxi NZ Endeavour in the 1993-94 race, skipper Grant Dalton described him as “a team player who quickly came to grips with the intricacies of living under constant change and pressure”.

Laden with experience, especially in the Southern Ocean where the race returns after a break, Jackson had signed up for his seventh circumnavigation of the globe as a watch captain.

He took on the skipper’s role because he felt he had the support of the team, especially his crew. Last week, he tried to keep their focus on what was coming up on the water, rather than the drama bubbling behind the scenes.

Forty-eight hours before the race start, the three-time race winner told Newsroom he was looking forward to leaving Alicante – but on a boat, not a plane.

“We haven’t had the most ideal build-up in the last week. But before that we’d been working pretty hard. We’re still a bit behind the eight ball compared to the top teams, but we’re on track,” he said.

“I haven’t had a lot of time to think properly how we would like to run the show, we’ve just been sorting things out. The disruption shouldn’t affect us on the boat too much.”

How wrong he was.

Jackson wanted to return to Southern Ocean, even though he compared it to going to the dentist. “It brings a bit of an edge back to the race. Every time I go down there, I experience something new. But it’s the same as any bit of ocean – anywhere can turn bad, and quickly,” he said.

“I think what I bring to the boat is trying to avoid bad things happening, trying to anticipate a situation you know can go bad. That’s where I come in and use my experience and avoid having a shocker, and losing miles. I know a few tricks, so people don’t get hurt.”

He just didn’t anticipate things turning bad on the dock.

Bianca Cook, round-the-world rookie

As a toddler, Bianca Cook was learning to sail on the classic yacht Ranger, one of the greatest sailing boats ever seen on Auckland’s harbour. For the past five years, she’s clocked up over 70,000 nautical miles working on superyachts – the latest Hetairos, one of the world’s quickest superyachts under sail. She’s one exam away from her Office of the Watch certification to navigate a ship.

Yet, despite her impressive seagoing CV, she admits her last-minute call-up to crew on Volvo yacht Turn the Tide on Plastic came as a surprise.

“I really wanted to do this race, and I was constantly picking their brains of Volvo sailors I’d worked with. When the race changed the rule [allowing boats more crew if they include women], I sent my CV to everyone I could,” Cook, 28, says. “I was sailing in Fiji when I was invited to sail on Turn the Tide on Plastic in the Fastnet Race, but I couldn’t get to an airport in time. I thought my chance was over.”

But a few weeks ago, she was asked to join the young, multinational, five male – five female crew. “The last couple of weeks have been pretty overwhelming – a lot of learning and pushing hard, but it’s great.”

Cook knows conditions will be in steep contrast to what she’s been used to.

“In superyachts, once you come off watch, you have a hot shower, lie down on a comfortable mattress with a pillow and duvet. After a good sleep, a chef cooks you breakfast,” she says. “This is a completely different environment. No shower, no chef. I’m not a great cook but I can add hot water to freeze-dried food. A full night’s sleep isn’t what you sign up for. Adrenalin draws everyone to this race.”

Don’t think she’s soft; Cook knows how to race. A top women’s match-racer, she was gunning for the 2012 London Olympics, before the class was cut.

She is the only New Zealand woman in this race, and she’s the first to sail in a mixed crew. Four other Kiwis have sailed in all-women crews in past editions.

“Encouraging mixed crews is a great leap forward in creating diversity in the sport,” says Cook, who’s sister Paige is also a professional sailor. “It isn’t about who’s stronger, men or women. We know men are physically stronger, but this gives us the ability to work to our strengths.”

Cook, who has a degree in graphic design, is also focused on pushing the “clean seas” message of her team, who fly the flag of the United Nations.

“It’s crazy sailing in an ocean with so much plastic. You’re out in the middle of the Pacific with no land in sight and there’s a fishing net, and plastic bottles. It’s really upsetting in the middle of nowhere.”

James Blake, on-board reporter

James Blake has tried to avoid sailing for most of his 30 years, but the lure to follow in his father’s wake around the world was too great.

Having made his name chasing sharks and whales as a documentary filmmaker, Blake is putting his skills to another test, recording the sailors’ exploits in the Volvo Ocean Race. The late Sir Peter Blake, who circumnavigated the world six times, would no doubt be proud of his son.

“I’ve always been interested in documenting other bits and pieces of life, whether it’s animals or scientists. But to go and explore a bit, sail around the world and document these guys as they do it, is fantastic for me,” says Blake, who describes himself as a Kiwi-Brit. “It’s a bit of a challenge, but I like to push myself.”

It’s 44 years since Sir Peter sailed in his first round-the-world race on Burton Cutter, and 27 years since he won his final race as skipper of Steinlager. James was four.

He’s sailing the first leg of the race on board the US/Danish boat, Vestas 11th Hour. Under the new rule where onboard reporters switch yachts, he moves to AkzoNobel for the following two legs.

Witnessing what sailors put themselves through over 45,000 miles was one of the reasons Blake signed up. “Being a fly on the wall… and seeing how hard these guys push themselves and push the boats is quite incredible,” he says.

“The race has changed a lot since Dad was here, but once you narrow it down, it’s still men and women out there facing the same elements. It’s great seeing a little bit of what he saw.”

Sharing his father’s passion for the environment, Blake was also drawn in by the race’s sustainability message – to turn the tide on plastic. “The ocean is their racetrack, and it’s up to us to go out there and document it, and hopefully get other people to appreciate it more,” he says.

Although he’s rowed across the Tasman, and is a keen kiteboarder, it still takes Blake a couple of days to find his sea legs. His “office” on the VO60 where he edits is a cramped corner: “There’s no personal space, but you quickly get used to it and you end up loving it a bit.”

He’s already planning his next ocean adventure – to cross the Atlantic at speed in a boat propelled by kite. “My friend and I have been building a kiteboard in the backyard for the last four-and-a-half years. We want to start breaking some records by kite,” he says.

“But this race is what I’m focused on now. I guess it’s in my blood. I know there will be tough times, but at the end of the day, I think it will put a smile on my face.”

Other Kiwis in the race:

Peter Burling – Team Brunel

Olympic and America’s Cup champion Burling makes his debut in the VOR for at least the first two legs, as a helmsman/trimmer.

Blair Tuke – Mapfre

Burling’s partner on the water will be his opponent this time, as Tuke sails around the world for the first time on this Spanish boat. Also a helmsman/trimmer.

Louis Sinclair – Mapfre

Born in New Zealand, but raised in Antigua, Sinclair is in his second Volvo race, having won the last on Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. He was also a crewman for Oracle in Bermuda.

Brad Farrand – AkzoNobel

Like Tuke, Farrand learned to sail in Kerikeri, and is one of the under-30 sailors (each team must have two). It’s his first Volvo but he’s experienced in international match-racing.

Stu Bannatyne – Dongfeng

Known as the King of the Southern Ocean, Bannatyne is making a record eighth circumnavigation with this race. The veteran watch captain has won the race three times.

Daryl Wislang – Dongfeng

In his fifth VOR, Nelson-born Wislang is looking for back-to-back victories after winning on Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in last race.

Tony Mutter – Vestas 11th Hour Racing

Two-time race winner Tony Mutter is back for his sixth VOR at the age of 48. He’s also famous for having his infected knee operated on by an Ericsson 4 team-mate while at sea.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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