Last November, seven boats left Vigo, Spain at the start of an eight-month, 57,000 kilometer ocean race around the world. The sleek, 21-meter-long boats each carrying ten sailors in tight quarters, have been navigating through rough and calm seas, dodging icebergs and debris in their race toward the finish in Sweden in mid-June.
Held every four years, the competition started 34 years ago as the "Whitbread" race, and is now called the Volvo Ocean Race, after the automaker took over as sponsor. The sailors recently made their only extended North American stop in Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland, where they showed that their aim is not just to race, but to educate.
With the sound of the starting gun, the seven boats of the Volvo Ocean Race began what's called an "in-port race" near Annapolis, Maryland, as a test of their tactical skills in the relative calm of an inland bay. Veteran sailors like John Anderson followed the race as he piloted his own boat along the Chesapeake Bay course, and described the action in sailor's lingo.
"Big trouble. They're going to have to tack right away," said Anderson as he turned to a reporter riding along on his boat. "Either that, or they'll have to duck all the boats. They're coming in on a port tack; the others are on starboard. Ericsson won't have any rights here. There they go - they're ducking the rest of the fleet. I believe that was the gun. Pirates has won the start. They're off and flying across the line."
For those stuck watching the boats from land, the harbor race organizers offered a glimpse of what it's like to steer a boat through 20-meter high ocean waves. Barby MacGowan lead a visitor through a display pavilion at the Baltimore Harbor that used surround sound and vision to give visitors the feeling they were at sea. "This is a giant screen wave-wall of water coming at you," said MacGown. "This is what the guys see all the time, 24-7. They're looking at what you're looking at right now."
During its Baltimore stopover four years ago, the Ocean Race boats and the city's waterfront festival attracted 300,000 spectators. This year, race organizers are again taking the opportunity to teach landlubbers, young and old, about sailing. Betsy Kulle was education coordinator for the Maryland stopover
"What better way is there for kids to learn about the oceans, estuaries, and all the living resources in the world than through sailboat racing around the world?" shesaid. "It's an extreme sport -which kids just love- that's been an exciting way to teach."
The seven boats represent six countries: Spain, Australia, Brazil, the United States, Sweden and the Netherlands - which is sponsoring two boats. They have followed a route that included stops in South Africa, Australia, Brazil and now the United States.
Baltimore County teacher Katie Murphy is one of 4500 educators from 20 countries taking part in Ocean Race education programs with their students
"They learned all about geography, worldwide weather patterns, wind patterns, heat conditions, latitude and longitude down to seconds," Murphy said, pointing to her class. "We did one to two lessons a week and charted them around the world. The kids kept up with them on the map. We've learned a huge amount about the countries. The kids know about Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope and all sorts of interesting things."
In Baltimore, hundreds of schoolchildren visited the docked boats. Ian Walsh, who thought the boats were "really big and cool," was among them. "We learned about wind speeds and the sails - and how big a difference the sails' positioning makes on the boats," he said.
Classmate Brandon Kaufmann was less impressed. "I don't like boats - not when they're out on the water! When they're docked, I'll 'sail' on them. [But] I've always wanted to be a scientist."
"The students always ask great questions," said Mark Rudiger, American navigator on the Ericsson boat, "things you might not think of yourself: what happens on the boat that might not happen ashore? or what's most important to get to this position? It's fun to convey the importance of teamwork, training, and mathematics, which is a big deal surprisingly enough because the boats are 'numbers-oriented.'
At stops on the Volvo Ocean Race Rudiger said he had been asked, "'What was your favorite country, what's the difference between the southern ocean and the equator?' It's nice to know there are kids in class watching on the Internet and rooting for the different boats."
Rudiger said he grew up watching races like the Iditarod sled dogs and Whitbread sailors. A childhood visit with the legendary French sailor Eric Tabarly also helped get him excited about the sport. "As a kid I sailed up to his boat in San Francisco when he was getting ready to set the Japan record. He invited me aboard - I was sailing a little Trimaran, and that has stuck in my head."
Perhaps even more important than learning about the sport, science, and geography of global sailing, the students - and their parents - learn that sailing is not the elitist sport it is sometimes portrayed to be.
Kimo Worthington, general manager of the American boat, Pirates of the Caribbean, says that while the ocean race boats cost millions of dollars to build and operate, people living on modest budgets can sail as well. "Anybody that can afford a car can afford a boat," Worthington says. "The Living Classrooms [program] in Baltimore reaches out to the inner city and shows [students] how to build boats. A lot of schools now have programs that bring kids out of the city. It's not elitist at all."
And Worthington says if the race is an opportunity to educate people about sailing, it's also a chance to extend a little generosity: "In South Africa, [we gave children] their first t-shirts," he says. "It was also the most food they've ever received at one time. These are things they've never had. And it was a special day for us."
After leaving Maryland, the boats make a quick stopover in New York City and then travel 5200 kilometers to England and the Netherlands, before ending their race in Gothenborg, Sweden, in mid-June.