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Extreme Logistics for Extreme Sailing

When Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 concluded in July, French-led Team Groupama was out on the winner's podium, but DHL clearly won the logistics race. With rough waters and unprecedented breakages, the sailors needed all the help they could get; behind-the-scenes, DHL was along for the ride every nautical mile of the way.

Over nine months and 39,000 nautical miles, the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 proved itself a real endurance test for both the extreme sailors on board and for the DHL logistics team tasked with ensuring all the materials needed for the competition were at the right place at the right time.

That was no easy task, as the round-the-world event had not only multi-million dollar yachts moving at record speeds, it also included what some experts are calling the hardest leg ever in the 39-year history of the yachting world’s pinnacle event.

Leg 1 - Alicante to Cape Town

The race got off to a rough start on November 5, 2011 in Alicante, Spain , with two of the six teams competing in the tri-annual race knocked out nearly instantly. While still in the Mediterranean, the sailors faced brutal seas with 10-meter waves and 40-knot winds (approx. 70 km/h). Team Abu Dhabi Racing watched their mast snap in half just six hours and 84 nautical miles into the race. Shortly thereafter, Team Sanya reported hull damage that was causing them to take on water.

In preparations for the race, DHL set up a control tower and “air-side” warehouse in Amsterdam where a team worked round-the-clock to ensure that whenever there was trouble on the boats, DHL could get the spare parts to the yachts, wherever they were in the world. So as Team Abu Dhabi limped back into port in Alicante, DHL sprung into action to make sure the team’s bulky replacement mast, already in transit back to the warehouse, could meet them at the harbor despite the late hour. Watch all the action here.

Team Sanya shored up in the Azores to make repairs that won them the inaugural DHL Shore Crew Award for teamwork and efficiency in getting the boat seaworthy again in record time.

Leg 1 also claimed Team PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG as a casualty after their mast snapped in three places, retiring them from the leg just days before Telefonica pulled into port to snatch the first win of the race.

The damages proved an auspicious start for the world's most extreme race, one that only got more challenging as the months wore on.

Leg 2: Cape Town to Abu Dhabi

Sailing up the western coast of Africa, the waters the teams encountered were relatively calm, giving the teams a break after an intense first leg. A high pressure area in the Indian Ocean and low pressure fronts and storms off the coast of Madagascar gave two teams a chance to break out from the pack. The French team Groupama made East for higher winds and an early lead, while Team Sanya ploughed into a tropical storm, trying to get ahead, but suffered a broken mast, forcing the team to withdraw from its second straight leg and shore up in Madagascar, where they were met by DHL employees in a small port town of Fort Dauphin. The island-hoppers got a warm welcome from DHL employees in a remote part of the country making their way north to join the fleet.

Due to the threat of piracy, the race managers made the unprecedented decision to split Leg 2 in two. After reaching the secret mid-point destination in the Indian Ocean, all five remaining boats were loaded onto a freighter for transport to the kick-off point for the second section of Leg 2, off the Sharjah coast in the northern United Arab Emirates.

The final 98-nautical mile sprint along the coast of the Emirates, though, made for a nail-biting finish, with Team Telefonica coming in just a minute ahead of CAMPER.

Leg 3: Abu Dhabi to Sanya

© Todd, Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012
After a quick layover in the Emirati port, the boats took off on the 3,051 nautical mile journey toward China. Once out of the safe waters around the Emirates, the yachts were again loaded into secured freighters, re-entering the race in the Maldives.

The Indian Ocean leg took a toll on all the sailors, even the victors, as Telefónica navigator Andrew Cape admitted.

“It’s one of the toughest legs I’ve done,” he said. “Mentally it was very difficult, tactically very difficult. Physically it wasn’t as tough as a long southern ocean leg but mentally it was really hard."

The fleet had been fairly compact when they entered the Malacca Strait, the passage connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, via a 500-mile stretch of narrow, shallow and congested water. The crews were unused to sailing through such busy waters and were frequently dodging tankers and fishing boats by night.

“With poor quality charting, multitudes of unlit fishing vessels and miles of nets, not to mention shallow wrecks from the war, the potential for disaster was high,” CAMPER’s navigator Will Oxley said. Thankfully, at least for this leg, disaster was diverted and Team Telefonica clinched the victory in another tight race, making it look as though they were unbeatable.

Leg 4: Sanya to Auckland

While all eyes were on the exhausted crews in Sanya, behind the scenes, DHL was encountering a logistics nightmare. As part of a unique agreement with the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 organizers, DHL set up a leapfrog system to get goods from port to port. The Race Villages, designed to keep visitors entertained while they awaited the sailors, and spare parts needed for each team, were packed up and sent ahead via freighter to the ports. In Sanya, however, that proved to be a bit of a challenge, as no cranes were made available to unpack the containers and while repacking to go, it was discovered the tiny fishing village’s port couldn’t hold the freighter DHL had sent in. Fortunately the ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’ ethos extends to sea freight too, and the race continued to go off without a hitch. At least from the logistical perspective.

For the sailors, it was another story altogether. Already exhausted, the teams had little time to recover before charting their course for New Zealand and they headed straight into terrible weather conditions.On February 19, the leg got off to a late start and for the first stage, the fleet completed a 43 nautical mile sprint across the harbor and back to establish departure times for a rolling start the following day.

The next day the fleet slipped out of Sanya’s harbor in eerily calm weather on the 5,220 nm leg to Auckland, New Zealand. As the boats crept along in the shadow of the island, the skippers knew that 40 knot winds and eight meter waves were awaiting them in the South China Sea. Soon, the crews had their hands full managing the boats moving at 20 knots, as well as dealing with the bone-jarring impacts of slamming through waves.

While the teams made it to New Zealand relatively unscathed, this time with Groupama in the lead, Team Puma Powered by Berg skipper Ken Read's team found themselves in a "code red" situation after arriving in Auckland with damage to one of their boats two daggerboards with just three days to spare before hitting the water again. They called upon DHL right away to source and deliver the spare part immediately, keeping them in the race before heading out toward Brazil in the toughest leg yet.

Leg 5: Auckland to Itajai

In what experts are calling the toughest leg in the race’s history, the 6,705 nautical mile trek across the Southern Ocean put both the sailors and DHL to the test, as all but one yacht encountered serious difficulties in the icy stretch of ocean from New Zealand to Brazil. A predicted 21-day race stretched into nearly a month, as the yachts hit rough, icy waters in the isolating Southern Ocean.

Through to the end, it seemed the race was anyone's – if only the teams could make it there. While eventually Team Puma pulled into port first, the leg proved a real nail-biter, as five of the six boats had to stop for repairs at some point.

Early in the race, Team Sanya encountered issues and retired to New Zealand for repairs that would see them pull out of the race for two legs and shipped ahead to the United States via freighter so they could join the teams for Leg 7.

Team Abu Dhabi likewise pulled out of the leg. Already having repaired the hull once, the crew undertook extreme measures while out at sea to repair further damage to the hull and ended up going offshore in Puerto Montt, Chile, where DHL arranged for them to be brought via shipping vessel to Itajai to join the other teams before the next leg began.

In one of the most spectacular finishes to a leg yet, the Groupama racing team arrived in Itajaí, Brazil on April 10 after 23 days at sea. Though they'd been leading for much of Leg 5, the team slowed to a crawl when the mast broke after the boat rounded Cape Horn.

With less than 1,000 nautical miles left to the finish line, the mast snapped in two, just level with the first set of spread, about 10 meters above deck. After cutting down the rigging – a task made even more difficult as bowman Brad Marsh sliced his wrist so deeply he required medical attention – Groupama turned the boat toward the Uruguayan city of Punta del Este. There, the team began a round-the-clock repair effort to create a makeshift rig fashioned from the bigger of the two broken parts of the mast in just three days. And DHL set to work getting their replacement mast out of Amsterdam and into the Brazilian port quickly, leaving the team enough time for repairs.

Special delivery: a 100-foot-tall mast

Leg 6: Itajai to Miami

© Roman, Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012
After the long and arduous Leg 5 from Auckland to Itajaí, the 3,590-nautical-mile Leg 6 was a Caribbean Breeze for the tired sailors. The only challenges proved to be mental, as this leg came down to navigation tactics and the yachts held in tact, giving both DHL and the shore crews a much-needed break from repairs.

Leg 7: Miami to Lisbon

© Todd, Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012
With Team Sanya re-joining the race in Miami, the group was back up to six and the leaderboard showed it could still be anybody’s game. Suddenly, Leg 7 gained in importance and the sailors raced hard across the treacherous North Atlantic Seas.

The trek saw a shift in leadership as storm winds guided the boats in different directions. It could have been anyone's race, as the navigators steered the boats every which way, none avoiding the windy storms that pushed back against the sailors. In the end, with teams sailing at speeds of about 20 knots, “home field” advantage made the difference, as a neck-and-neck final sprint with Groupama was determined by Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's intimate knowledge of the waters around Lisbon, where they spent eight weeks last summer in preparation for the race.

The victory was sweet for the team, as their spirits were dragging after a damaged hull forced them out of Leg 5 early and the team seemed to have given up hope of taking to the winners' podium in the round-the-world race.

Leg 8: Lisbon to Lorient

Heading up the European coast should’ve been a breeze for the shortest leg of the race yet, but a wicked storm tossed the sailors around in the neck and neck sprint, which saw speeds of more than 40 knots. Wave after wave bore down on the speeding yachts, soaking the sailors as they pushed through the hardest leg since they'd left the grueling Southern Ocean. Racing at dramatic speeds, all six teams seemed to fly through the sea, covering more than 500 nautical miles each in 24 hours and pushing each boat into port well ahead of schedule.

The speeds didn't go unnoticed as Team Camper pulled in a distance record of 566 nautical miles in a 24-hour period and won the IWC Schaffhausen award for distance. That didn’t help them win the leg, though, as Groupama pulled into their French “home” port in the lead, pushing them to the top of the leaderboard and eventually securing the race for the team.

Leg 9: Lorient to Galway

With just 485 nautical miles to go, Leg 9 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 seemed like it’d be an easy go, but the rocky coast of Ireland posed difficulties for the crews. In the end, CAMPER landed first in Galway for their first win of the race but the victory was short and sweet, as Groupama began celebrating their overall win shortly thereafter .

Groupama’s perseverance certainly paid off, as they recovered nicely from the dismast in Leg 5 and overcame a series of setbacks that could’ve put them out of contention. But there’s was not the only team to do so. Team Sanya Won the Overall DHL Shore Crew Award for their never-say-die attitude, fighting to the finish even with the knowledge that their hopes of winning were dashed nearly off the bat.

It’s that kind of mind-set that DHL took into the race as well. While faced with numerous obstacles during the round-the-clock, round-the-globe race, the DHL team persevered, helping bring success to all six teams on the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012.