We splashed for the 2016 season on a May Friday. Our boat wasn’t exactly ready (last year’s spark plugs, no sails…) but on Saturday morning, twelve of us crammed onboard to drift and stall around Narragansett Bay, because the Volvo Ocean Race had come to town. We wouldn’t miss this gun for the world.

In a swarm of hundreds of spectator boats, we plopped our chins on the lifelines, entranced and enchanted by those sleek, super-fast creations that had slogged to Newport from Brazil…to dazzle. We cheered for the local boys from AlviMedica. We cheered for the women’s team. We cheered for sailing.

Earlier in the week 5000 people had schlepped to Fort Adams late-night to cheer as DongFeng and Abu Dhabi arrived three minutes apart…after 5000 miles of open water. At three a.m., 2500 of us were still there, screaming our heads off as AlviMedica’s orange tied up and Charlie kissed his wife. It was insane. The Race CEO Knut Frostad said it was the best welcome he’d ever seen at a US stopover, and its enthusiasm is a big reason the VOR will be back in Newport in 2018.

And we want it back. We can’t wait. (Here’s the link to our countdown.) The 2016 VOR stopover electrified Newport’s already busy sailing community. But what was awesome about the Volvo…what is important about the Volvo, is what it did for non-sailors…
It drew them in.

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Because the Volvo Ocean Race isn’t just a race. It’s a story. Of human beings trying hard. Of a seagoing journey. Of time spent away from home. Of mothers and fathers and sons who have fought years for a chance…and who get injured and tired and wet and cold. And who keep grinding anyway. Sailing can be inaccessible and you often need first-hand experience to appreciate it. But you don’t need any time at any helm to understand struggle and grit. And to start to care…

Brian Hancock recently blogged about, “ Why Sailing Is Undervalued in the US.” Partially, it is undervalued because it is hidden. Skippers’ meetings are at yacht clubs and races are out of reach of land. If you ARE able to score some binoculars and watch, courses get shortened due to wind and no one tells you. People can only cheer for what they understand. How exciting would baseball be if the position of home plate was vague? In contrast to typical American sailing…what the Volvo Ocean Race did marvelously, was include us all.

Crowds in the Race VillageMarc Bow / Volvo Ocean Race
Crowds in the Village during the Team Vestas Wind InPort Race in Newport.

They added in-port races so folks on land could watch. They picked Newport as a US stop-over, which is an easy drive from lots of states rather than peninsula-locked Miami. They then put the skippers meeting info on the news. You didn’t need to know anyone or be a member of anything to understand exactly when the in-port races would start or how many up-wind legs there would be. You just needed a clicker and a couch. You could then bring your beach chair to Beavertail, or Brenton Point, or Fort Adams itself, and have front-row, VIP seats to world-class sailing…for free.

The race village was the icing on the cake.

It is hard to build a small city within a small city without the buzz getting out that ‘somethin big’s a comin.’ Everyone knew someone who was involved or who had picked up part-time work (over 350 new jobs were created!). One hundred thirty thousand people visited over the thirteen days the race village was open, five times the population of Newport itself. I know first hand lots of them weren’t sailors. They were just folks who’d heard about the show.

Spectators watching the Pro-Am Race in Newport from the Volvo Ocean Race Village.

And what a show. In Fort Adams humble parking lot, they built a temporary car dealership. A two story bar. Housing. There was a chance to drive a self-parking car, an education zone for children, a Heineken zone for parents, and a Volvo sixteen wheeler you could climb into and pretend to drive. The sponsors of the race truly involved the whole family. And once folks were there, once they were jazzed, having just stared the paint off an engine, they checked out the sailing…and were sold.

The fleet was dressed and gleaming, and staffed with crew who were gracious and kind. Who answered every child’s questions. Who let them touch a wheel and crank a winch. There was a boat cut in half so folks could see ‘down below’ and visualize what would be like to hot-rack over miles and miles and miles. Our local public sailing center, Sail Newport, invited folks to “Try Sailing” in their fleet of J-22’s. And folks set sail for the first time. And were hooked.

If sailing is ever going to be a mainstream sport in this country – we need more of this. All of this. More inclusion, more education, more spectacles that invite and wow. More access to professional heroes.

Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race
Prologue start on-board Dongfeng. Dongfeng has a bad start and sails in the back of the fleet. Photo by Jeremie Lecaudey. 08 October, 2017

On the way to the docks there were haunting, ten-foot-tall, black and white pictures of the captains’ faces. These pictures made these heroes personal, period. You could stare into their wise eyes and see the miles of sea. I strolled there holding the hand of a friend’s six year old daughter. She isn’t from a sailing family and her parents don’t belong to any club.  But she stopped in her tracks and her eyes went wide. “That one’s a girl,” she said.

Yes. Yes she is.

I just wonder where that seed will grow. We need to plant more seeds, in more non-sailors. Now.

As I write this, the 2017-2018 VOR fleet is about to leave Alicante. There are miles and months between them and Newport, but we are counting the days.

Sail fast. Sail safe. Folks round here are waiting to meet you. And to fall in love with sailing.