Dee Caffari is under no illusions about the scale of the task ahead of her and her crew when the 13th edition of the Volvo Ocean Race starts in Alicante today. With nine different nationalities on board her boat, Turn the Tide on Plastic, the only fully mixed crew (five men, five women) in the race, the majority of them under the age of 30, and many complete novices when it comes to offshore sailing, it is fair to say Caffari’s team are not among the favourites. Caffari only finalised her crew selection a couple of months ago after putting half of them through their Yachtmaster exams (a requirement for all VOR sailors), overseen by the youth charity UKSA in Cowes.
As the hours tick down before the big start, however, Caffari – the only female skipper in this edition – is increasingly confident they can surprise a few people over the next eight months and 45,000 nautical miles. Turn the Tide on Plastic came home fourth of seven on the shortened prologue leg from Lisbon last week. But that bald statistic ignores the fact they were involved in a close fight for third place, the top two having opted for a totally different route which paid for them. It seems Caffari’s crew of Volvo virgins are not the pushovers many expected them to be.
“Everybody wanted to write us off as the underdogs,” she says. “And it’s true we are inexperienced as a crew as far as Volvo Ocean Race is concerned. We are 60 per cent under 30. We’re fully mixed. But from the experience we have had now in Leg Zero and in the prologue we’ve been in the mix with everybody. So suddenly everyone is having to notice us and they’re not quite able to write us off, which is confusing everyone… which I’m quite liking.”
One thing is certain, you under-estimate Caffari at your peril. The 44-year-old, who is descended from a Maltese sea captain (Caffari was actually born in Watford and grew up in Rickmansworth), has sailed around the globe no less than fives times already, twice solo and in each direction, including a 2006 voyage when she became the first woman to do it against the prevailing winds and currents. She is still the only woman to have sailed around the world non-stop three times. When you consider that more people have summited Everest than have sailed solo around the world, you begin to appreciate what rarefied company she keeps.
Caffari may have more offshore miles under her belt than the rest of her crew combined, but she has no doubt about the raw talent at her disposal. Five of her crew have been through the Olympics, including Ireland’s reigning sportswoman of the year Annalise Murphy, a silver medallist in the Laser Radial at Rio 2016. One of them, Bleddyn Mon, graduated in double quick time from the Land Rover BAR academy to sail alongside Sir Ben Ainslie at the recent America’s Cup in Bermuda, earning the great man’s praise.
One suspects that Mon, who studied Mechanical Engineering Aerospace at the University of Southampton, a course which included a 12-month industrial placement with the Red Bull Formula 1 team, did not struggle too much to complete his Yachtmaster. “He is frighteningly intelligent,” agrees Caffari. “But the great thing is Bleddyn - like others in my crew - has no idea how to live offshore. Some of the guys, when we sailed on the prologue from Lisbon to Alicante, doubled their night hours and their offshore experience. That’s how raw they are. It’s going to be really interesting to see them tackling this new area that’s ahead of them.”
Caffari hopes their voyage of discovery will pique interest back home, certainly in time for the leg from Newport, Rhode Island, to Cardiff next May, which she anticipates will really “ramp up interest in the UK”. The truth is it needs to. Traditionally one of sailing’s ‘big three’ alongside the America’s Cup and the Olympics, there is no doubt the Volvo Ocean Race has lost ground in terms of its status as the world’s premier offshore sailing event. The Vendee Globe - with its simpler narrative of one sailor versus the elements rather than fully crewed race broken up into legs - has stolen marketshare.
The arrival of Mark Turner as CEO was intended to shake things up - and it has - but Turner recently announced his decision to step down with the board unwilling to implement his changes in the timeframe he envisaged. Caffari says she has lost “an advocate and a friend, and the race has lost a visionary”. But she feels Turner’s legacy is already assured with the race in much ruder health now than when he arrived. Anyway, she cannot worry too much about all that now. She has a race to get on with and a serious message to impart.
Turn the Tide on Plastic, who are sailing under the flag of the United Nations, will be carrying the UN’s Clean Seas campaign message around the globe with them. And this is clearly more than just window-dressing to Caffari. “This will be my sixth time around the world and I remember the last time around…. I couldn’t remember seeing the south Atlantic as bad as that," she says. "On my first trip around the world I never would have worried about plastic bags on my rudders. Now we are going out and checking every day, before it gets dark, using the endoscope to check our keel and our rudders are clear. That’s really sad.
"I truly hope we can help to effect change. We love our ocean playground which we get to play in. But we’ve got to preserve it and make people realise that it isn’t someone else’s problem. Every action that every human does, eventually affects the ocean’s health and is then actually going full circle and coming back to affect human health.”
It’s a worthy goal, and one which will be much easier to shout about if Turn the Tide on Plastic can win a leg or two. “Definitely,” agrees Caffari, who has experience of a leg win having taken one with the all-female Team SCA in the last edition (Caffari, incidentally, says she is relieved not to keep having to answer questions about gender with this edition featuring mixed crews throughout). “I’m just hoping that we get there a lot earlier than the eighth leg. We’re a new team, a young team. But we’ll improve fast. There is absolutely no reason we can’t finish on the podium.”