LONDON: Surviving the sometimes savage Southern Ocean brought Brazilian Olympic gold medal winner Martine Grael one leg closer to her ambition of becoming an all-round sailing great.
And the dangers of the 45,000 nautical mile (83,000km) Volvo Ocean race were brought home to Grael and her fellow AkzoNobel crew members by the loss of British sailor John Fisher, who was swept overboard from Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag in March on leg seven of the race from Auckland to Itajai in Brazil.
"It was a big shock for us. I slowed down and thought about safety and had lots of other thoughts on that leg. Nothing will ever bring your friend back, you've just got to be respectful with the elements and the sea," Grael told Reuters.
The 27-year-old had never sailed offshore for more than five days in a row before starting the round-the-world race which pits sailors against some of the most hostile conditions as they battle freezing winds and mountainous waves.
"I dreamed about being the best sailor in the world, not just in one class but a good all round sailor. Now I'm a few steps from that dream,” Grael said in a telephone interview from Newport in the United States where the crews are preparing for the next leg, a 3,300 mile sprint to Cardiff in Wales.
Grael, who won Brazil's first women's sailing gold medal in Rio in 2016 in the 49erFX dinghy class is now one of the few elite women sailors who have now completed the Southern Ocean leg, which many regard as sailing's ultimate challenge.
Grael initially found it hard adapting to life aboard.
"Life on board is getting easier. It was very hard in the beginning to get used to everything. It's very different from Olympic sailing where you take your own decisions to being part of the group and respecting the hierarchy," she said.
The race is also introducing a new generation of the world's most talented sailors to offshore yacht racing, including New Zealand's America's Cup stars Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, while boosting the pool of top female offshore sailors by offering teams incentives to take women on board in mixed crews.
The eight-month race is the world's longest professional sporting event and requires intense physical and mental stamina and endurance from Grael and the other women and men in the fleet of one-design 19.8m (65 foot) carbon fibre yachts which hit top speeds of up to 35 knots (55.6 km per hour).
"It's a challenge being a minority on board. Sometimes there's too much testosterone in the air, but the important thing is realizing it then it's easier to deal with," she said.
There is a physical toll too. Apart from dodging waves which can throw sailors overboard, fatigue is also a major factor in the 24-hour a day racing. Sailors lose 5-7 kg per leg only to put it back on when they reach the next port in what they call "the world's biggest yo-yo diet".
"On the rougher legs, the challenge is not to get hurt physically," said Grael, whose Akzo Nobel is lying in fourth place in the race, which was won by her father Torben, a five-time Olympic medallist, in 2008-2009.
(Editing by Alexander Smith)