I first met Sally Barkow in 2003, when she (with teammates Deb Capozzi and Carrie Howe) won her very first Olympic training event—against an impressive array of veterans. She and Deb even came to Athens in 2004 to cheer us on. (Read more about that event in Olympic Broach: The No Good Very Bad Windiest Day.)
When I retired from Olympic sailing in 2007 I happily sold her my boat. In 2008, her team finished fourth at the Olympics in China.
In 2012, Sally finished second to Anna Tunnicliffe at the US Women’s Match Racing Olympic Trials. Three years later, we sat down together during the Volvo Ocean Race Newport stopover to talk about her latest accomplishment: racing around the world as part of Team SCA, the all-women’s entry in this grueling nine-month marathon event.
“It’s been a weird two years,” Sally admitted. “We started off with the whole trial thing and the effort to be on this team, not really knowing what it’s about. You sort of think you do, but I didn’t even follow the race a lot before this.”
Sally’s teammate, Briton Annie Lush, also came to SCA from Olympic sailing. After being passed over for selection in both 2004 and 2008, Annie competed in the Women’s Match Racing discipline of the 2012 Olympics, with sisters Lucy and Kate MacGregor.
And then six months later, she joined Team SCA.
“I applied two weeks after the Olympics. So I’ve been non-stop since 2002, never really had a break.” This statement was accompanied by her trademark smile; an award-winning rower at Cambridge University, Annie thrives on hard work and big challenges.
“That’s what’s been great about [Team SCA],” she said. “It’s a totally different campaign with lots of other lessons, not just sailing lessons.”
I asked what had been the biggest challenge of making the leap from one sailing world to another.
“I thought the offshore element would be the biggest,” she admitted. And sailing at night was difficult at first. “That’s one thing that I did find sort of alien. The amount of hours I’d trimmed or driven in the dark was very very few.”
But the biggest challenge of all turned out to be the boat itself. “I’d never sailed a 65 or 70 foot canting keel weapon before. The Volvo 70 was just a monster.” (Team SCA trained on the Volvo 70 before their VO65 was ready to sail.) “The 65s are easier to sail, but to keep it in the groove is really hard. The Volvo 70, you kind of just bear away and it gets up and goes mental, and there’s water everywhere… you can easily average 27, 28 knots, and you’re not really trying. It’s much harder to keep this boat in the groove.”
Annie says the smaller boat has been a good thing for the women’s team. “I’m pretty sure that there weren’t any women in the race in the Volvo 70 because I’m not sure we could sail it.”
The strength gap
The team realized right away they had a big strength deficit, and they tried to catch up during their training, before the race started. “So you have these girls working their butt off in the gym,” Sally explained. “Two sessions a day. And they’re physically exhausted. Massive weight lifting session, massive sailing session, another gym session in the afternoon, and then you’re sleeping as much as you can. And we still didn’t get to where we needed to be.”
Physically and mentally, sailing a big, powerful boat with a big team was a lot different from what either woman was used to on the Olympic circuit. “It just took a long time to learn how to sail the boat safely, and correctly," Sally continued. "And to understand all these different concepts... you’re no longer just racing. It’s the details of the angles and the sail changes and the maneuvers and the timing of things. And the process of how to actually do things on the boat.”
Learning her job was harder for Sally than for Annie, who signed on as a trimmer. Sally had been a skipper, and as Annie said, “Everyone wants to get on and drive. And it’s hard to show that you can drive straight if you have no idea how to drive this kind of boat… at night, by numbers. Completely different. You might be a great driver but you’ve got a lot to learn before you can show that.”
Sally also pointed out that offshore, there’s little room for specialization. “We were rotating people around a lot—so different from Olympic sailing, where you do one job for six to eight hours a day. But because you’re on deck with four or five people, you have to know everything. You can’t just be a trimmer. You can’t just drive a boat. The bow has to come back and trim the main. So everybody has to know everything."
Another major change was sailing as part of an international team, rather than with teammates who were required to carry the same color passport. “Personally, that was my favorite thing, really,” Annie said about the tryouts and training. “The girls I’d admired most on the Olympic circuit, now we’re all on a boat together. It was pretty cool.”
Still learning a new game
Even after more than 30,000 miles of racing, both Annie and Sally are still learning to manage the racecourse priorities. The legs measure in the thousands of miles, and reaching mostly replaces upwind and downwind sailing. There are multiple, interdependent choices to be made about sails and angles, for the best VMC (Velocity Made to Course) rather than VMG (Velocity Made Good). And then there is risk assessment: How much distance maximizes leverage without too much risk? Annie especially struggled with this equation.
“On a normal race course, you just sort of know where you are, and what’s realistic and what isn’t, and therefore what you’re going to risk. We had that understanding by leg four… if you’re not within 10 miles [of the other boats], it’s gonna be tricky.”
That reality (brought on by both one-design boats and the use of AIS) means that the fleet sails close together, in contrast to previous ocean races. “It’s crazy.” Annie shook her head. “It’s like being on an in-port race course, day and night and day and night… We’re thousands of miles from anywhere, and it’s port-starboard! It’s like epic tuning runs that go on forever... Incredibly intense. “
Sally’s biggest challenge, especially early on, was not knowing what she didn’t know. “You meet all these people who are veterans of it, and I don’t even know what to ask. With the Olympic stuff you know everybody... and you get the whole concept from way early on.”
Masters of Nutrition
Annie points out another basic difference between Olympic and offshore events: athlete health and nutrition. “In the Olympic world, you ate well, you slept well, someone’s tested that you’re hydrated—you are 100 percent when you go out on the water.” Racing offshore, “You haven’t slept, you’re eating rubbish, and you’re trying to perform… After even one or two nights, you just see everyone’s brain working slower.”
She claims that the women have done a relatively good job of taking care of themselves, though. “If you miss one meal on our boat someone will be straight on to you about why you’re not eating. It’s your job to eat this many calories a day, whether you like it or not…”
And it’s still sailboat racing
Finally, in spite of all the differences, it’s still a boat race. Both women agreed there were skills that transferred from Olympic campaigning to offshore sailing. Sally explained it this way: “The Olympic stuff definitely prepared me for the competition and the high level. Without that I’d be so overwhelmed.”
And Annie pointed out that training to work together as a team came naturally—one reason for their success in the in-port racing. “We can’t just wait till the last minute to try and drop the spinnaker and hope it’s gonna be all right, because we’re not strong enough to make that work. So we’ve been more organized and our maneuvers have been slicker. We trained quite hard at that.”
And even the longest legs have been won by margins that wouldn’t look out of place in an Olympic regatta, as Annie pointed out. “One to two minutes after 6000 miles! So in terms of gains and losses.... it’s not “offshore” in that traditional sense. You can’t afford to stop and fix something.”
All of Team SCA’s many fans are hoping that the last three legs give the women a chance to show how much they’ve learned since the beginning of this race. “The only way to train for this race is to do a lap,” Annie said. “We’ve now been able to tune for quite a way around the world. It would be hard not to use those lessons.”
And after it's over, Sally said, “The only thing I know is that I’m home [to Wisconsin] for the 4th of July, for a 10-day party. My whole family’s going to be there.” As for whether she’d sail another Volvo, the answer was a definite “maybe.” Especially if she could be “one of the guys.”
“I think a mixed team would be the ultimate thing for women to be part of, because that means we’ve gotten to an equal level, and that way we’d be learning double-time. Other offshore sailing is mixed—I think we could do it with the right guys and the right girls.”
Other than getting home to Poole, England, to see friends and play her piano, Annie doesn’t know what lies ahead. “I just like doing things well. I don’t know if I have to continue sailing… although I obviously now have learned quite a lot on this last campaign.”
Sally has also thought about getting back to coaching. “I would rather go to the Olympics with a coach who had the experience of the Olympic Trials, and that stress… it’s so specific. To have someone who could say, 'This is the question of the day,' or 'actually, you don’t need to answer that right now.'
“But I’m open to a lot of different options. When you’re out there, you have all these daydreams, about what to do next.
“And we’re still learning. I hope that maybe the last leg, it all clicks. But it just takes a crazy long time.”
Read Ed Sherman's report about the technical side of Team SCA's boat: Volvo Ocean 65: How Do the Onboard Systems Hold Up?
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