Volvo Ocean Race: the skipper of the only all-female team on the world’s toughest yacht race

Team SCA's captain Sam Davies on sleep deprivation, detours and how the thought of being reunited with her family keeps her going

The voice down the phone is crackly, but given where the person on the other end of the line is it’s no surprise. Sam Davies is currently 1,200 miles off the coast of Cape Town, right in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, on a boat that’s tearing across the waves at over 20 knots.

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“Right now we’re miles away from everything,” she laughs. “Icebergs, land, wildlife. Only a few albatrosses riding along next to the boat to keep us company.”

But this is no idyllic sailing retreat. Sam Davies is skipper of Team SCA, the first all-female team to take part in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race for 12 years. She and her crew are just 25 days into a 9-month-long, 45,000-mile battle with the biggest seas and most gruelling sporting conditions in the world.

At least there’s a phone, a lifeline back to friends and family (and the occasional journalist). Are the calls precious?

“We don’t really use the telephone at all except to talk to people like you. You should feel very honoured! There are too many of us, and it would be too disruptive to the schedule we run to talk to family.” So, no calls from home to keep the the South Atlantic chill at bay. 

The race is split into nine separate legs – this first is from Alicante in Spain, to Cape Town in South Africa. From there the seven teams in this year’s race will sail to Abu Dhabi, China, New Zealand, Brazil, the United States, Portugal, the Netherlands and France, before the finishing line in Gothenburg, Sweden around June next year.

Watch highlights from life on board Team SCA:

It’s a daunting schedule, but the daily chores on board make it hard to think of the bigger picture. “Watches are organised into four hours on, four hours off,” Sam explains over the crackling phone, pointing out that those four hours’ rest are rarely all spent sleeping.

“I spent some time checking the weather conditions, and plotting the next navigational decisions. When you’re off you also have to make sure the boat’s clean and eat your meals. So I think I slept about an hour and a half in my four hours off.”

When the 11-strong crew do snatch some well-earned shut-eye, they have to strap themselves into their bunks with a seatbelt to avoid falling out as the boat snakes through the waves.

For skipper Sam however, any rest at all is a luxury compared to her previous exploits. She’s twice competed “single-handed” in the Vendee Globe – the solo, non-stop, round-the-world race in which Dame Ellen MacArthur made her name. At least this time she has others to help her.

“It’s nice to be able to relax a bit when you’re off watch. That doesn’t happen in a single-handed race. You always have one eye and ear open to listen to the boat, never getting more than an hour’s sleep at a time.

“At the same time it’s hard, because when you make a mistake you’re letting other people down. I feel a lot more responsibility, a lot more pressure. If you make a navigational or technical error, it can be really hard to deal with.”

Fluctuating weather conditions and awkward winds mean Sam will have to pick a route sometimes miles in the wrong direction in order to guarantee good sailing. The challenge comes in convincing her crew that these circuitous routes actually save time.

“Sometimes it can seem totally normal to me to be sailing at 90 degrees to the route, but some of the girls who are new to this or aren’t involved in those decisions find it hard to understand.”

Sam is in charge of the first all-female crew in the race for over a decade, but she says she’s not out there to prove a point. Her partner Romain Attanasio is also a sailor and in the past they’ve competed together, but now the Frenchman looks after their young son Ruben while Sam is away racing.

While she misses her family, Sam finds she has more than enough to occupy her mind and keep her thoughts away from home. “Time flies when you’re out here. It’s nice to have a bit of news from home and family, but the best bit is when we arrive on the dock and see them for real. It gives me the motivation to get there as quickly as possible.

“My partner Romain and my son Reuben will be waiting on the dock for me. Now I’m a mum, that’s the one thing I look forward to most of all: seeing my son when I get there.”

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Watch highlights from the race this Tuesday 11 November on Sky Sports 4