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The Doldrums - Sailing's Dead Zone
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The Volvo Ocean Race 2001-2002
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The doldrums’ dangers were even worse in centuries past, when sailors could find themselves becalmed for weeks because their heavy ships were not easily propelled.

Volvo Ocean Race sailors won’t face such dire straits, but they do have plenty to fear. If the doldrums’ effects were uniform, they would have little impact on the race—everyone would be in the same boat, so to speak. But their maddening unpredictability makes them critical.

When racers do encounter calms it’s especially frustrating, says skipper Kevin Shoebridge, because they know their opponents may have found a track with better wind. “If you can get through it smoothly without losing too much time and someone [else] gets trapped in there,” he says, “it can be a big break.”

High-Seas Hazing

To balance the doldrum threat, most of the racers will have King Neptune’s feast to look forward to. The rest will dread it.

The ceremony is an initiation for sailors crossing the Equator for the first time. More experienced teammates—one typically in the guise of the god of the sea—douse them with rotten food and otherwise humiliate them.

“It’s always a nice bit of fun to pick on the young guy,” says Shoebridge. “Even in a full-on race we try and do something.”

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Team SEB, a 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race competitor, sails on mirror-calm seas. Photograph by Oskar Kihlborg/Team SEB