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Spring Travel

What to see when Volvo Ocean Race comes to Newport

A round-the-world regatta takes a breather, allowing sailing fans a glimpse behind the scenes.

The Volvo Ocean 65 yachts set off on October 11 from Alicante, Spain, for their nine-month, nine-leg seafaring marathon.
The Volvo Ocean 65 yachts set off on October 11 from Alicante, Spain, for their nine-month, nine-leg seafaring marathon. Marc Bow
Newport’s Fort Adams State Park will serve as Race Village headquarters during the 12-day stopover in May.
Newport’s Fort Adams State Park will serve as Race Village headquarters during the 12-day stopover in May. Sam Greenfield

In today’s world of virtual reality and ubiquitous video games, it’s difficult to find men and women who still pit muscle, wits, and willpower against the harsh elements.

Difficult, but not impossible.

In early May, local sailing enthusiasts will have the opportunity to see true adventurers when the Volvo Ocean Race yachts sail into Newport, Rhode Island, for a 12-day stopover in their worldwide quest.

Formerly known as the Whitbread Round the World Race, this premier sailing event is held every three years and last visited the region during the 2008-09 edition in Boston. When the competitors complete the final leg at the finish line in Gothenburg, Sweden, they’ll have covered 38,739 nautical miles, the equivalent of 44,580 statute miles.

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Newport is the race’s sole US stopover, one of 11 international ports that the nine-month, nine-leg seafaring marathon will visit. A global cast of competitors aboard the six identical 65-foot yachts (a seventh entrant — Team Vestas Wind — ran aground in the Indian Ocean in late November and dropped out) will sail north to the Ocean State from Itajai, Brazil, having already turned the corner around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

These stopovers allow sailors a mental break after weeks battling enormous waves — and enduring mind-numbing doldrums — on the open ocean, and they give their land-based support teams a chance to make repairs to their $6 million racing yachts. But these mid-race breaks also give sailing fans a chance to meet the world’s most skilled sailors, learn more about the sport, and view some of the planet’s most technologically advanced sailing vessels, which are typically owned by sailing organizations or wealthy individuals and financed by corporate sponsors.

“Stopovers really are our chance to reconnect with the outside world,” says Matt Knighton, 30, the onboard reporter with the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team. “Nothing beats the flotilla of spectator boats that come to greet you several miles out when you arrive.”

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Known as the City by the Sea, Newport has a storied sailing past that will also be on full display. An important port prior to the Revolutionary War, Newport emerged after the Civil War as an enclave of the wealthy. Rich industrialists built opulent mansions and imported their pricey pastimes, including sailing. For a half century, from the 1930s to 1983, Newport was home to the famed America’s Cup race, contested in later years by the quintessential 12-meter racing yachts.

All the sailboats in the Volvo Ocean Race have identical designs.
All the sailboats in the Volvo Ocean Race have identical designs. Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

“The Newport stopover means the world to me, personally,” says Charlie Enright, 30, skipper of the US-based Team Alvimedica and a Bristol, Rhode Island, native who was an All-American sailor at Brown University. “It will mean we’ve gotten around the horn, a life goal, and it will mean that I get to share where I’m from with the rest of the world.”

Fort Adams State Park, site of the country’s largest coastal fortress, will be the site of the Race Village, a joint effort of promoters, city and state tourism officials, and several sponsoring organizations, including Sail Newport (Rhode Island’s public sailing center) and Discover Newport.

Race Village is open to all, free of charge. Inside, visitors can explore a cross section of a Volvo Ocean 65 yacht. Organizers voted to adopt a “one-design” platform to ensure the race would be a contest based purely on sailing skill rather than the technological arms race that once characterized the America’s Cup, as competitors built dangerously light boats to gain an edge.

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Fans can also tour boatyards and sail lofts, experience sailing through the eyes of the racers at a show and cinema, or even meet the competitors on the “sailors’ terrace.”

“The way I look at it, Newport won’t be a ‘stopover’ for us at all,” says Enright. “We’ll be wrapped up with activity the whole time. We like being ambassadors for the sport and the town. I am sure there will be plenty of public interaction.”

The “one-design” platform ensures that the race will be a contest of sailing skill instead of technology.
The “one-design” platform ensures that the race will be a contest of sailing skill instead of technology. Corinna Halloran

On May 17, the six yachts will depart, but before they leave, competitors will begin tuning up for the next leg with several “in-port” races in Newport Harbor and Rhode Island Sound. A Jumbotron and live commentary will allow spectators to view the action on the water.

To enhance the hands-on experience for budding sailors, Sail Newport is hosting outings on Newport Harbor on J/22 sailboats, with certified skippers at the helm. No experience is necessary, and life jackets will be provided. There will also be live concerts and an “exploration zone” with interactive exhibits on marine life, sailing, ocean conservation, wind, water and weather experiences, and marine technology.

“It’s an opportunity for Newport to show the world that it actually is sailing’s capital,” Enright says. “By coming to this stopover, you get to be part of Newport’s yachting rejuvenation. This will be the biggest sailing event in Newport in the last 30 years.”

US skipper Charlie Enright is from Bristol, Rhode Island.
US skipper Charlie Enright is from Bristol, Rhode Island. Amory Ross/Team Alvimedica/Volvo

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For details on the Volvo Ocean Race (May 5-17), visit volvooceanrace.com. For more on sailing opportunities, visit Sail Newport (sailnewport.org). For lodging and attractions, visit Discover Newport (discovernewport.org). Brion O’Connor is a freelance travel and sports writer based in Hamilton. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.