RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK, so there are sailing races, and then there is the Volvo Ocean Race. This is the mother of all sailing contests, an around-the-world event featuring seven boats and some of the most unforgiving water on the planet. And this year, for the first time in more than a decade, this historically male-dominated event includes an all-female team. NPR's Scott Neuman went sailing with two of the crew who are sitting out the current leg of the race.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ELODIE JEAN METTRAUX: And we're going to hoist it all the way up.
SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: Casting off and raising the mainsail on team SCA's practice boat are Sara Hastreiter and Elodie Jean Mettraux. Today it's sunny, and there's a light breeze, conditions that couldn't be more different from what they encountered a few weeks ago in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. There it was very cold and staying dry, impossible.
SARA HASTREITER: That's really what the biggest challenge is, is just being freezing cold and getting through that, getting out of your bunk when you're just violently shivering.
NEUMAN: Even so, Hastreiter's enchanted by that part of the world. But it's a place where things can go terribly wrong far from any prospect of rescue. That's what happened in March when the 11-women crew was knocked over and pinned sideways in fierce winds and big seas.
HASTREITER: The people down below are upside down in the dark. Someone had been working on the engine, so the engine bay lid is on top of them.
NEUMAN: They shredded a sail, but sorted things out and kept going. The Chinese team, all men, wasn't as lucky. The same thing happened to them, but their boat's rigging was so damaged that they were forced to forfeit the leg.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER LAPPING)
NEUMAN: Communication is key in offshore racing, and Hastreiter says that's one of the toughest challenges, especially with a multinational crew.
HASTREITER: I think it's probably harder for the non-English speakers on board. When things get really intense, you just - it's so hard to hear each other.
NEUMAN: A native of Wyoming, Hastreiter got into sailing only a few years ago, signing on for a berth in any offshore race she could find. Her quick rise up the ranks is not only a sign of her skill and tenacity, but to how few women are in the sport. And much of that is about money. A short list of women, record holders aside, it's the men who still command the big bucks.
HASTREITER: Sponsorship is hard to come by, and I think there was a lack of interest in having a women's team.
NEUMAN: Despite their relative lack of experience, a Swedish company, SCA, decided to sponsor them. Their products are geared toward women, and they decided to take a chance with the millions of dollars necessary to be competitive. Sara Hastreiter's teammate, Elodie Jean Mettraux, says the salt sores, the cold and the occasional seasickness have to be weighed against the comradery and those moments that something wonderful happens far from land.
METTRAUX: When we were sailing to Abu Dhabi, we had a night where we hit a lot of phosphorus and plankton, like, we were really on a magic carpet. Like, every little wave was brightly (ph), like, it was amazing.
NEUMAN: Team SCA is currently struggling to break out of the back of the fleet. But with three legs to go, Hastreiter and Mettraux say they have a shot at closing the gap. They're also proud of having won two of the import races that are part of the broader Volvo. But mostly, they say they are just happy to have an opportunity to compete in the iconic race. The two rejoin their teammates in Newport later this month for the transatlantic leg to Lisbon. Scott Neuman, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.