Celebrating its 50th anniversary, this edition of the Ocean Race had an all Portuguese team. Commanded by the skipper António Fontes, a sailor who has completed about 150 thousand miles in offshore races, the team participated with a VO65, sponsored by the Mirpuri Foundation. Over the years, the Portuguese sailor has participated in several races, the highlight being the solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
This Ocean Race had an all national team. How did it go?
This was the first time we participated in a race with an all-Portuguese team, and the race itself went well. We arrived in Gibraltar in second place in our class, VO65, but unfortunately there was a rule failure on our part, we didn’t round a buoy, and we had to leave the race; we didn’t cross the finish line. In reality, we didn’t do the whole route and, so, there was no way we could claim a classification, it wouldn’t be right.
What was the atmosphere on board?
It was always very positive. We were the boat that did the most miles in 24 hours. The rule required that four of the ten sailors had to be under 30 years old. We had six older ones and four younger ones, none of whom had much offshore experience, but it went very well despite little training time. The younger ones showed an incredible attitude and it was great to see them evolve during the race.
How did you set up the team?
Two of them were already working with me, Matilde Melo, who was very well prepared, and Francisco Cai-Água, who knew the boat very well. As for the sailors Bernardo Freitas, Mariana Lobato and Frederico Melo, winners of the Ocean Race Europe in 2022, it would be decisive to be in the Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team for this race. Diogo Cayolla and Hugo Rocha had already proven themselves in this type of competition, Francisco Maia and Francisca Pinho were the other two younger without much experience.
How does it feel to be in the same race and in the same boat with Mariana Lobato?
Mariana is my wife and the mother of my two children, but on board we are all professional crew members. We are work colleagues and it ends up being fun to share these moments. But the logistics are not easy when we are both at sea and there are two children on land waiting for us.
How important is the support of the Mirpuri Foundation in this competition?
Since 2017 the foundation has supported participation in the Ocean Race. It started with Turn the Tide on Plastic, an Ocean Race Europe project that takes place around Europe. The Ocean Race is a very strong investment of the foundation and it is very important, because otherwise it would have be impossible to enter. Our older sailors are living legends, like Hugo Rocha and Diogo Cayolla; this helped to bring in the younger ones, because this was an opportunity that may never happen again. It is unlikely that the stars will align again for this configuration; an all Portuguese team, a funded project, and a competitive boat – for all this and much more, the Mirpuri Foundation is paramount.
Is there any chance of returning to the race?
The foundation hasn’t yet decided whether or not we will return. This year’s race had two classes, IMOCA 60 and VO65, which is ours, and we are supposed to have the two final legs, Denmark-Netherlands and Holland-Italy. But if the decision is to come back, the team won’t be the same, because at least Mariana Lobato will be doing the IMOCA Biotherm, among other circumstances, so even if our boat is given the OK, it won’t be the same.
How does it feel to participate in this ocean sailing competition?
It’s very challenging and it’s a long time at sea, although this has changed in this edition, taking place over six months, compared with nine months for the previous edition. But it’s all very intense; even if you’re not always at sea, there’s work to be done on land, like the maintenance of the boat. These are very hard months physically.
What do you feel at sea or for the sea?
The sea gives me freedom and independence. At any moment we have to manage on our own, there we can only count on ourselves to get to the other side. There is no tugboat to take us or repair breakdowns. We can eventually rely on the opponents, they turn out to be the only means of rescue around. A regatta at sea is a constant challenge to our abilities.
In a regatta at sea, what scares you the most?
It’s losing someone. In 2018, we were in the Volvo Ocean Race, and in the New Zealand-Brazil leg, we did a dangerous maneuver and lost a crew member, and this is really the worst thing that can happen, the nine of us didn’t make it all to land. This accident was at Point Nemo, between New Zealand and Chile, the most inaccessible place on Earth and the farthest you can be from dry land; the closest human to us was on the Space Station, at 416 kilometers altitude. It was impossible to do more than what we did.
How many miles or laps around the Earth have you done?
I have never done complete turns of the Earth. At the time of the incident, we were going to pass Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific waters meet, but we didn’t. I think I had a hundred thousand. Before the Volvo Ocean Race, I think I had completed 100,000, now it should be around 150,000.
When did your relationship with the sea or sailing begin?
It began around the age of eight. My grandfather always had a boat so we’ve always had a good relationship with sailing. The whole family used to go boating in the summer and we used to go sailing. When I was old enough, I started in the small Optimist. I never had any doubt that the sea and boats would be a major part of my life.
What can you highlight from your career as a sailor?
For a few years I did Match Racing, a competition with only two boats, one against the other. I was Portuguese champion in 2007 and 2008; our best result was third in the European. I also did the Mini Transat, in 2015, a solo race across the Atlantic, each one in his/her own 6.5-meter boat; in total, there were eighty; I finished in 13th place. The first leg was eight days to the Canary Islands and another sixteen days to the Caribbean. At that time the rules didn’t allow us to have everything we have nowadays – GPS, radar – and we also didn’t have communications.
What did you learn all this time at sea?
I learned a lot about navigation and meteorology, and I also go to know more about myself. Being alone for sixteen days makes you think about everything. There are also some frustrations, like when you are competing in a regatta and have no wind to go around; this is very frustrating, but it’s part of it.