It takes immense effort and perfect team synergy to keep the yacht competitive. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

Cape Town - The world's longest single sporting event also happens to be among the most brutal and physically challenging on the human body, pushing it to its limits, at the mercy of the unforgiving sea.

The Volvo Ocean Race takes its participants around the world in 11 legs. 

It takes nine months.

The ocean is a cruel mistress, and the crews - nine sailors aboard each boat with an on-board reporter tagging along - are at her mercy in some of the roughest seas around.

The next leg, from Cape Town to Melbourne, takes sailors through the Southern Ocean, among the most fickle and deadly seas in the world.

Video: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

"Essentially, the farther down south you go, the shorter the route," says navigator Simon Fisher, affectionately known by his teammates as "Si Fi". "But that takes you to what's known as the ice wall."

Si Fi is the navigator for Team Vestas 11th Hour Racing, currently lying second on the scoreboard after the second leg from Lisbon to Cape Town.

The "ice wall" is a ring of icebergs surrounding Antarctica. It's a deadly gamble to track down south where the lines of latitude around the globe are shorter, making the route to Melbourne quicker, but increasing the risk of hitting an iceberg in a race-ending collision.

The view of Table Mountain from Table Bay where the practice race took place. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

It's also one of the most unforgiving legs of the race.

"You have to be vigilant at all times," says team director Mark Towill.

"You head out of Cape Town in your wet-weather gear," explains the team's sustainability manager Damian Foxall, "And the only time you strip out of it is once you get into Melbourne."

The seven participating yachts are docked at the V&A Waterfront until the departure on the third leg on Sunday. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

In the time that it takes to reach Australia, Foxall says, one's body hairs grow through your undergarments, so shedding your clothes once you make port is like "removing your winter fur".

The Vestas 11th Hour Racing boat docked at the V&A Waterfront. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

So, it's not a sport for the faint-hearted.

"Look, the build-up to the race takes about two years. The planning, the preparation... you start the race off as an athlete in peak condition and at the end of nine months, you're knackered," Foxall says.

Suriving on the 65 foot ocean racing yacht can be mentally draining as well.

"You're holed up below deck, for example, with the smell of nine other unwashed human bodies, sleeping in shifts. There's a privy, but most of the time, the guys just use a jug because it's easier when the boat is rolling around. In your sleep, you might find yourself airborne for a while if the boat goes through a trough. It's unforgiving."

"The race is relentless," says Towill.

The yachts were neck and neck for much of the practice race. Picture: Lance Witten/Cape Argus

"Myself and Charlie (Enright, team skipper) put together the best possible crew and team - among the best in the world - for this race."

And the camaraderie and competitive spirit is evident. In the practice race in Table Bay on Wednesday, Team Vestas 11th Hour Racing placed second behind overall race leaders Mapfre.

[email protected]

Cape Argus