The Volvo Ocean Race is the world’s toughest offshore challenge. Teams from around the world attempt to cross four oceans and five continents in a period of over nine months. The race, which took place for the first time in 1973, is held every three years. Although Latino competitors are not really present today, that wasn’t always the case.
In the first edition, against all odds and even some mockery, a Mexican team led by skipper Ramón Carlin won the yacht race that began and ended in Portsmouth, England. Leaving his name in the history books forever, Carlin’s leadership and vision led his team to a rare and unique victory in a competition usually dominated by Europeans.
Just like the English show Top Gear once infamously mocked Mexican sports car Mastretta MXT, at the time, English papers made fun of the Mexican sailing team led by Carlin. They published cartoons that stereotyped and made caricatures of the Mexicans with big sombreros and portrayed them as lazy and completely unprepared for the competition.
“The winning difference was that ship and that crew.”
The competition was organized by the English, whose long history with navigation made them the obvious favorites. But Carlin, a furniture businessman who had begun sailing at age 40, had different plans.
He asked his son if he was willing to go around the world and when he accepted, he gathered a crew that rarely met before the race began.
“The winning difference was that ship and that crew. We had no time to train. My plan was to get to know the crew and teach them how to manage the ship during the first leg, but all of them turned out to be very good,” Carlin said in an interview that circulated on YouTube.
The 12-person crew was comprised of several of Carlin’s family members and friends (wife, son, two nephews, friend), and international sailors: three from the U.S., one Dutchman, one Brit, and one Australian. Some of the international crew members would later state that journalists would ask them why they were joining the Mexican team when they were surely not going to win.
“My wife said, Ramón, why did you bring me?”
So on September 8, 1973, a fleet of 17 international boats that included the best sailors and skippers in the world set out to win the race that would be 27,000 miles long.
“What hooked me was that it was an adventure, no one knew which way to go, it was the first time anyone had gone round the world with a full crew, and that the competition was real,” Carlin recalled, seated in a studio that is filled with trophies and photographs from that epic race.
As you might imagine, going around the world is no easy feat. Carlin remembers a particularly difficult moment when a huge wave hit them and the radios got soaked, the water pumps jammed, and they were close to sinking.
“She [his wife] cried and said ‘Ramón, why did you bring me?’” Carlin remembers.
After seven months of sailing, it would be the Mexican boat Sayula II, named after Carlin’s wife’s birthplace Sayulita, which would come in first and take the first around-the-world yacht race in history.
“Ramón was as close to a perfect captain that I have ever experienced.”
“Ramón was as close to a perfect captain that I have ever experienced,” explains Bob Martin, one of the international sailors. “He was enthusiastic, he did everything first-class, he cared about us, we had the best food, and the boat was perfectly equipped.”
“Everything that made the difference between success and failure can be traced back to Ramón. And that hasn’t changed – the race still requires leadership,” adds Butch Dalrymple-Smith, another one of the crew members.
This unique story seems far away and long-forgotten by the general public, but it will always be remembered by those who took part in this great adventure, and also by the race’s history, who will have the name Ramón Carlin written in their history books for as long as the race continues.
“I like the sea a lot, and the long journeys. There are people who say they don’t see the point because all they see is water and more water, but for me that is enchanting,” he said. “Above all, with a sailing ship, I saw the freedom to be with nature and practice a sport.”
People like Ramón Carlin are hard to find. This self-made man reminds us of Dos Equis’ the Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, but instead of an English actor with a fake tan, we’ve got a Mexican furniture salesman with a crazy dream and a lot of fearlessness.