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Tough life on the high seas

Living conditions are Spartan, the beds could be confused for wall shelves, the bathroom would be better suited to a prison and the only food on offer is freeze-dried -- these are the conditions endured by the crew of Puma Mar Mostro.

The Mar Mostro arrived into Galway on Tuesday morning finishing in a very respectable third place in the Volvo Ocean Race, and yesterday they invited a lucky few (myself included) to experience life on board during a pro-am inshore exhibition race.

Eleven men travelled 39,270 miles making just 10 stops. Sleep was restricted; food rationed; the fairer sex unrepresented.

They also had to contend with the capricious moods of Mother Nature, who dealt them gales, a broken mast during leg one and a series of unfortunate injuries.



survival

Did I mention that it took them nine months?

The conditions the crew have come to call daily life would probably explain why the navigator offered me a breezy "Watch your head" when the billowing 100ft sail spliced the air just inches from my face during gybing.

Such is life in the aquatic epic that is the Volvo Ocean Race.

Yesterday's was a friendly competition, buoyed by a cool breeze -- a comparatively sedate pace for the seamen who have battled 60-knot winds -- "boat-breaking and person-breaking weather", according to skipper Ken Read.

This is a test of survival and an exercise in efficiency. Naturally, the crew and the yacht (yours for just €1.6m, or best offer) are among the best in the world, but they must first undergo training that enables them to be completely at one with the yacht that they have to guide through the most treacherous of waters.

The 'functional training' with trainer and nutritionist Michael Cecchi starts one year in advance and every exercise relates to life on-board.

They focus on core strength, balance and free weights-based pushing and pulling repetitions so that their bodies are in peak condition when they embark. Indeed, watching bowman Michael Mueller clamber to the top of the mast was more impressive than the new Spider-man film. As for injuries, "it's up to an individual to manage his pain".

They push their bodies to the limit from the first day of racing. The sleep schedules permit three hours at a time (most stay awake for 36 hours during the final leg); the freeze-dried food is as unappetising as it is nutritious.

What's more, they need to make do with very little of it.

Each vacuum-packed bag contains two days of food: three meals per day, plus small snacks and sanitary supplies. Weight loss is inevitable ... and cheeseburgers are devoured during those few port calls.

As for the yacht, the Puma Mar Mostro is very much an example of function over form: there isn't so much as a bolt that is extraneous on this 70ft carbon fibre feat of engineering.

Below deck, living conditions are Spartan. Their toothbrushes are attached to the wall in a neat little line. It it these additions to their daily routine that add to the impressive clock-like sense of teamwork on board. It is intuitive and implicit. There is even an almost unspoken teamwork with their competitors, whose every movement is tracked to make sure they aren't doing something from which they could benefit.

"It's not the lap of luxury by any means," says former international rugby star David Wallace, who is also on board. "There isn't a place to sit down. It's an endurance sport and you have to be very mentally tough."

When you discover just how challenging the conditions of this race are, it makes the unprecedented welcome they received on their arrival home during the early hours of Tuesday morning even more heartwarming.

"I have never seen anything like it," says Cecchi. "It reminded me of Mardi Gras in New Orleans."

"Whoever said there were 20,000 people needs to learn to count. I have never seen such a crowd in my life."

hnews@herald.ie