As any logistics professional will attest, it's nearly impossible to predict what the job will bring from one day to the next, and boredom is definitely not a problem. But it's a good bet there were times over the past nine months when DHL's Reinier Vens and his colleagues were wishing for a little less excitement.
Vens is DHL's project director for the 11th Volvo Ocean Race, which pitted six high-tech sailboats in a 'round-the-world competition that began in Alicante, Spain, in November 2011 and finished in Galway, Ireland, in July 2012. As the official logistics partner for the race, DHL was responsible for ensuring that each team's equipment and spare parts, as well as the Race Village pavilions and the material handling equipment for setup and breakdown were delivered on time to the 10 stopovers along the nearly 45,000-mile route.
That in itself was a mighty challenge that involved more than 150 40-foot containers of ocean freight, another 20 containers of air freight, some 16 tons of loose air cargo, and more than 100 express air shipments. To make sure critical supplies were available for each leg of the race, Vens and his group kept two identical sets of ocean containers in motion. The teams used the contents of the first set during the first leg of the race, then picked up equipment and supplies from the second set of containers to use on the next leg, and so on around the world. Sequencing the right containers in the proper order was no easy task, Vens said in an interview during the race stopover in Miami.
A "control center" in the Netherlands oversaw the entire mission. DHL kept emergency stock like spare masts and rudders at its Amsterdam facility just outside Schipol Airport. Amsterdam was an ideal staging area because it's a gateway to destinations worldwide, Vens said. "You can never plan where [an accident] will happen, so you ... have to be able to ship anywhere in the world."
DHL dedicated a team of six people to the race, including some who traveled from port to port ahead of the boats. On call 24/7, they worked closely with the Volvo Ocean Race's own logistics staff. DHL offices worldwide pitched in to provide support services like customs clearance and share their local expertise.
Local know-how helped to solve one of the most challenging logistical problems of the race. When one boat lost its mast in mid-ocean, the sailors motored to the nearest land—Tristan da Cunha, a remote island in the South Atlantic between Argentina and South Africa. Now what? DHL's Cape Town office had a solution: charter a local ship to deliver a new 100-foot mast, then pick up the yacht from the barely inhabited island and bring it to South Africa. "You can't plan for that creativity," Vens said.
Vens and colleagues handled many other dicey—indeed, potentially life-threatening—situations during the race. For example, when pirate attacks suddenly increased on the planned route from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, they chartered a large ship to lift the boats out of the ocean and carry them from East Africa to safer waters in the United Arab Emirates. A chartered vessel also picked up one damaged yacht in Auckland, N.Z., and delivered it to Savannah, Ga., for repairs, and plucked another from the water and delivered it to Itaja, Brazil. Quick action was needed to ship critical parts to such widely scattered locations as Chile, New Zealand, Brazil, and Spain, sometimes just a few hours after a call came in.
Few logistics managers have to contend with the kind of unpredictable and sometimes dangerous challenges the DHL team confronted, but everyone can learn something from the team's experience. It takes dedication and careful preparation to meet logistical challenges when time is of the essence, Vens believes. "Being ready [for an emergency] every time—that is what it's about," he said.
Click here for a behind-the-scenes look at the 11th Volvo Ocean Race.