The most recent edition of the Volvo Ocean Race ended with one of the most exciting finishes in the race’s long history. It all came down to the last few hours of the final leg of the race from Gothenburg, Sweden, to The Hague when the three leading teams—Spain’s Mapfre, China’s Dongfeng and Team Brunel of the Netherlands—all stood an equal chance of taking home the big prize. The drama played out in slow motion as a global audience sat glued to the online race tracker watching and waiting to see who would blink.
In the end, leg leader Mapfre found itself in an impossible position when the two other boats split to go to either side of a large traffic separation zone just off the Dutch coast. Mapfre had been covering Dongfeng when the Dutch entry gybed away and Mapfre skipper Xabi Fernández made his fatal choice, staying with Dongfeng for a few more minutes, then thinking better of it and going off to cover Brunel. It was in that moment he lost the race, as Dongfeng’s French-born skipper Charles Caudrelier found just enough breeze to leapfrog the other two. With such an exceptional conclusion, along with the 45,000 miles of drama and excitement that led up to it, the Volvo Race management can be congratulated on pulling off another great event. (For complete coverage of the VOR, go to click here.)
But what now? That’s always the question when a race like the VOR comes to a close since steps inevitably need to be taken to keep sponsors and crews interested in coming back for the next go-around, currently planned to begin in 2021. The problem is constantly having to balance out so many contrasting needs, an effort that is especially difficult this time around as Volvo has declined to be a title sponsor again. Not much reason was given, and we can only surmise that, like most long (read expensive) sponsorships, this one had simply run its course. At some point, the money invested is not giving you the same return it did when the sponsorship was fresh and new.
Facing organizers this time around is also the need to take a look at safety. These boats and crews are being pushed beyond their limits on a daily, even hourly basis, and the fear has always been that something would crack. Unfortunately, in the 2017-18 race, there was a huge crack with the death of John Fisher, who was swept overboard from Hong Kong’s Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag in the depths of the Southern Ocean. It was everyone’s nightmare scenario: big seas, big speeds and in a split second a sailor was lost. The VOR has long employed the tagline “Life at the Extreme,” and there is nothing more extreme than water boiling across the deck with the yacht hitting 30 knots on the front side of a Southern Ocean graybeard. Unfortunately, “extreme” and safety do not always go hand-in-hand, and race management has to come to terms with that fact. Team Vestas’s collision with a fishing boat off Hong Kong, which resulted in the death of a commercial fisherman, served as another case in point.
Then there is the question of cost, another factor at the forefront of any race organizer’s mind and always a tricky balancing act. You can’t have a race if you can’t find enough competitors with the wherewithal to take part. But at the same time, you need the race to be cutting-edge and exciting enough to attract those all-important sponsors, which takes money.
For the past two editions of the race, the fleet has used the Volvo Ocean 65 one-design by Farr Yacht Design, which went a long way to making things more affordable, since the teams no longer had to work up their own individual designs. Unfortunately, while the boats may have been cutting-edge at first, the world of offshore ocean racing is fast-paced and full of innovation, and by the time the 2014-15 race was over the Volvo 65 was already outdated.
By contrast, the other big offshore circumnavigation race, the singlehanded Vendée Globe has continued to leave most of the design details of the IMOCA 60s that are used for the race up to the individual campaigns, and the results have been staggering as the Vendée Globe has now very much stolen a march on the VOR. When a sailor sailing alone aboard a boat 5ft shorter than a fully-crewed Volvo 65 is able to come very close to matching the latter’s daily speed runs, something is clearly amiss.
Fortunately, late last year Volvo handed control of the event over to an extremely competent team in the form of Richard Brisius and Johan Salén, and it’s clear that they’ve long recognized the fact something had to be done. As a result, after the VOR’s end, it was announced that the race is partnering with IMOCA (the International Monohull Open Class Association) to form a partnership aimed at creating a new IMOCA 60 design rule to be used in fully-crewed round-the-world yacht races. In other words, the next VOR will be raced in custom-built, fully-crewed IMOCA 60s.
One of the keys to the high speeds of the latest generation of IMOCA 60s are their leeward lifting foils, which not only increase stability but quite literally have the boats flying out of the water at times with just the foils and rudder in contact. It’s a very exciting innovation that is still in its infancy, and the idea of fully-crewed flying boats should be enough to whet the appetite not only of speed freaks but sponsors as well.
Another big difference between the Volvo Ocean 65 and an IMOCA 60 is the amount of protection the IMOCA 60 offers its crew. Whereas a Volvo Ocean 65 has basically a flush deck with a small cabin for protection, the IMOCA 60s feature large cabintops that can be extended to cover most of the cockpit. This, in turn, means crews no longer have to be exposed to torrents of water cascading across the deck. Instead, they will be able to steer and trim sails from relative safety.
At the end of the day, the new design partnership will undoubtedly result in an even more spectacular class of Volvo racers, at the same time it takes better care of its crews. Here’s hoping that combined with the momentum created by the last race, these boats will help usher in a safer and more exciting VOR than ever before.
Brian Hancock is the founder of the sailmaker Great Circle Sails and a veteran of three Whitbread races, the precursor to the Volvo Ocean Race