Changes for The Ocean Race

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The next fully crewed round-the-world race will be one for the ages, says Brian Hancock

Organizers of The Ocean Race say there’s still plenty of life left in the old VO65s

Organizers of The Ocean Race say there’s still plenty of life left in the old VO65s

In its near-50-year history The Ocean Race, the original fully-crewed around-the-world yacht race, has hit the reset button a few times—notably, when original sponsor Whitbread pulled the plug in the early ‘90s and auto giant Volvo took it over, and then when Volvo went to one-design racing for the classic event.

Now that button has once again been hit, with the most radical shakeup the event has yet seen. Joining the existing Volvo 65 one-design racers on the start line of the 2021-22 event will be a fistful of IMOCA 60s, the powerful foiling monohulls designed and built for shorthanded round-the-world races.

Last year, longtime title sponsor Volvo Motor Group announced that it had sold the race, but would remain on as a premium race partner. A Spanish company called The Ocean Race 1973 SLU now owns the iconic event. It’s led by Richard Brisius, Johan Salén and Jan Litborn. Brisius and Salén have been involved with the event for many years, but as team managers of competitors rather than in race management.

“I think they have a very good understanding of what this race needs going forward,” said The Ocean Race’s executive director, Richard Mason. “They have been on the other side of the table for many years and know what race management needs to supply to get a strong fleet of competitors to the start line.” Indeed, Mason says six out of eight of the original VO65s used in previous races are spoken for and will be on the start line. He also feels certain the other two boats will be picked up as well, so at a very minimum, we can expect a decent fleet of the “old” boats.

The foiling IMOCA 60s are designed for solo sailing and will have to be modifed to carry five crew around the world

The foiling IMOCA 60s are designed for solo sailing and will have to be modifed to carry five crew around the world

The real excitement, though, is in a partnership with IMOCA (International Monohull Open Class Association) to develop a new class for the next race, an idea that is exciting not only for The Ocean Race but for the already robust IMOCA community as a whole.

The problem that many IMOCA 60 skippers face when trying to put together a program for the Vendée Globe, the class’s premier event, is that there are four years between races, which for a sponsor means a lot of downtime where they are not getting exposure. Now skippers can offer sponsors a package that includes the Vendée Globe in 2020, The Ocean Race in 2021 and the Route du Rhum transatlantic race in 2022.

This kind of opportunity is in turn attracting some of the best and most experienced sailors out there, including Frank Cammas, who won the Volvo Ocean Race in 2011/12, Paul Meilhat, the winner of the most recent edition of the Route du Rhum, and Boris Hermann, who won the Portimao Global Ocean race a decade ago, but has made his move into the IMOCA arena and is a rising star.

Mason says there are currently nine new IMOCA 60’s under construction and most of them have been earmarked for The Ocean Race. There is also the possibility of some older IMOCA 60’s being modified for the event.

In fact, there will not be much difference between an IMOCA 60 designed and built for the Vendée Globe and one built for The Ocean Race. Skippers will need to have an IMOCA 60 that meets all the requirements of the foiling IMOCA 60 box rule, including rig and appendages, but beyond that, they can make their own modifications. Many of these will likely be to the interior, where the boats will need to accommodate a crew of five.

Talking to Vendée Globe sailors as well as veterans of previous Ocean Races, it’s clear that racing a foiling IMOCA 60 fully crewed is going to raise the level of experience and expertise needed to participate. The pool of helmsmen able to keep such a boat at peak performance for hours at a time is small.

It’s also going to increase the sheer challenge of competing, especially when the yachts are racing in the Southern Ocean. To keep the boat foiling for any period of time takes intense concentration, and that concentration is going to be nonstop for days, even weeks on end. Vendée Globe skippers also rely on complex autopilot systems that receive multiple inputs to steer the boat, and they do an excellent job. However, the autopilot systems that will be used on an IMOCA 60 for The Ocean Race are much more basic and will only be able to steer to a heading—in other words they will be used mostly in an emergency or to free up the helmsman during sail maneuvers. In other words, the teams will no longer be able to rely on the autopilots to steer the boat, not if they want to be competitive.

In a perverse way, no longer having Volvo as the title sponsor has helped the event. As Mason explained, “Competitors that were approaching sponsors for their campaigns were routinely told that those companies felt they were being asked to use their money to promote Volvo. Same too with the stopover ports, which are critical to the financial success of the race. City councils were not able to put forth money that would in any way help a private company like Volvo.”

Of course, remove Volvo from the name of the event and that all changes. Indeed, Mason says it’s unlikely there will be a title sponsor for the next race. “We are not actively looking for a sponsor, and we feel that having a corporate name in the title of the event is more of a hindrance than a help to our financial model as well as to our competitors’ own sponsorship efforts.”

Since the inaugural event in 1973, this unique race has forged a path that ran parallel to the Vendée Globe and the America’s Cup. Now there is crossover between the three events, with crew from the America’s Cup taking on the challenge of The Ocean Race and Vendée Globe skippers looking for the first time to compete not only singlehanded, but in a fully crewed environment as well.

“We are molding the future of yacht racing to include all aspects of the sport,” Mason said. “We know some of the younger sailors who will be competing on the VO65s will migrate to the IMOCA class. It will be as if the VO65 class will become a training ground for the IMOCA class. And that class will grow from strength to strength. Also, there is the lure of the trifecta: to become the first person to win a Vendée Globe, The Ocean Race and the America’s Cup.”

Their vision is clear, and the cooperation between differing parts of the sailing community is becoming more obvious. One other aspect of the new brand is its partnership with 11th Hour Racing, which has created a platform that can be used for positive change to help restore the health of the oceans. This was a big aspect of the last race and had a positive impact through the entry Turn the Tide on Plastic. This kind of message resonates with corporations globally, as it is a good way for them to get brand awareness while at the same time showing off their concerns for the environment. As sailors, we all want a healthier planet, and if sailing can be an agent of change, then this change is in the right hands with The Ocean Race. 

July 2019

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