Twenty-something years ago I stood at the mouth of the Solent and watched the start of the Whitbread Round the World Race. I counted 23 boats making their way into the English Channel, with 32,000 miles of hard racing ahead of them. Such a number would be inconceivable in a modern round-the-world race. The current edition of the Volvo Ocean Race features just six boats, and at time of writing there had not been six finishers in any one leg. Dismastings, delamination, destruction; this current crop of Volvo 70s are a temperamental bunch, perhaps not surprisingly so given the speeds of which they’re capable. This is one reason the current edition hasn’t sustained a buzz: when your team finishes on a freighter, it’s tough to keep cheering.
Another reason is the course itself, meticulously plotted to ensure that no major car market misses out on a stopover. Together with the integration of local-media-friendly in-port racing, this has complicated the event to the degree that only aficionados can be bothered to follow it closely. Ten destinations, ten in-port races, a complicated points system; watch as the non-sailors’ eyes glaze over. The tactically exhausting legs up to the Persian Gulf and China and then down to Auckland just do not have the raw drama of the iceberg-riddled depths of the Southern Ocean. For me, the race descended into farce when the fleet had to be loaded onto a ship for fear of pirate attacks.
A six-boat fleet might be miniscule by the standards of the 1989 race, but it’s sadly representative of the current state of the racing art. Even before the 2008 crash, sponsorship money for ocean racing was hard to come by, and that certainly hasn’t changed for the better. The last edition of the Velux Five Oceans race—the solo round-the-world race that was originally the BOC Challenge—had just five starters. There were six in the recent Global Ocean Race for Class 40 boats, which are bargain-basement vessels compared to Volvo 70s and proves it’s not just exorbitant costs that are keeping sponsors away.
In contrast to all this is an event that plays out every two years with minimal fanfare: the Clipper Race, in which a fleet of ten 68-footers with paying crew follows a largely tradewind route around the globe, but still dips into the Southern Ocean. I ran into the fleet at the Strictly Sail Pacific show in Oakland, California, in April, where it was catching its collective breath after a transpacific run. This is not high-tech racing—no carbon fiber, no canting keels, no daggerboards—and the crews are not well-paid professionals. They’re ordinary people who cough up large sums of money to pursue a dream. Much like boat owners, in fact. And since demand from would-be crew exceeds the supply of boats, the next race will be held in a fleet of 12 spanking new lighter, faster 70-footers.
It is easy for racing insiders to mock the pay-to-ride concept, but this is hard racing between identical boats that calls for high standards of seamanship and endurance. At a time when professional distance racing is suffering, the success of the Clipper concept proves that the dream and the allure is as strong as ever; it’s just the execution that makes the difference.