With the start of Leg 6, the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race has now reached its halfway point, as the fleet charges off toward Auckland, New Zealand, a mainstay stopover since the race’s Whitbread days in the 1970s. After that comes Leg 7, another epic Southern Ocean marathon of the kind that was supposed to help bring the race back to those same Whitbread "roots" that had made it the adventure it was before it started diverting north to ports in Asia and the Middle East.
Nonetheless, for all the hype, and despite the fact VOR fans are once again finding themselves witness to some truly incredible racing, the entire event now sails under a cloud of uncertainty—and not just because of the recent fatal collision between Vestas 11th Hour Racing and a commercial fishing boat just shy of the Leg 4 finish.
Which is not to say that the collision mustn’t loom large in the eyes of all: if for no other reason than the fact Vestas 11th Hour Racing, previously a favorite to, at the very least, finish in the top three overall, has now been largely knocked out of contention.
First, of course, the team was forced to withdraw from Leg 4 following the collision, which occurred just 30 miles short of the finish in Hong Kong. Since then, the team has also now missed out on not one but two in-port races, as well as the short offshore sprint that was Leg 5, between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. At press time, the team was still technically in third place overall, but that will surely no longer be the case by the time they are ready to sail again in New Zealand. Not only, but the chances of ever catching the hard-charging leaders, China’s Dongfeng and Spain’s Mapfre, look to be slim to none.
Then, of course, there are the even more impactful reverberations of the collision, and the fact that while an unsuspecting non-competing mariner was actually killed in the course of a yacht race, both Vestas 11th Hour Racing and the VOR organization as a whole have remained more than a little tightlipped about the accident in its aftermath.
Granted, both the team and the VOR have made it widely known that they regret the incident having happened. However, there’s been little else: no meaningful public conversation about how the incident could have been prevented; how exactly it came to pass; and what will be done to avoid something like this ever happening again in the future.
Obviously, in today’s litigious world, the less said the better in terms of legal exposure. But for all the corporate sponsorship, this is still a sailboat race. And you’d like to think that the mariners involved would be more forthcoming, less circumspect in their reaction to a tragedy that took the life of one of their own. (For the record, NOT blaming the actual sailors aboard Vestas: we can only assume they are not the ones calling the shots here.)
Then there’s the question of the race’s future following the announcement this past fall that the 2019-20 was essentially cancelled while VOR organizers figure out how best to “deliver long-term sustainable benefits to the race and participating teams:” a decision that must have been doubly heartbreaking for true fans given the excitement generated by the announcement only a short while earlier that that race would be adopting a whole-new Super 60 concept boat following the 2017-18 race.
The fact that the race has now killed a commercial fisherman can’t help but make this process all the more difficult. While sailors have died and boats been abandoned in the past, the current situation is not only unprecedented but comes as a direct result of the race having ventured up in the crowded waters of Asian in search of cash.
For years now, the VOR (like the America’s Cup) has been working hard to figure out how to best balance out the needs of sponsors with those of old-school races fans, all the while keeping the race affordable in order to maintain a decent fleet size. However, while the race had hoped to turn a corner with the introduction of the one-design Volvo Ocean 65, challenges clearly remain.
The same professionalism, for example, that has made the racing so spectacularly close also continues to sap much of the vitality of the “adventure” of the race, as crews are swapped out from leg to leg players on an American football team. Equally pernicious, if not more so, now that we can seemingly watch their every move online, even the incredible hardship these men and women routinely undergo can start to feel routine.
That said, the VOR is still one of the great undertakings of our age, and there remains an undeniable passion for the race among both fans and the sailors who take part in it. Then again, this is also sailboat racing we’re talking about. As bad as things look for Vestas 11 Hour Racing right now, a few lucky breaks (or bad breaks for its competitors) and we could see it back in the thick of things again. Same thing with the race as a whole: a spectacular Southern Ocean leg, another off-the-chart successful stopover in Newport, and a satisfying resolution to the tragic events of Leg 4, and the future of the VOR could look brighter than ever.
Let’s hope so, at least: a world without a vibrant VOR would be a much poorer one not just for sailors, but the world as a whole. For the latest on Leg 6 and the VOR in general, click here.
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