The fully crewed, round-the-world Ocean Race has experienced tremendous change over the years. From the 1993 transition to a one-design fleet to an ever-shifting route, what began as the amateur Whitbread Round the World Yacht Regatta in 1972 is a very different race today.
The latest round of updates include some of the biggest changes ever, and if this summer’s preliminary offshore lap of the Iberian Peninsula is anything to go by, it’s going to be an exciting new era for both sailors and spectators.
The Ocean Race Europe, as the race was called, not only provided The Ocean Race sailors a chance to test their mettle, but also provided its European fan base multiple opportunities to see their favorite teams in action. The European offshoot of the former Volvo Ocean Race began in May in Lorient, France, after which it made stopovers at Cascais, Portugal, and Alicante, Spain, before concluding in Genoa, Italy. In addition to the three offshore portions of the regatta, there were also a pair of coastal races, which provided “bonus points” for the top three finishers in each.
From the very start of leg one it was clear both the IMOCA 60 and VO65 fleets would see fierce competition. In the VO65 fleet, the first offshore race concluded with just 15 seconds separating the podium finishers after three days at sea, and the entire seven-boat fleet crossing the line in the space of six minutes. Granted, with legs significantly shorter than in the round-the-world version of the race, there was less time for the fleet to spread out, but it was an astoundingly tight finish nonetheless. Ultimately, The Austrian Ocean Race Project put seven points on the board with its narrow VO65 victory. In the five-boat IMOCA 60 fleet, Nicolas Troussel’s Corum L’Epargne, which has apparently recovered well from its dismasting early in the 2020-21 Vendée Globe, took the gold, narrowly beating out Charlie Enright and Mark Towill’s American-flagged 11th Hour Racing Team.
After leg two—a three-day dash from Cascais to Alicante via the Strait of Gibraltar—the scoreboard showed a three-way tie for first among the IMOCA 60s, with the French-flagged LinkedOut, Offshore Team Germany and 11th Hour Racing Team all totalling 9 points. The VO65 fleet was operating on a similarly razor-thin margin, with Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team and AkzoNobel Ocean Racing knotted up with 11 points and Sailing Poland, helmed by Volvo Ocean Race legend Bouwe Bekking, a single point behind.
The course for leg three brought the fleet out to a turning mark near Spain’s Tabarca Island before the final stretch back in toward Genoa. Due to the light conditions, it took three and a half days and saw Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team pulling off a come-from-behind victory in the VO65 fleet after tacking away from the fleet to find more wind offshore.
“It felt like two weeks of sailing,” said Mirpuri skipper Yoann Richomme. “We knew that until the finish it wouldn’t be over, because Genova is complicated. It’s more of a game of chess in these conditions than proper sailing.”
As for the IMOCA fleet, these same light winds provided exactly what Offshore Team Germany needed to pull ahead. Though the older, non-foiling yacht was upstaged by its more recently built competitors during the reaching portions of leg one, the team finished strong in the in-port races and sailed a smart final leg.
“I’m very happy with what we’ve achieved so far,” team leader Robert Stanjek said on the eve of the final inshore race in Genoa. “Now we need to prepare for the coastal race, just as we have for the other legs, and we will see what happens.”
With the racing still close enough that a few points in either direction could’ve shuffled the entire leader board, Stanjek and company came out with the overall win, with 11th Hour Racing in second. In the VO65 fleet, Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team ultimately prevailed with the Polish team close behind.
Of course, the creation of The Ocean Race Europe is just one of the major changes to The Ocean Race’s program. The aforementioned IMOCA 60 fleet is another new addition, with the next round-the-world race including both the IMOCA 60s and the VO65s from the two most recent Volvo Ocean Races.
IMOCA 60s have been in circulation for 30 years, and there are significantly more of them on the water than there are VO65s. This sudden availability of eligible boats in turn makes the race more accessible and affordable. Plus, with many Volvo veterans transitioning to IMOCA 60s, there are also now more VO65s available. Because of this, The Ocean Race Europe roster included a number of yachts flagged from countries that haven’t recently taken part in this kind offshore racing, including Poland, Lithuania, Austria and Mexico (though the latter has historical laurels in the form of the Swan 65 Sayula II, which won the 1973-74 Whitbread). The inclusion of the IMOCA 60 also means the merging of two offshore racing worlds, with a number of notable Vendée Globe skippers now toying with the idea of getting a crew together for the 2022-23 Ocean Race. Alex Thomson, Boris Hermann and Paul Meilhat, for example, have all expressed interest.
For the 2022-23 Ocean Race, the IMOCA 60 fleet will compete for the overall title, and the VO65 fleet will compete for the “Youth Challenge Trophy.” This new trophy will require that a majority of each boat’s 10-person crew is under 30 with a minimum of three under the age of 26. Each crew will also have at least one female sailor, as was the case last edition.
With more racing on the schedule, a new fleet and plenty of fresh blood, this will undoubtedly be an edition to remember.
Box Rule vs. One Design
The IMOCA 60, also known as the Open 60, is a box, rule-defined class. This means that, unlike the one-design VO65s, each IMOCA 60 can be unique, provided it follows certain class rules governing things like LOA and draft. Beam, sail area and foils are all up to the designer.
There has long been a debate about the merits of each approach for racing. On one hand, a one-design fleet pits sailor against sailor. There’s never a race that’s won in the design office, regardless of the team’s budget. Interchangeable parts also help keep costs down and safety standards up. On the other, a box rule promotes innovation that trickles down to the rest of the sailing world, and because each boat design has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, the racing and tactics get a lot more interesting.
“What we’ve found is that when you’re one design, you have to have strict one design or open it up completely. To have something in the middle doesn’t really work,” says Nick Bice, the boatyard manager for the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race. Most events feature either one or the other, but in The Ocean Race, we’re finally getting the ultimate showdown between the box rule and one-design approaches.