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The Once and Future Volvo

Another Volvo Ocean Race has been written into the history books, and to the surprise of many, the event went out with a bang, not a whimper.

Another Volvo Ocean Race has been written into the history books, and to the surprise of many, the event went out with a bang, not a whimper. Despite the 100,000 or so cheering Irish that showed up in Galway to welcome the overall winner, Franck Cammas and the French Groupama team, there were many times during the 2011-12 race when pundits predicted the end of the VOR, citing issues like not enough boats, too many breakdowns, exorbitant costs and a course that didn’t make any sense.

Now that the spray has settled, so to speak, let’s take a sober look at where things stand. The good news is Volvo is pleased, and pleasing the sponsor is paramount. In a speech in Galway, race CEO Knut Frostad said that “despite the tough economic climate globally, the threat of piracy in the Indian Ocean and more damage to the boats than we would have liked, we delivered the most successful race in our history.”

But what is success and what of the future? The race has lost its soul, as slick professionals have displaced the quirky amateurs and adventurers who provided so much human interest in the past. But is that a bad thing? We may have lost the human interest stories, but in their place we get live onboard data and incredible video and images that are just hours old. 

One thing the race does need going forward is more entries, which is why Frostad decided to reduce the length of the boats from 70 to 65 feet, and make them a one-design class. On the face of it you would think this is a surefire way to bring down costs, but ask around and you get a variety of opinions. One strong voice in opposition is that of gifted naval architect Juan Kouyoumdjian. In an interview with the website Vsail he did the best he could to be diplomatic, but underlying his comments was the bitter truth that Frostad chose Bruce Farr to design the new boat and not Juan K, despite the top three boats in the most recent race being from design office of the latter.

The most critical point Kouyoumdjian made was that it will be impossible to be fair, and equally impossible to come up with a true one-design boat. “What do you have to do to win the next Volvo Ocean Race? It’s very simple,” he said. “You have to be the richest and the first one in line. You buy the first two boats. You then engage yourself into an agreement to enter two boats. You do a very long period of two-boat testing, and you then engage yourself to buy the eighth boat.” What he is contending is that those with the most time in the new design will have a distinct advantage and that the team that buys the newest boat will get the best one. Builders learn as they go along, so the best will be their most recent build.

Unfortunately, with respect to the route, there is no going back to the old Southern Ocean format. Like all sporting events, the VOR is sponsor-driven, and if Volvo wants to satisfy its dealers in far-flung parts of the world by taking the race there, so be it: they are paying the bills. I think we should all consider for a moment what the future of the event would look like if Volvo were to pull out before judging too harshly.

Photo courtesy of Yann Riou/Groupama (top); courtesy of VOR (left)

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