The new year is usually a time for boat work and refits in the IMOCA world; there are no races to get in the way of the big jobs that have built up over the season.
Not this year though. For five of the teams in the IMOCA fleet, the last few months will have been a rush to prepare for their next big race: The Ocean Race.
Formerly The Volvo Ocean Race, this race holds place in many a sailor’s heart. The Ocean Race is a fully crewed around-the-world behemoth split into legs; its origins lie in the Whitbread Round the World Race, first held in 1973. Back 50 years ago, 17 yachts crewed mostly by amateurs started the 28,000-mile race from Portsmouth, crossing the finish line 5 months later. The race has changed a lot in that time, becoming a fully professional event with sponsored teams and full-time sailors onboard.
This year’s edition is another step in the history of the race. For the first time, IMOCAs are the boat of choice for the 32,000-mile course – a choice that turned a number of heads when first announced.
The decision to use IMOCAs presents several challenges. Firstly, how do you fit five people on a boat designed around only one or two, and how do you persuade sailors focused on the Vendée Globe to take time out of their preparation for The Ocean Race?
We will see if it pays off for the sailors, and the organisers. The event really does have the potential to produce some incredible racing, and I am excited to see where things are in six months’ time.
The Ocean Race has always been an event split into different legs, stopping in cities around the world. This edition is no different, but with less stopovers than has been usual for the last few editions. Starting in Alicante and then stopping in Cabo Verde, Cape Town, Itajaí, Newport, Aarhus, Kiel, The Hague and Genova, The Ocean Race fleet will experience a whole host of different conditions on the seven legs.
The key to this race will be to finish. Reliability will be the most important thing from start to finish here, especially given the turn-around times between legs can be extremely tight if anything goes wrong during a leg. There will be a fine line between pushing and finishing and one that all the teams will have to tread at some point.
We may see some problems if any of the teams break a mast at any point – there’s only one spare mast in the whole fleet right now, and that is owned by 11th Hour Racing. If a team were to order one today, it won’t be complete until the end of summer this year – after the finish of The Ocean Race. This could put the teams, and the organisation, in a tricky spot. What would you do if you were 11th Hour Racing? Another team breaks a mast and asks to use your spare, but what if yours then breaks? It’s not a nice position to be in.
Given the tight turnaround times in each port, if a mast does break then the only solution to getting it to the stopover would realistically be by air – both costly economically and environmentally. Considering all the teams, and the wider IMOCA class, have been pushing to make the sport more environmentally friendly in recent years, flying a mast halfway around the world doesn’t seem to sit with that objective.
The Southern Ocean leg, the biggest in Ocean Race history, starts in Cape Town and takes the teams 12,750 miles through the Southern Ocean, around Cape Horn and up to Itajaí in Brazil. Double points, two months to finish. There could be a lot riding on this leg – the Southern Hemisphere autumn will be coming around which means the brutal storms usually found in the Southern Ocean could be even worse. Any delay for technical reasons could make rounding Cape Horn almost impossible. It could, however, be a very fast leg.
This race could see some speed records broken – something I am very much looking forward to. Charal broke the 24-hour IMOCA record last year when delivering back from the Route du Rhum, putting in 559 miles in 24 hours, 20 miles more than the record I set in 2018. I firmly believe these boats are capable of somewhere close to 700 miles in 24 hours and with both this course and the fact the boats are fully crewed, I think we might see Charal’s record fall more than once. When I set my first 24-hour speed record in 2003, I needed strong winds and big waves to help the boat surf – I had an average of around 35 knots of wind the whole time. However, the boats are different beasts now. They can achieve 30 knots of boat speed in 15/16 knots of wind – provided they have flat water. Flat water is going to be the key to keeping boat speeds high.
Conversely, the older Volvo 65 class 24-hour record is a little over 600 miles. Like the IMOCAs of old, they need strong winds and big seas to do that. I know that the IMOCAs are faster than the Volvo 65s, so I hope one of the teams will edge ahead of that record during this race.
This race doesn’t jump out to me as great preparation for the Vendée Globe in 2024, but four of the five skippers will be on the start line in 18 months. This will certainly be a learning experience for these skippers, and it gives them a great opportunity to put some miles under the keel on their respective IMOCAs, but in very different circumstances to usual Vendée training. This is fully crewed sailing which is further from solo sailing than most can imagine. The day to day running of the boat, the way in which it is sailed, and the navigation decisions will all be different to those made when you are racing alone – perhaps it will be useful for the skippers, but it could also put more pressure on them.
Come July next year when The Ocean Race is finished these skippers will have to adjust their focus and look forward to the Vendée. Damage incurred during The Ocean Race could delay their training even further – what if a mast breaks towards the end, as we know the lead time for a new mast is in the months, not weeks.
Then again, putting the miles in with an experienced crew will show the capabilities of the boat in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have been obvious previously. I know every one of these skippers and respect them greatly, so I trust they know how this race fits in with their program.
All in all, I am looking forward to this race. It’s not had the build-up that previous editions have, but with the inclusion of the IMOCA class, I am looking forward to seeing what these boats are capable of in a round-the-world race with a full completement of crew.