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The Ocean Race - Part 2: Developing one class for multiple events

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 14 May 06:25 PDT 14 May 2019
IMOCA Malizia II bursts through a big one - Route du Rhum Destination Guadeloupe 2018. © Jean-Marie Ilot

Part 2 of the Sail-World.com's interview with The Ocean Race Director, Richard Mason.

In Part 1 of this three part story, Richard Mason outlined the long term plans for The Ocean Race. The fleet size is expected to double, and professional offshore racing will have a better offering for sailors, teams and sponsors. To read Part 1 click here

For the first time in almost 30 years The Ocean Race will feature two classes - the Volvo 65 and IMOCA60. Having a choice of boat widens the options for start-up and existing professional teams

For the first time in almost 30 years the race will feature two classes - the VO65 and IMOCA60.

The concept was tried in the 1993/94 Whitbread Race, as organisers attempted to transition from the traditional fleet into a single class fleet - the Whitbread 60. The move was controversial with sparks flying between the leading maxi skipper, Grant Dalton, and the leading W60 skipper Chris Dickson as to who was the fastest, with Dickson claiming that the W60 had been "dumbed-down" so they were less competitive on the fast downwind legs.

The scenario is unlikely to be repeated in The Ocean Race.

The VO65's – the one-design fleet used for the last two editions- are back by popular demand for their third lap of the planet, which helps to prove the point of sustainability and re-use.

The Ocean Race is also embracing the popular IMOCA60 - arguably the most popular short-handed trans-oceanic racing class, which is well established, well administered, and with a good fleet of used boats for entry-level teams.

"What we are trying to do with the IMOCA60 is to invest and drive one offshore class to be going across a multiple of races," explains Mason.

"Hopefully in 2-3 years time there will be our race, there will be the Vendée Globe. We are looking to do events in 2023 - which is our 50th Anniversary.

"That will be a shorter crewed race, maybe based in Europe and Asia - we're not sure at the moment.

"Then you've got the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Route du Rhum. As the class strengthens we hope a few of those boats might start doing Sydney Hobart or the other Rolex races as well."

The Ocean Race will be the first to feature a fully crewed IMOCA60. Mason says the boat must have six crew - five sailing crew and an On Board Reporter. One of the sailing crew must be a female.

Only one VO65 left

The VO65 seems to be the class that just keeps giving. There were some raised eyebrows when the project to design a one design 65ft yacht to compete in two editions of the then Volvo Ocean Race. French-Argentinean designer Juan Kouyoumdijian was widely expected to get the nod, given that boats from his office had won the previous three round the world races sailed under the Volvo 70 rule.

The performance on the VO65 was criticised in the first race (2014/2015), but the critics were silenced last May, when Team AkzoNobel turned in the fastest 24 hour run in Whitbread/Volvo race history on Leg 9 from Newport to Cardiff, breaking the magic 600nm a day mark with a run of 602.5nm.

Yes, the Gulf Stream helped, but that is what 24-hour records are all about - a perfect combination of wind, waves and current. The monohull record holder, the 100ft supermaxi Comanche did the same thing in 2016, diverting during a TransAtlantic Race to also take advantage of weather window, and set the monohull record of 618nm in 24 hours.

To put the VO65 in its proper perspective it is only one of two monohulls in sailing history to break the 600nm/24 hr distance mark. That fact should add grist to the debate prior to the start of The Ocean Race as to whether the IMOCA60, a downhill surfboard, or the VO65 will be the faster.

There will be no tweaking of the rules for either class to attempt to equalise the performance of the two types, which in TOR-speak are referred to as the "60's" or "65's" when referring to the two divisions.

"There has been some concerns over two classes in the race and I think we have learned some hard lessons from 1993-94 when there was maxis and 60's and there was some trouble and confusion with those two classes," Mason says.

"These two new classes will have very different stories that they are racing for. We will be very careful that they are equally weighted and understood as we go around the world."

For the V065 to be on its third lap of the planet is a big ask, and a tribute to the Farr Yacht Design Office. Other than a major mishap, due to operator error on Leg 2 of the 2014/15 race, there have been no structural issues - a tribute to the design office, and the care from The Boatyard, set up to maintain the fleet before and after each race and during the stopovers, along with careful and regular inspections which became a byline for best practice in the marine industry.

Maybe it is not a surprise that the 65ft One Design was recalled for the 2021/22 edition of The Ocean Race, by popular acclamation.

"There are eight VO65's that exist in the world," explains Richard Mason.

"As of the end of April, there is only one left on the market."

"A couple of teams from the previous race are continuing with the boats they have. One is the Mirpuri Team, backed by Paulo Mirpuri who has said that he is doing a fully-funded VO65 project."

"We have quite a diverse country representation and two of the boats are pretty much fully funded,” he added.

According to Mason, the model for getting a V065 team together for The Ocean Race seems to be to acquire a boat from the previous race and go start sailing to lift the team's profile.

He says the teams have the next year and a half to contract their sponsorship and team members.

"At the moment the key issue is one of supply and demand", he says. "In fact, I had the question asked last week, as to whether they could build new Volvo 65's and I replied that they could do anything."

As the two class concepts have been progressed it has become clear that because of limited crew numbers on the IMOCA60's (5-6 crew) it was going to be very difficult for young sailors to get through onto those teams, which Mason says are going to require very, very good, experienced, offshore sailors.

"So for the young guys, or people who don't have the experience, there is going to be limited access for them to get in," he says.

“The combination of what we have done with the crew composition on the 65's seems to appeal both to the youth or younger sailors.

"The key development over the last two months has been the evolution of the two classes and the teams are looking at both of them and how they want to approach it," says Communications Director, Peter Rusch. "The 65 opened up options for youth teams and some of those have also opted to have a strong nationality component. It's not something that has been imposed or pushed - just the way teams are setting themselves up," he adds.

Boost for marine industry

Mason says that established Round the World sailors of his generation (first VOR in 2001) are seeing The Ocean Race and its options as a great opportunity to put a campaign together, and pass their knowledge over to a new generation of sailors.

"Some of these guys have done the race 4,5 or 6 times and are coming to the end. They are saying "we want to get one of the boats, we want to put a youth challenge together and develop the next generation of offshore sailors"," he says.

The change of race ownership and management style, where the teams will be a lot more self-sufficient, will rejuvenate the marine industry.

"The Ocean Race has activated the industry again. Yacht designers are busy, sail designers are being employed again. There's development processes going on.

"We will see that same trickle-down effect into the marine industry that we used to see in the past races - with sail development, hardware development and all those things - where guys come up with ideas, and sail around the world to test if they work, and the next thing is they start turning up on the 30-40fters at home."

Under the Atlant Ocean Racing banner, The Ocean Race is an event which has a much longer timeline than just the finish of the current race.

"We are looking to create a long-term continuity in offshore sailing," says Mason espousing what appears to be the Mission Statement for The Ocean Race.

A big part of this objective is integrating the IMOCA60 class with The Ocean Race and creating a team owned boat which can be easily converted to do fully crewed (five crew), short-handed (two crew), or single-handed sailing.

"What we are trying to do is work very closely with that class to make sure that we don't over-specialise the boats to be able to do our race. We work very hard to make sure that in our race all you will need to compete is a current IMOCA certificate - and that's it.

"We don't want people to be changing rigs, or a lot of alterations. We want to keep changes to the minimum. We will probably come up with slightly different configurations for the crewed side of it, which may be slightly more optimised."

While the prospective entry numbers for the 60fters may seem a little over-optimistic, typical of an organiser trying to talk up his event, the forecast must be viewed against the backdrop that there are 28 IMOCA's in the Fastnet Race. Mason notes that the 2020 Vendee Globe is over-subscribed.

Tracking the prospective entries for the 60fters is relatively straight-forward.

"With the IMOCA60 fleet the teams have to register with IMOCA and register a builder for their boats," Mason explains. "So we know at the moment there are nine new IMOCA's in build - mostly for the Vendee Globe but we know a couple are being built specifically for our race. There are a couple more in the wings that are headed our way," he adds.

For sailing fans who are not familiar with the IMOCA60 scene, Mason points out that in Europe there are several full-time teams that run these boats year on year.

"I don't want to get stuck on numbers", he says. "But it is a very different thing if you are starting a campaign and running it for two years, and you finish with nothing" - a reference to the previous two editions of the Volvo Ocean Race in particular, where teams chartered VO65's from the race organisers, who owned the fleet. After the race the teams handed the boats back which were then mothballed and put in storage.

"The approach with the IMOCA60 owning teams is that if you are an existing team, like the French teams are - already set up with six shore people who are working full time doing other events, then the cost of adding on participation in The Ocean Race is significantly less. Significantly less." he repeats for emphasis.

The reduction in costs for existing IMOCA60 race teams is possible because their fixed costs are already offset by their existing program. The Ocean Race will add some variable cost with campaign-specific costs, but also carries the significant upside of much bigger sponsorship value for a nine-month event, plus build-up backed by an organisation with massive media reach.

"For the IMOCA60's to be able to participate it is not an insignificant amount of money, but it is very do-able," says Mason.

"We are looking at is 3-5 newly built boats. And rubbing my crystal ball, there are 3-4 of the existing top boats which are being built for Vendee Globe who will convert to come and do the race. And then there will be 3-4 high performance foiling IMOCA's who will come in to cut their teeth to do the next one."

Big opportunity for IMOCA60's

The Ocean Race also adds a "Big Ticket" event to the IMOCA60 calendar - offering teams and their sponsors a nine-month event that continues to break viewership records, including the ability to break into mainstream news bulletins.

The IMOCA60 class has a significant fleet that could compete in The Ocean Race after receiving a facelift.

"We are seeing existing boats being converted," says Mason. "I see Sam Davies boat has just sprouted 8-metre Verdier wings. Those boats are very, very capable of doing this race."

While the foiling IMOCA60's have a somewhat tarnished reputation for being able to go the distance without sustaining some form of race wrecking foil issue, Mason points out that is not quite such an issue in The Ocean Race as the foil damage can be fixed at the next stopover.

"That's the beauty of this race if you break something on a leg you are not out of a race. You can come back. If you look at Groupama (in the 2011/12 Volvo Ocean Race) when she broke her rig (500nm short of the Leg 5 finish in Itajai) and they still won the Race, that year.

"I have always said if you want to win this race, it is how you manage the sh**fight when it comes. Because if you recover the quickest, you'll always stay in front. Every boat has its challenges at some point."

"You will probably see more breakages in the 60's. But that is par for the course - that is what happens if you push things at the front end. Of course, we are not blase about it. We are very respectful of what can happen out there - and will do anything we can to ensure the boats are as safe as possible. But at the end of the day, in the Southern Ocean, seamanship is the key," says the four race veteran.

"We're going back to the 1970's where the skill was to know when to throttle off, not when to open the throttle up," he adds.

Another debate surrounding the existing IMOCA60 fleet - sailed single or double-handed - is whether they are capable of being pushed by full crew for a 40,000nm race?

"I have a two-sided argument on that one," is Mason's response. "Those boats can do a wipeout and spend three hours on their sides because they have only got one guy to clean up the mess. And he was downstairs when the boat wiped out!"

"Fully crewed, the 60's will have people driving all the time instead of an autopilot, and keeping a lookout the whole time. You could argue that yes, they are pushing the boats but they are going to be better managed by people who know when to back off."

"In the single hander, if you are downstairs looking at your nav and a big curly cloud comes up behind you in the Southern Ocean - you suddenly find yourself trying to tuck in a reef in 50kts of breeze.

"Fully crewed, the guys on deck will see it coming and put the reef in 10 minutes earlier. That argument goes around and around for me.

"Yes there will be the potential to break an IMOCA60, but I could rip the rig out of a VO65 in five minutes, if you gave me the chance. It is just about managing your equipment as it always has been in the Southern Ocean. Again it's about knowing when to back off."

One of the issues in the Southern Ocean is expected to be the use of Ice Gates which will probably have different implications for the two classes.

"The 65's were diving deep into the Lows to get the [wind] pressure," says Mason. "That's what we used to do in the 60's [in the 2001/02 race]. We would head for the middle of the Lows and keep the chutes up in 40kts of breeze and push like crazy, because we knew we could. In the VO70's we never went that close, because we knew we were going that fast, you'd gybe out before you got in the thick of them."

Relaxed over split leg finishes

Another issue that can't be resolved until The Ocean Race is well advanced will be the separation at the finish line between the 60ft and 65ft classes.

The Volvo 70, in particular, developed into a war of attrition with close finishes being rare, and in one leg only two boats managed to complete the course by sailing. That changed with the advent of the more robust VO65 one design, where blanket finishes became the norm, particularly in the last edition of the race.

Mason says they have obtained VPP's for the IMOCA60's from a couple of top designers and run them against the VO65's.

"On a longer leg, there is probably going to be a weather system - something like between one and three days - between the 60's and the 65's - on a more traditional downwind leg. That's when you have ideal conditions like a steady tradewind and even sea state."

"But once the breeze goes up into the 30-35kt range - you'll be sucking your boards in on the 60's and slowing them down, and on the 65's you'll still have the throttles wide open."

"Likewise, if there is a lot of upwind work we can see the 65's being potentially quicker. It is a little course dependent, but on a traditional downwind leg we expect to see the delta at 1-3 days difference between the two fleets, depending on weather systems."

Mason says the TOR organisers expect to see the two classes sailing different courses as they chase the weather system most favourable to their VPP's.

"They will be sailing different courses, which will be quite nice as we will see some splits. It won't matter if you have your AIS (Automatic Identification System) on or not - because someone is going to wind up on the other side of a weather system. It will make it more entertaining to watch - that's for sure. Not so easy for us to manage from a race control aspect - you'll have boats all over the place!"

"It will make it much, much more lively for the viewers," he adds.

Mason isn't fazed by the likelihood that the finishes for the two fleets could be several days apart, explaining that the period of greatest viewership is at when the boats are finishing, and the fans are able to be connected for a long time on a Live Feed.

"For some of the stopovers having a continued arrival event over a longer period adds more value, because people keep coming down to see the boats coming in. It also increases the chances that at least one class will finish during daylight," he adds.

The In Port Racing at each stopover, which has been a feature of the race since 2005, will remain as part of The Ocean Race. Mason says while In Port racing is possible in the IMOCA60's - doing windward-leewards on the traditional course is difficult. However, the two fleets will definitely sail a course around the harbour at the start of each Leg.

In Part 1 of this three part story, Richard Mason outlined the long term plans for The Ocean Race. The fleet size is expected to double, and professional offshore racing will have a better offering for sailors, teams and sponsors. To read Part 1 click here

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