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The Ocean Race - Part 3: The Course - shorter length, fewer legs

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 21 May 08:05 PDT 20 May 2019
Vestas 11th Hour Racing - Leg 6, Volvo Ocean Race - March 24, 2018 © Jeremie Lecaudey / Volvo Ocean Race

Part 3 of the Sail-World.com's interview with The Ocean Race Director, Richard Mason. Here he discusses the course for the 2021 edition of The Ocean Race.

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 In Part 2 Richard Mason outlined the thinking behind the two classes and creating a fully crewed version of the IMOCA60. To read Part 2 click here

The course for The Ocean Race is expected to be completely announced by late July - early August. Advanced discussions are currently underway.

"The process for acquiring host cities is that we identify all the interested cities from around the world and work with them to a point where they put their offers in.

"We look at them all and start joining the dots on the map, looking at the options, and seeing what makes the most sense - from a sensible racing standpoint and then a commercial standpoint, and then from a logistical standpoint.

"Then we have to stand back and make sure we can all deliver the whole thing. We have a big long checklist that we run through to make sure it all makes sense. It is a complicated matrix as we pull this race course and event together," he explains.

Since its inception almost 50 years ago the Whitbread, then Volvo and now The Ocean Race has shifted from being a four leg adventure starting in Portsmouth, around the Capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn to finish back in Portsmouth. The first Race took 133 days to sail the 27,500nm course.

The 2017/18 edition, the 13th, was sailed over a 45,000nm course of 11 Legs, starting in Alicante, Spain and finishing in The Hague and taking 126 days.

The 14th fully crewed round the world race is expected to be shorter and with fewer stopovers than the 2017/18 monster.

"In the big picture, the course for The Ocean Race in 2021/22 will be over a similar race course to what we saw last time," says Mason.

"We have to start from Alicante in October 2021, no matter what. We then begin slotting into geographical and weather timings. We want to be around Cape Horn by middle/late March.

"Suddenly the constraints start coming as to where you can go and when.

"We are looking at a European start and then heading south through the South Atlantic and then up to Asia. Of course, we are looking at Australia and New Zealand and then back around South America and North America and then into Europe.

"There might be changes in the order in which we do things. We spent a lot of time in the Southern Ocean in the last Race. But we could see a couple of quite epic long legs coming back into the Race.

"We are trying to push the Race back towards its core which involves spending longer periods at sea, more time in the Southern Ocean - and trying to reduce the stop-start nature of the Race that we have seen in the past.

"That means we will probably see a couple fewer stopovers - we are looking at a maximum of ten stopovers including start and finish."

Mason expects that the course will be reduced in length to between 38,000nm and 42,000nm.

"The big one is pulling the Race up into Asia. If we didn't do that one, then we'd shorten up the Race significantly. But there are strong reasons to be heading up that part of the world", he explains.

"It's a big change from my first race - which was 27,000 - 29,000nm in the Volvo 60's!", he laughs.

The vexed issue is how to handle an Asian stopover.

Mason is adamant that what happened last Race, where an excursion to Guangzhou on mainland China followed immediately after the Hong Kong stopover would be dropped.

"We are looking at Hong Kong again. We are looking in the Sanya region, and we don't want to go any further north than Hinan. It blows 50kts at that time of year, and it is a bit of a boat-breaker."

"I've learned that lesson myself," he recalls. "As long as I am involved in the Race I wouldn't want to take responsibility for putting people up there again. I will never forget having my boot on the hull [to block the hole in the hull]," he says now able to laugh off a situation he would not care to repeat.

"It is not a given that we are going up to China. It is a region that of course we can't ignore and it is very important, but we are weighing all the options up. It's not a given that we are going up there, but there are a lot of reasons to go there.

"Obviously, China and the Asian markets are a strong driver for a lot of partners who come into the Race from a race organisation perspective, but also from a team standpoint.

"Having a stopover in that region allows teams to have extra pull when they are looking for funding."

There's a couple of other interesting course options under consideration. One is a more direct route from Cape Town, to pass up the West Coast of Australia versus the East Coast. Last time the race course took the seven-boat fleet up and down the east coast of Australia.

While it is a more direct route, and one that would take The Ocean Race into new territory - the Arafura Sea. "But that is where the cyclones are born - in the NW corner of Australia and Indonesia," Mason notes. "Phil Lawrence, our Race Director, has been doing a lot of weather research in that region," he adds

In the 11th and 12th editions of the Volvo Ocean Race took the fleet into the Middle East. Mason doesn't rule that option out either. "We have some interest - but it is a bit like trying to get over to the west coast of USA - it's a long way."

"The trade-off is that it adds a lot of time into the Race and we are very conscious of having the Race too long. So if we go to the Middle East, we can't go somewhere else."

"That's all part of the trade-offs and the piece of work we will be doing over the next 6-10 weeks."

The last four editions of the VOR have involved a course which calls for the fleet to cross the Equator and negotiate the morale-breaking Doldrums. Mason's "Back to the Future" philosophy on the TOR route again clicks into play.

"We don't want to turn it into the Equatorial Race. We want it to be The Ocean Race," he says. "There is a strong drive to make sure that the backbone of the race and the Red-Thread of the race comes back."

"We have a big library full of Blake's and Outward Bound books - all our forebears who went before us -, and there are not too many photos of them sitting on the Equator!"

"In my first Race, we went across the Equator once coming South and once heading North. That is one of the issues with the fleet going up and down from Asia - which means it has to have the correct amount of commercial and sportive weight to it, and it has to bring enough value to our teams and the Race to be able to do it."

"There is a big cost-benefit exercise we go through before we call that one."

"If you were going to be the purist - if I had my way - we'd be back to four or five legs," he laughs.

You get his drift.

Big Media upgrade

"A lot is happening around the media systems," says Mason. "The difference between the media system we have had for the last two editions and the new system that has been designed for the next is like comparing one of those old brick cellphones you carried around in a suitcase and the latest iPhone."

"The two computers that were are using will fit into an iPhone type waterproof case versus the racks of gear we had before."

"We also want to be as sustainable as possible. We are hoping that our media system will be extremely efficient, so we don't need to use fossil fuels to generate power for it. There may be a few times when we have to switch over to using hydro-generators or steal some energy from the boat's onboard systems. That may not be fully possible this time, but we are working so that the media system we put together can be stand alone and independently powered."

After the media coverage of the last Race took a massive step forward with the use of drone-mounted video cameras, the expectation is that the next edition of The Ocean Race will once again become the gold standard for the sport and indeed, all extreme sports.

"The challenge is to find the right balance as to when we identify the right technology and lock in and go with it", chips in Peter Rusch who is working with The Ocean Race as Communications Director.

"The media set up on the 65's was relatively straight forward because they were one design boats and all set up the same.

"The challenge for our technology team, who have been working on this for months, is to start looking at the IMOCA class and some of the different setups and then how you would standardise the media setup on a boat that is very different from the next one.

"That is our focus right now. We've got a little bit of time to figure it all out - but it is more challenging in the 60fters than it was with the one-design."

"It may be that we have a pre-built media kit which is given to the 60fter teams to fit into their boat. It needs to be standardised for everyone to ensure that there is no extra weight, or that the weight is in the wrong place, or there is some other disadvantage. It's a challenge. It's a lot of work."

Rusch says the media team who have been with the last Volvo OR have a responsibility to bring the IMOCA60's over to the benefits of the VOR and TOR media world. "Everybody sees the upside. It is just a case of explaining what we do and why we do it."

More self responsibility for personal safety

Safety became an issue in the recent editions of two round the world races, with five deaths in three races. As well as three incidents and two deaths in the last event, there were also incidents and two deaths in the 2015/16 Clipper Round the World Race and a third death in the 2017/18 race.

"Safety is paramount for us, and we are always trying to drive and develop any methods that can make the race as safe as we possibly can," Mason says.

"There was a massive report done into the incident in Hong Kong, with a lot of findings. We are looking at systems that are being developed including a forward-looking system with a couple of cameras at the top of the mast that will pick up abnormalities in the water, or boats, that are not lit up with AIS - and that system will set off cockpit alarms. There were also a lot of changes made after we lost John Fisher, chiefly life jackets were set up and redundancy and onboard systems."

Asked for his thoughts on the Alex Gough incident on Leg 4, after the 24yr old Australian went overboard after climbing out on an outrigger, in 18-20kts of wind, in the Pacific Ocean. He was recovered after just seven minutes in the water.

"There is a certain level of self-responsibility as well," says Mason of the incident. "I used to tell my guys when I was on watch with them, I didn't want to be the one telling them to clip on, they should be clipping themselves on.

"You get good at it after a while - you just can't get lax. There is a tremendous amount of self-responsibility with your own gear and how you set it up and maintain it at sea."

The Ocean Race is expected to announce the race route in July/August of this year, with team announcements following over the next 12 months.

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