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An interview with Mark Towill about 11th Hour Racing's campaign for The Ocean Race 2021/2022

by David Schmidt 2 Oct 08:00 PDT October 2, 2019
Mark Towill and Charlie Enright of 11th Hour Racing © Image courtesy of Amory Ross/11th Hour Racing

When the conversation turns to offshore sailboat racing, Charlie Enright and Mark Towill are serious veterans despite their relatively young ages. The two American sailors (34 and 30, respectively) became fast friends during the 44th Transpacific Yacht Race (2007), when they both sailed aboard the TP52 Morning Light in a Disney-sponsored project that created a feature-length documentary film out of a youth-sailing adventure. While plenty of young sailors would have been happy to metaphorically debark upon reaching the finishing line off of Oahu’s Diamond Head, for Enright and Towill, this race represented their nascent offshore miles, not their master class.

After graduating Brown University, where the two graduated three years apart, Enright and Towill continued sailing together competitively and seriously on a variety of big boats before landing their own gig as leaders of Team Alvimedica in the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race, where they finished in fifth place. While the highlights of this campaign included leading the fleet around Cape Horn and winning the final leg, this first Volvo Ocean Race primarily taught the young team what they still needed to learn.

Enright and Towill were back again in the 2017/2018 Volvo Ocean Race, this time leading Vestas 11th Hour Racing in a campaign that saw the two skippers advance their skills but suffer some tough setbacks en route to another fifth-place overall finish. These setbacks included dismasting during Leg 7, some 100 nautical miles southeast of the Falkland Islands, and suffering a collision with a small unregistered and illegal fishing vessel off of Hong Kong on Leg 4, which tragically resulted in the death of a fisherman.

Despite these hardships, the two sailors enjoyed a fantastic 2019 skippering the Volvo Open 70 Wizard in the Transatlantic Race and the Fastnet Race (they won both events), and the two longtime friends are still keen on winning the world’s most competitive fully crewed around-the-world race, which has been rebranded as The Ocean Race (nee Volvo Ocean Race), and which is set to unfurl between the fall of 2021 (starting in Alicante, Spain) and the early summer of 2022.

I checked in with Mark Towill, via email, to learn more.

What were the biggest lessons that you guys have learned about round-the-world racing in your last two VORs?

You know, there’s never one big lesson. It always ends up being a series of lessons especially when you talk about two races. The race is so long in terms of both time and distance that you end up facing so many variables and, in the end, the key is to be resilient.

We had a lot thrown our way in 2017-18 and even in 2014-15 and you have to keep facing [challenges] head-on. There’s so much going on during The Ocean Race that it can easily distract from the performance aspect and you need to put a priority on what will make [the team] perform best. We need to focus on that and put the management of our team as the top of the list of priorities.

How different will this race be from the last two, given that you will have to design and build an IMOCA 60. Are you already talking with VPLP about the design, or is the plan to use a boat that completed the 2020 Vendee Globe?

For both Charlie and I, this is the first race in a development class with the IMOCA 60 after two races in the One Design [Volvo Ocean 65]. It’s incredibly exciting and also a big challenge for us with a steep learning curve. We really believe that we are fully immersing ourselves in the IMOCA culture by going over to France to train, and [by] partnering with MerConcept and Francois Gabart’s outfit in Brittany that will get us where we need to be very quickly to understand the nuances and performance of this boat.

On the boat build, we’re not announcing anything official yet about construction or design. It’s something we’re definitely planning, but want to have all of our ducks in a row before we announce our plans but we know we need to focus on our boat build. That’s something we’ve prioritized for our team strategically for this race cycle.

Do you plan to use a traditional VOR-style team, or will the focus be more on shorthanded sailors who have raced IMOCAs in the TJV, etc. and are used to sailing the boats fast with only two or three people on deck?

One of the big luxuries of signing with 11th Hour Racing as our title sponsor more than two years out from the next The Ocean Race is that we can really think through our team selection, have proper trials and testing with various crew in various scenarios and conditions.

It’s been very rushed in our last two campaigns. Charlie and I are still in discussion phase on that as we start our training and enter some initial races. I can’t say that we’ve outlined our specifics yet. The fact that it’s a smaller crew [than] in the past will absolutely factor into our selection but, in the end, like any Ocean Race team, a lot of it is about getting the right team dynamic.

What are your thoughts on a mixed-sex crew? Or, does the reduced crew size put more emphasis on sailors who are especially physically strong?

What the race did in 2017-18 to promote more inclusion of women on each crew was terrific. It was great for sailing; it was great for sports in general. It got a nice PR bounce for the race especially as we got closer to the finish with the first-ever female champion, even though I don’t think that was the ultimate motivation. It was about taking a step forward for gender equality.

The latest notice of race outlines various crew combinations and they all include women. I love that. We've sailed with women onboard during our Morning Light campaign and our All American Offshore Team included mixed crews offshore, so it's something that we are very comfortable with and have embraced for a long time.

How aggressively do you think you guys will be using the foils in the next race? Are we talking the kind of close, foil-borne racing that we saw between Alex Thomson and Armel Le Cleac’h in the 2016 Vendee? Or, do you envision even closer racing?

The speed at which the technology is evolving around these foils is pretty amazing. The next generation foiling-IMOCAs that have launched are already a step ahead. We’re talking a solid 3-4 knots [faster]-easy-in same conditions, so I think foiling will be a big part of the round-the-world racing in 2021 no matter what part of the world we are sailing in.

I think it’s still too early to know how close the finishes will be. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll know that until we get to the finish of the first leg to be honest. What the race had in terms of a finish in The Hague in 2018 was pretty special but might be more fitting to One Design.

[N.B., the 2017/2018 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race was literally decided on the final miles of the race’s final leg, which took the fleet to The Hague. Ultimately, skipper Charles Caudrelier and his Dongfeng Race Team proved victorious.]

Will your next campaign will have a strong environmental message?

Partnering with 11th Hour Racing as our title sponsor for Charlie and I was a no-brainer. To be able to have over two years to get ready for this race and at the same time focus our message and team ethos around the mission of 11th Hour Racing in order to promote collaborative, systemic change among sailors, the maritime industry, sports fans and coastal communities benefitting the health of our ocean is something we’re both very passionate about as lifelong sailors.

Besides our message, sustainability will also be at the core of everything our team does from the boat build to team operations to life on-board. We really hope we can inspire others along the way to make small changes that can benefit the ocean, whether that's producing less waste overall, cutting out single-use plastics, being smart with your water usage, going meat-free on certain days of the week. There's so many little things individuals can do and one degree of change will go a long way if we all do our part.

Community outreach and engagement is going to be a key part of our team, with the goals of connecting with many partners, developing an understanding of ocean health issues, becoming spokespeople and educators of the mission. We hope to be leaders, innovate, collaborate and leave a legacy. With the support of 11th Hour Racing, we are developing a legacy grant program by giving grants and making strategic investments in local communities, while also developing educational tools and an apprenticeship/internship program.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

Again, for us to have two years to ramp-up this campaign is fantastic and we’ll be doing a lot of races over that time and hopefully some sails across the Atlantic to the U.S.

We hope sailing fans will follow us on that journey–not just when we get to the start line of The Ocean Race–so follow along on Instagram (@11thhourteam), Twitter (@11thhourteam), Facebook (www.facebook.com/11thHourTeam) or sign-up for our newsletter on our website (11thhourracingteam.org). And use our #oceanhour tag when you post.

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