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The Ocean Race - Part 1: "Which side of the Big Island?"

by Richard Gladwell/ 27 Mar 2020 15:39 PDT 28 March 2020
The Ocean Race European Tour corporate sailing event in Kiel, Germany, June 19. © Ainhoa Sanchez / The Ocean Race

Three weeks ago, at the end of February,'s NZ Editor, Richard Gladwell, spoke with Richard Mason, Race Director and Peter Rusch, PR Director, of The Ocean Race for a general update on the race, which is scheduled to start from Alicante, Spain in October of 2021.

At the time of the interview, the sporting landscape had not been upended by the governmental ordered lockdowns, reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the context of the questions and answers were different from today's situation. By the time of the race start, in 18 months time, the current situation will have been resolved and life will have been reset to something approaching normal. Here's Part 1 of a series looking at all aspects of The Ocean Race, here Mason explains the thinking behind recently announced course.

Aside from the occasional Port announcement little had been reported on how The Ocean Race would shape up - given that it was being run under new owners and management, with two classes - a fully crewed IMOCA60 and the existing VO65 fleet of eight boats.

Race Director, Richard Mason says that externally The Ocean Race may have looked very quiet but "internally it has been a mad-house! We have been busy I can assure you."

The task list includes putting together nine port agreements all with very high expectations.

"At one point a few months ago we had 10 negotiations going on in nine different languages!"

"A lot of planning is required early on to get those negotiations right. You can't go back 12 months later saying we need a bigger media centre and things like that - it is too late."

"We've spent a lot of time on internal planning. The Race is in good shape, and we're ready to rip as far as that goes".

"Volvo continues as a premium partner. The biggest change for them is they are no longer owners of the event, but still with a heavy investment in the event. They are where they should be - as a partner and customer of The Ocean Race. Volvo Cars are heavily engaged along with their Sustainability program."

The announcement, subsequent to the interview, that Newport RI has been confirmed as the tenth port, filled in the gap in the course to which Mason would only allude in the interview, saying that at that point there were two options under consideration.

The Ocean Race has passed another key milestone, with the full race route of 10 stopovers now confirmed:

Alicante, Spain – Start Cabo Verde Cape Town, South Africa Shenzhen, China Auckland, New Zealand Itajai, Brazil Newport, USA Aarhus, Denmark The Hague, Netherlands Genoa, Italy - Grand Finale

"The major piece of work at present is to do the detailed race calendar, which covers the ETAs, the spread of ETAs, timing for In-Port races, Race Village activation, and shipping which has been underway for a while," Mason says.

"Within weeks of announcing the cities and race route, we will announce the exact dates. But before we put out our dates, we have to get in and book hotel rooms for all the race stakeholders, so we don't get caught out."

"The rates tend to double overnight once you announce the dates, and they get plugged into the hotel booking systems," he adds with the wry smile of experience.

One of the new stops is Cabo Verde, in the Cape Verde islands which have been an informal waypoint on the past courses as the fleet head for the first official stopover in Cape Town.

"Cabo Verde is a short stopover on the way out," Mason explains. "It is a pure pitstop like we had in The Hague, in 2014-15 in the sense that no shore crew will be allowed to do work on the boats. The big difference is we won't do a shot-gun restart. We will do a fleet restart and it will count as a Leg. Everyone will leave at the same time."

"It is another way for us to engage Africa in the race course. For the second leg down south, we will fire them around Fernando de Noronha, again (200nm off the coast of Brazil) to make sure that boats don't start trying to beat upwind to Cape Town!"

The next stop after Cape Town is Shenzhen, China. "The discussion for this leg revolved around which side of the Big Island (Australia) should we go? From Shenzhen we go straight to Auckland."

"There was a lot of research into the option up the west coast of Australia - which is where the cyclones form at that time of the year. They are not that powerful at that location - however it is where they are born.

"As always with this race, we are always looking at the risk management side of it. There are a few other factors associated with coming up through the South China Sea. Not the least of which are several disputed islands, which are not on the charts, and which we saw when we were up that way in 2008/09. A couple of times were thought we were in 2000metres of water when suddenly the depth sounder alarm went off and we had to sail out on the same track we went in!"

Mason says there's a very detailed piece of routing work being by Race Director, Phil Lawrence along with several race-experienced navigators. They are working to assess and double-check all the safety issues, are covered, as well to make sure the route is not too disjointed.

"In the perfect world, you’d want to sail up the West Coast of Australia, and down the East - so you don't sail back on yourself – and that’s where we’ve landed. But there will be a waypoint put in to keep the fleet sailing towards the southwest corner of Australia, to maximise the Southern Ocean component of that leg."

The west coast route is shorter by about six sailing days, which equates to about 2,000nm plus of sailing distance. There are some big variations in weather to sail though, the boats have to cross the Doldrums twice (on the two legs) and get through the transition zones.

There's some big breezes to cross - in the Southern Ocean and also the South China Sea getting to Shenzen.

The former Volvo Ocean Race did traverse some of the water covered by the proposed west coast of Australia route.

"In the 2008/09 Race we sailed from Singapore to Quingdao," Mason notes. "We sailed past Shenzen and Hong Kong and through the Straits of Luzon. It was horrible - I've never seen seas so rough in my life!" exclaims the veteran of five Volvo Ocean Races as a sailor.

Collision avoidance technology under consideration

Organisers are also well aware of the issues in the Asian area generally with plenty of shipping traffic and unlit fishing boats.

Following several incidents in the last race, and other events new technology may be of assistance such as forward looking cameras and sonar, which can initiate alarms. However a lot of the technology, while showing promise is in its infancy, and with limited production runs comes with some "meaty price tags".

"Whatever we recommend has to be feasible," he says.

"One system that is being looked at combines camera images with AI, and the more images it sees, the more accurate it gets. Six IMOCA boats used the system on the last Transat Jacques Vabre.

"We are working very closely with the teams as to how the system performed. The problem with these systems in the past has been that they over-react and just get turned off."

"Everything we do on the safety side will be independently assessed by our Crisis and Safety Committees who are independent of the Race Director functions."

An increasing frequency of whale encounters has been a feature of round the world races for several years. Mason says one option is to take preventative action, such as shooting out a sound beam to encourage whales to get out of the way.

"In the old days we used to start the engines in the Southern Ocean, if we saw whales around, in the belief that they moved away when they felt vibrations in the water."

"But obviously a container is not going to get out of your way - so we need to be across it all."

"It's a big issue for any high-performance offshore race - particularly with the direction of design trends towards foilers and speeds at which they sail."

Mason doesn't think the IMOCA60 class are any more exposed than the one design VO65s which have now completed two Round the World races without an incident through UFO/whale strike.

He notes that in the last TJV, Hugo Boss, an IMOCA 60 had the keel ripped out of the bottom of the boat, and yet they were able to sail her into a location where they could rendezvous with their support team and the boat was saved.

"There are a lot of safety features built into those boats," he observes.

In Part 2 we'll look at the boats entered, boats in build, and the vital and new role of charter boats

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