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Remembering ten years at Sail-World's North American helm

by David Schmidt 2 Jun 2020 09:00 PDT June 2, 2020
USA-17 on her way to winning the 33rd America's cup © Gilles Martin-Raget / BMW ORACLE Racing

Ten years. The thought recently hit me like a thunderclap that this week marks my tenth anniversary as Sail-World's North American editor. While it's fair to say that the entire world has had more time than normal to reflect on things this spring, given the still-ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, I thought it might be fun to consider some of the changes that have swept the sailing world in the decade that I've had my hands on Sail-World's North American tiller.

In June of 2010, most North American sailors were still savoring the Golden Gate Yacht Club and BMW/Oracle's 2-0 win over Société Nautique de Genève and Alinghi in the 33rd America's Cup, which concluded on Valentine's Day on the waters off of Valencia, Spain. This Deed of Gift Cup challenge was determined using massive multihulls - Oracle in the trimaran, Alinghi in a catamaran - that raced in displacement mode. While Oracle used a wingsail to power their sailing machine, this air foil looked more similar to the one used by the American-flagged boat in the 27th America's Cup (1988) - also a Deed of Gift affair - than the more efficient wingsails that would be used in "AC34" (2013) and "AC35" (2017).

Foils were employed in the 33rd America's Cup, but certainly not to the same vessel-lifting extent that appeared in the run-up to AC34. I remember my jaw dropping when imagery of one of Emirates Team New Zealand's first test flights on their hydrofoils hit the internet, shortly after I got home from covering the London 2012 Olympics for Sail-World. It didn't take long for the sailing world to realize that the America's Cup - and even parts of mainstream sailing - was forever changed. And that's to say nothing about legendary Oracle's come-from-behind win in 2013, or their loss to Emirates Team New Zealand in 2017.

Speaking of the London 2012 Olympics, this also marked the first time since the Berlin 1936 Olympics that the U.S.-flagged sailing team suffered a medal-ceremony shutout. Unfortunately, the team has continued to struggle for the last (almost) eight years. Finn sailor Caleb Paine earned the USA's single bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics, and while there have been some memorable moments and some brilliant performances by American-flagged Olympic and Olympic-hopeful sailors since then, it's fair to say that the team is far removed from its halcyon days, which saw the country become the second-most-decorated Olympic sailing nation in history.

To be fair, the USA had some good momentum going into what was supposed to be the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but that was before the scourge known as the novel coronavirus was loosed on the world. With some luck, the team will be able to curate and carry forth this momentum into the now-rescheduled Games, which are (as of this writing) set to unfurl on July 23, 2021.

Since we're talking about the Olympics, by far the most misguided thing that I've observed during my tenure at Sail-World was the elimination of sailing competition at the Paralympic Games by the International Paralympic Committee in January of 2015. I've personally had the honor of interviewing several medal-winning Paralympic sailors during my career, and it is heartbreaking to see this door slammed shut on so many great sailors. Looking ahead, I hope this decision will be reversed.

Shifting gears, the same foiling technology that propelled America's Cup sailors to such impressive speeds in AC34 and AC35 have made their way onto a number of other classes, including the IMOCA 60s that have been used to contest the last four editions of the singlehanded Vendee Globe race. While previous-generation IMOCA 60s used daggerboards, today's IMOCA 60s employ hull-lifting foils that drastically reduce the yacht's wetted surface area and ratchet-up their VMG numbers.

One of the more impressive pieces of seamanship to have unfurled during my Sail-World tenure came compliments of the 2016-2017 Vendee Globe, which was sailed aboard IMOCA 60s, and which essentially became a match-racing competition between Armel Le Cléac'h (FRA) and Alex Thomson (GBR). Le Cléac'h, sailing aboard Banque Populaire VIII, ultimately took the win by a mere 16 hours, however Thomson, sailing aboard Hugo Boss, suffered a broken foil early in the race. Impressively, Thomson managed to largely contain his losses and still finish in a highly respectable second place, beating third-place finisher Jérémie Beyou (FRA) across the line by (ballpark) three and a half days.

Fans of offshore sailing can expect the 2020-2021 edition of the Vendee Globe to feature significant amounts of foiling as skippers attempt to slice more time off of Le Cléac'h's 2017 race record, which currently stands at 74 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes and 46 seconds. Giddyap!

No account of the last ten years of offshore and record-setting sailing would be complete without mentioning Francois Gabart (FRA), the now-37-year-old skipper who won the 2012-2013 edition of the Vendee Globe in a record-setting 78 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds aboard his IMOCA 60 Macif. But rather than gearing up to defend his Vendee Globe title, Gabart instead tripled his hull count and set out to break the around-the-world record for the fastest singlehanded circumnavigation.

In 2010, when I started at Sail-World, the great Francois Joyon (FRA) owned this record at 57 days, 13 hours, 34 minutes and 6 seconds, which he established in 2008. Eight years later, skipper Thomas Coville (FRA) established a new record of 49 days, 3 hours, 7 minutes and 38 seconds, but this record would stand for less than a year. On December 17, 2017, Gabart triumphantly crossed the finishing line aboard the mighty Macif trimaran after "just" 42 days, 16 hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds at sea.

Impressively, Gabart's elapsed time made his circumnavigation the second fastest in history, beaten only by Joyon's 2017 fully crewed Jules Verne Trophy win aboard IDEC 3. While Joyon's elapsed time of 40 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds was faster than Gabart's, it's critical to remember that Joyon was supported by an all-star crew of some of the world's greatest offshore sailors, while Gabart threw down his elapsed-time gauntlet while sailing alone aboard a 100-foot trimaran.

Just imagine trying to skipper a high-performance "Ultime" trimaran for a single hour in a modest breeze. Then imagine what Gabart dealt with for weeks straight, deep in the windswept waters of the Southern Ocean, all alone aboard a yacht that has no trouble hitting speeds well above 35 knots. Gulp!

Ten years is a long time, and plenty of other big offshore records were also smashed during the last decade. For example, Jim and Christy Clark's former turbo sled Comanche had yet to be designed or launched in 2010. But by 2015 the supermaxi - lead by skipper Ken Read, sailed by an all-star crew, and navigated by the always-brilliant Stan Honey - owned the 24-hour distance record for monohulls after reeling off 618 nautical miles (for an average pace of 25.75 knots) during the Transatlantic Race 2015. Comanche would rack up a serious tick list of course records and overall wins, including the 2019 Transpac Race (under new ownership but also navigated by Honey), which she completed in just 5 days, 11 hours, 14 minutes and 5 seconds... for a 2,225 nautical mile course.

Another important change involved the Ocean Race (nee, the Volvo Ocean Race [VOR] and the Whitbread Round the World Race). In 2010, custom-designed and bespoke-built Volvo Open 70s were used to contest this fully crewed round-the-world race, which is fought out in a series of stage races, but by the start of the 2014-2015 VOR teams were racing a new class of One-Design boats called Volvo Ocean 65s (VO65). While stronger and less prone to hull delamination than the older VO70s, the newer One-Design boats were not as fast or as sophisticated as their predecessors. That said, it was refreshing to see the vast majority of the fleet reaching Port B under their own keels with the newer design... even if there are a few important footnotes to add to this list.

The next edition of The Ocean Race is currently slated to start in 2021, however this is subject to change based on where the world is at with its response to COVID-19. Interestingly, the event organizers have opened the race to two classes of boats, namely VO65s and IMOCA 60s, the latter of which will be modified from single-handed mode to fully-crewed mode. As a lifelong sailing geek, I welcome this change and the design innovations that it will likely help spur.

But most importantly, given the nightmare headlines that 2020 seems to deliver in torrents and the amount of time that's now elapsed since the last edition of the VOR flaked its sails, it will be great to see this fantastic race return to global waters. And while it's fair to say that the global economic winds of fortune are also blowing strangely given the pandemic, it will be even better if the next edition of this classic race includes robust fleets of both IMOCA 60s and VO65s.

While this partial list (and I'm sure not even close to complete, and my sincere apologies to any sailors and milestones that I've overlooked) of sailing milestones is heavy on performance metrics, one thing that remains the same, I'm happy to report, is the love and passion that sailors of all stripes and nationalities feel for our sport. While 2020 continues to throw curveballs at all of us, this hasn't stopped our local and global communities from engaging in the activity that we all love best.

For some sailors, this means racing Lasers, RS Aeros (launched in 2014) or other dinghies and small boats in socially-distanced regattas, while for others it means virtual regattas, family racing, or -as the lockdown rules continue to relax - keelboat racing with limited numbers of crew. Irrespective, it's been heartening to see the sailing community finding ways to stay engaged with our great game, despite some significant macro-picture headwinds.

So, what will the next ten years bring? Crystal balls are in short supply these days, but if there's one thing that I know about sailors, you can expect plenty of great on-the-water competition and great onshore comradery. Sure, designs come and go, and what was once old will become new again, but it's the natural human desire to press the limits of possibility and performance - while having a great time and forging lifelong friendships - that makes scribbling about sailing a pleasure. It will be a truly great day when the novel coronavirus exists only in laboratories, and when sailors can resume racing with the kind of passion and dedication that have enabled so many of the last decade's biggest achievements.

Finally, on a personal note, I wish to thank you, our Sail-World readers, for coming along for this wild ride. Whether you're new to this newsletter or an older Sail-World salt than myself, your commitment to reading our content allows us to produce a top-shelf sailing website and some (hopefully) engaging editorials. We look forward to honoring your interest and commitment in the coming years, and to bringing you the latest sailing news, as it unfurls.

May the four winds blow you safely home,
David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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