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Sea Sure 2020 - LEADERBOARD

IMOCA goes from strength to strength - Antoine Mermod reflects on an outstanding Vendée Globe

by Ed Gorman, IMOCA Globe Series 28 May 2021 03:35 PDT 29 May 2021
Nexans © Jean-Marie Liot / Nexans-Art & Fenêtres

As IMOCA racing resumes on Saturday, with the start of The Ocean Race Europe, Antoine Mermod, the Class President, reflects on an outstanding Vendée Globe and the strength of the Class as it begins a new championship cycle.

IMOCA Class: Antoine, by almost any yardstick the IMOCA Class should be in retreat at this stage in its history - coping with a global pandemic and a big economic downturn. But the reverse is the case with new builds under way, boats changing hands and no shortage of skippers and commercial partners looking to get involved. How have you been able to keep the Class moving forward?

Antoine Mermod: "Well, first of all we had a strategy for one year to get through this time of crisis. It was based on trying to do our best in everything we did. We had some advantages during lockdown compared to other sports - we are sailing alone and our sport can take place without public attendance - but we are very close to our partners and we have very good relationships with people in senior positions in our partner companies."

Thanks to these advantages and by working together it was possible to expect a positive trajectory. And of course, the Vendée Globe was a huge success and much better than expected. After the race, most of the partners were more or less happy about their return on investment and the momentum is continuing because, in time of crisis, continuity is easier to maintain than trying to make big changes. For most of these companies it has been easier to say 'we will continue' than to change sports for example.

So the partners that are already with us are happy to continue and most of them will invest more because they are confident about the IMOCA organisation and about what they can expect over the next three or four years."

IC: And sailors are signing new sponsorship deals even as we speak, with Infonet for Romain Attanasio and Nexans for Fabrice Amadeo?

AM: "Yes, these are great new deals. What we are seeing is that if our historical stakeholders are happy, then that helps new ones come in. So it all looks positive and we are in a positive situation. But to be honest, I did not really expect it to be this good - the teams and skippers have done a fantastic job. As fans, we can't wait to enjoy the next chapter in the IMOCA story, with these guys racing and fighting each other, as we await to see who will be the next winner."

IC: Of course, as you say, the Vendée Globe could hardly have gone better than it did, even though the background and the build-up to the race was difficult?

AM: "Yes, 12 months ago we had the red carpet ready for the best season of sailing ever but, with the pandemic, we had to roll that away and then we had quite a tough situation to organise the race and achieve the goal of concluding the last IMOCA championship.

I would say the Vendée Globe was not just a great success, but maybe the best edition ever - and that was the result of a lot of things. We should not forget the critical role played by SAEM Vendée (the Vendée Globe organisation) led by Laura Le Goff who pushed hard to ensure the race took place in time of crisis, with the support of the President of the Vendée Departmental Council, Yves Auvinet. Without their enthusiasm and commitment we would never have seen the wonderful adventure that we all enjoyed during the course of the race.

And we were lucky with the timing and fortunate that the race was able to be staged when there were not a lot of other sporting events taking place. But not only that; the teams and the skippers sailed very well; they did a great job of telling and sharing their stories with fans all over the world, and no less than 27 of them made it back to Les Sables d'Olonne, two of which were outside the race."

IC: It seems the improvements to the Class rule, and better - more professional preparation by the teams - have made the IMOCA boats more reliable and finishing the course is now the norm?

AM: "When skippers enter the Vendée Globe or whatever race they are taking part in, it is important for them to finish. When you break your boat it is very hard, not least because it is not the result that you were expecting. But it is also important for commercial partners because when you negotiate a good budget for a race, if you have an 80% chance of completing it - as against 50 or 40% - then it is much easier to convince a partner to come on board. Sailing is not only a sport at this level, it is also a business with an investor and investors need to be confident they are making a good choice and the viability of the game is very important to them."

IC: We are now building up to the inaugural Ocean Race Europe and you must be pleased to see a small but high quality IMOCA entry?

AM: "After the Vendée Globe we are at the start of a new cycle and a lot of our teams are updating, changing boats or buying new ones and the skippers are quite tired. So it is always a period of transition and it can be a quite hard to start on a new story. We have five teams lining up for The Ocean Race Europe but - as you say - they are five very good teams and they include some of the top guns of the last Vendée Globe."

IC: Are you confident that The Ocean Race Europe can become a regular fixture in the IMOCA calendar as part of the lead-up to the Class taking part in The Ocean Race itself?

AM: "That's the goal. We are doing a good job working with The Ocean Race organisation. Having this event in Europe, which will be run between the Vendée Globe and The Ocean Race with crew is, for sure, the best strategy for the guys who are finishing the Vendée Globe and wanting to start the new cycle. And for the ones whose main goal is the Ocean Race - 11th Hour Racing for example - then The Ocean Race Europe is obviously an important goal for them too."

IC: Are you hoping more IMOCA teams will consider entry into The Ocean Race? What is your target in this respect?

AM: "It is still hard to say, to be honest, because during the pandemic year it has been a tough time for partnership discussions. But a lot of things are moving these days and we have recently see Boris Herrmann with Malizia announcing that he will be part of The Ocean Race. There are also a few other teams that are close to finalising their partnerships as well, so we are quite optimistic and I would say six or seven teams will be a good goal."

IC: You have always been a strong advocate of The Ocean Race for IMOCA which you believe adds a new dimension to the Class?

AM: "The strength of IMOCA is the diversity of the projects that partners can get involved in. Some skippers and partners are strongly committed to the historical French circuit and the Vendée Globe, because that is their market and the level of budget that suits them. Other big companies are coming into IMOCA and are interested in both the Vendée Globe and the other great international global race with its own history - The Ocean Race. That's what we are trying to propose to all our stakeholders - we are happy that a few are aiming for The Ocean Race and Vendée Globe, or just one or the other. That is what is interesting; if you come into IMOCA you can find what you're looking for, whatever level you operate on."

IC: You have also been a strong advocate of female sailors in the IMOCA ranks and the last Vendée Globe saw six female skippers playing a major part in the race. Are you still hoping for more in future?

AM: "That's what we want. A positive aspect of The Ocean Race Europe and The Ocean Race is they require a mixed crew with one woman on board. We believe that can be a good way for women to start racing in the IMOCA Class, get to know the boats and build their confidence to one day go to the Vendée Globe. But also, if you look at classes like the Mini 6.50 and Class40 - especially the Mini - there are a lot of young women who are getting better and better and achieving good results. That is a great sign for the future. It seems a new generation of female skippers is coming and we hope and expect that they will eventually line up for the Vendée Globe."

IC: You have been in the job for four years; it seems like you are still enjoying the challenge. How would you describe your guiding philosophy?

AM: "When I started in this role it was a challenge for me to ensure that the Class organisation was at the right level. When you understand the commitment and dedication of skippers sailing around the world single-handed, then you need to be at a similar level when you are building this organisation. All together we have built quite a good record of success and the organisers, sailors, skippers and partners can be proud of where we are. But I think there is a lot of improvement and a lot of good evolution that we can do in the next four years and it is exciting to be part of that - that's why I can say that I enjoy this position."

IC: Thank you Antoine.

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