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The changing face of offshore racing

by Mark Jardine 9 Jan 11:00 PST
The late Sir Peter Blake's 1989-90 Whitbread winning Steinlager II fully restored and now operated by the New Zealand Sailing Trust for youth sailing and adventure programs. Preserving the past, in order to help shape the future © New Zealand Sailing Trust

Sunday saw the opening battles of The Ocean Race, with both the IMOCA and VO65 fleets taking part in the Alicante In-Port Race. It was a testing day on the water with the wind dropping to almost nothing towards the finish. If you want to catch up on the race, then I highly recommend watching the highlights videos rather than the full race replays...

Losing title sponsor Volvo was a huge blow for the event, but the organisers have soldiered on with a much-reduced budget, and of course the delay due to Covid-19, just like nearly all events scheduled during the pandemic, both big and small. In many ways it's remarkable that they've got to this point.

It's 50 years since the Whitbread Round the World Race first set sail. The 1973-74 edition attracted 17 entries, with a peak of 29 for the 1981-82 edition. Arguably the peak for this event in terms of global recognition, and coverage in non-sailing media, was in the 1989-90 edition, with the two New Zealand ketches - Steinlager 2 skippered by Peter Blake and Fisher & Paykel skippered by Grant Dalton - battling it out around the world. In the end Steinlager 2 won all six legs, but both Fisher & Paykel and the Swiss sloop Merit, skippered by Pierre Fehlmann, pushed them hard at times.

Since then, we've seen box rules and a One Design introduced to try to limit costs and tighten up the racing. The Whitbread 60 was the first of these, with ten racing in the 1993-94 edition alongside five maxis, and then ten in the 1997-98 edition and finally eight in the 2001-02 edition. Then came the Volvo Open 70 design rule for three editions, and the Volvo Ocean 65 for next three, including the current edition. The last time the race managed to get entries into double figures was 1997-98.

On that basis, attracting a fleet of eleven teams to Alicante is a huge achievement, especially in the current climate but, make no mistake, this race is a shadow of its former self. The six VO65s are only competing in three legs: Alicante, Spain to Cabo Verde; Aarhus, Denmark to The Hague, the Netherlands; and The Hague to Genova, Italy (legs 1, 6 & 7 of the full course) and competing for 'The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint Cup'. It is only the newly-introduced IMOCA fleet, the class which is strong due to the Vendée Globe and other major Atlantic events, which is completing the full lap of the planet.

So why has The Whitbread Round the World Race / Volvo Ocean Race / The Ocean Race been on a downward trajectory for 20 years when the Vendée Globe has been on the rise in terms of competitors, finishers, and coverage? Offshore racing itself is more popular than ever, with events like the RORC Transatlantic Race attracting bumper entries, and the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race filling its entry quota in minutes, so surely the interest is there?

Is it the size of boat which is off-putting? A look at the maxis and super maxis taking part in the glitzy Mediterranean and Caribbean inshore events, with their fully professional crews decked out immaculately in matching uniforms, shows that big boat sailing is flourishing, so I don't believe this is the reason. Yes, these events generally last a week rather than the six months of The Ocean Race, but these yachts end up doing a full circuit of events.

So much of offshore racing is about adventure and triumph through adversity. The original Whitbread Round the World Races were amateur affairs and the boat names were just that, not a corporation. In my opinion, the transition to professional offshore sailing worked better for the singlehanded events than the fully-crewed events as you could still identify with a single adventurer, rather than a group of sailors representing a brand.

Of course, all the IMOCA yachts in the Vendée Globe are sponsored to the hilt, with brands which are household names, particularly in France, but there is still the lone adventurer aboard; the likes of Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou, François Gabart and Armel Le Cléac'h are the faces which represent their sponsors and are so well-known that they adorn billboards and command pictures on both the front and back pages of the major French newspapers.

The Vendée Globe has managed to jump the hurdle of fully professional campaigns while retaining its original identity, whereas The Ocean Race doesn't evoke the same sense of adventure as the original Whitbread Round the World Race.

So, is fully-crewed round the world racing a thing of the past? Maybe not, as the man behind the Golden Globe Race revival, Don McIntyre, has started the Ocean Globe Race, which has attracted several Whitbread veterans and is billed as an 'eight-month adventure around the world for ordinary sailors on normal yachts' and is set to start on Sunday 10th September 2023. So far, the race has attracted over twenty entries as Don explains:

"The Ocean Globe Race has a vast array of yachts from 46 to 73 feet. The boats compete in three distinct classes, Adventure, Sayula, and Flyer, both for line honours and in corrected time under the IRC rating. The original 1973 Whitbread ran under the old IOR handicapping system and while overall line honours and class winners are of note, for sailors following the adventure, most will be watching the IRC overall handicap leader board on the tracker."

This is unashamedly going back to the roots of the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973. Adventurous sailors putting together fun campaigns to go on the voyage of a lifetime.

So maybe the face of offshore racing hasn't changed much at all? Maybe it just got a little side-tracked along the way, and just like the race itself, is going full circle. The face of offshore racing often has a fair few lines from the harsh weather, but a big smile as the spirit and enjoyment of the adventure comes back to the fore.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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