It took far, far too many Grey Geese, a few too many lap dances, and a 5 AM return home last night, but I finally got this world exclusive story on the brand new design for the 2014 Volvo Ocean Race. The sacrifices I make to get a story for you guys!
First, let me emphasize that the deal is NOT YET DONE. No contracts have been signed, no designers have been hired, and no final decision has been made. We’re actually at the tail end of a months-long process that has included a representative from each team, some very knowledgeable designers, and rules advisors that helped create the VO-70 and other major classes. The Committee discussed possibilities with IMOCA and sought input from the creators of the MOD-70, and in just a couple of days, VOR boss Knut Frostad will go in front of Volvo’s Board of Directors, who are here in Miami for just this reason – to give them their options. They will have ongoing discussions, with views to making the final call near the Lorient Stopover, and we’ll know quickly thereafter what the landscape will look like for the 2014-15 running of offshore racing’s biggest game.
I think it was two or three months ago when we first broke the story that VOR organizers and team bosses were discussing the possibility of a major change to the existing VO-70 for the next edition, largely to respond to the meager fleet size and economic realities of a tough sponsorship market. Since that time, we’ve seen hull and bulkhead delaminations, rudder issues, more mast problems, and a decimated fleet in the Southern Ocean, all while Europe’s economy (and future prospects of major sponsorship) fell further into the toilet than anyone could have imagined.
All this increased the urgency of the move to a new design for 2014, and as of last night, there are four options under serious consideration, with one of them significantly favored by most of the folks inside the organization.
I pinned down Frostad late last night at the end of the huge awards banquet, and he confirmed pretty much everything I’ll lay out for you below. I don’t think he was stoked that we got so much info, though to be fair, I was surprised how far the usually leaky group got without us hearing about it.
The first option is to freeze the current design as a one-design, and discussions have focused on Telefonica. Juan K has even offered to provide the drawings for the boat and have helped the organizers come up with the numbers necessary to make a decision. This move doesn’t address the overall cost of the build, though of course just moving to one-design cuts a bug chunk of the money out of the equation. It also doesn’t address the speed and power of the current boats, and the necessity to constantly throttle back when conditions are sporty. Given the need to present the next boat to sponsors as a relative bargain, this one probably isn’t in the cards.
The second, and equally unlikely option, is a move to a smaller, fixed keel race boat – essentially an updated Volvo 60. We don’t have to tell you how quickly this would turn the VOR into a joke, but there are voices that think such a move is necessary, and who predict it would bring in a relative flood of the kind of amateur entries that have made of the vast majority of entries throughout the three plus decades of the VOR/Whitbread days.
The third option is perhaps the most exciting to me, and VOR officials and Committee members have had discussions with IMOCA to determine its feasibility. We’ve reported IMOCA’s discussions of the move to a new one-design to replace the Open 60 development class, and economic and political developments in France have only increased the importance of some kind of change to the short and long term health of the most important of all solo racing yachts. The IMOCA/VO 65 would also be a one-design, but it would compromise some features between the crewed and shorthand disciplines of both groups. It could also be somewhat modular, where one could order a boat with one of two deck plans, rigs, or keels, allowing one platform to sail both IMOCA and Volvo events. This could be extremely cool if the stars align, allowing more French to get into the Volvo than ever while opening up new options to Volvo teams on the off years. But there’s one major problem with it: Time. IMOCA is the most French of all classes, a socialist democracy of an organization that’s owned and more importantly where all decisions are voted on by the 30+ owners of Open 60s. Unlike the lean, centralized Volvo group, IMOCA moves at the pace of molasses, and we just don’t think there is time to iron out the details before Volvo AB needs to make a decision.
That takes us to the big one – the talk of the docks and the talk of the party. This is what we expect Frostad to recommend most strongly to his Volvo overseers, and what we think we’ll see on the line in 2014. We’ll call it the Volvo 65, though the size has been discussed as between 62 and 65 feet long. It will be a canting-keel boat with more generous scantlings than the existing boats, and Farr will be the designer. The boat will be constructed by a syndicate of builders, with much of the work done at Multiplast, with ultra-strict prohibitions against modifications. Halyards, sheets, blocks, even electronics will be one-design, and perhaps most importantly, so will sails. Two boat programs will probably be allowed.
Needless to say, there are some very unhappy voices on the docks. Many of those who’ve grown up on the Volvo think it is a travesty, and will change the race from something ‘special’ to just another boat race. In defense of the move to a strict one-design, the hundreds of millions of people that Volvo needs to reach to justify the expense of the race couldn’t tell you the difference between a Volvo 70 and a Class 40 – so long as they are painted different colors, they’ll know it’s a race. But for the core spectators – the million or so ‘repeat fans’ that provide the majority of the clicks and all the VOR game players – there’s little doubt that a one-design takes a lot of the luster out of the Volvo, and doesn’t do a lot to preserve its history. Then again, they used to race this thing on handicap,…
There are a lot of problems to be overcome with any of these choices, and even bigger ones involved in keeping the existing box. We’ll get into that once the choice has been made. Watch this space…