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innovate or die?

It’s quite amazing to see how fast the solo sailors racing around the world in the Vendée Globe are sailing and to put it all into some perspective. Let’s start with a startling fact; French sailor François Gabart aboard his Open 60 Macif covered an incredible 545.3 nautical miles in 24 hours. This smashes the old record of 468.72 set by Alex Thomson almost a decade ago. That in itself is a feat, but think about this… Gabart’s average speed of 22.3 knots is just 2.55 knots slower than the fastest fully-crewed 24-hour record speed of 24.85 knots set in the Volvo Ocean Race. Gabart, alone on a smaller boat, has been almost able to match the incredible pace that Volvo veteran Torben Grael and his team of professionals aboard Ericcson 4 accomplished in 2008, and is less than one mile short of the record set by Mike Sanderson and his merry band on ABN AMRO ONE in 2005. These are the best offshore sailors in the world pushing their boats as hard as they possibly could and Gabart, who incidentally is a Southern Ocean rookie, is matching their speed seemingly without effort.

“I can’t really explain why I am going so fast,” Gabart said in a radio interview with the Vendée organizers. “I’m sailing at 22-26 knots, and it should be like that for several more hours. It’s very noisy but you get used to it, same for how much the boat shakes. These things become familiar conditions, the norm.”  And Gabart is not alone, in fact one of the reasons he is pushing so hard is because his closest competitors Armel Le Cléac’h and Jean-Pierre Dick are also sailing at a record pace. Dick, aboard Virbac Paprec was the first solo sailor to crack the 500-miles-in-24-hours barrier when he covered 502.9 miles just 10 days ago, while Le Cléac’h and Gabart duke it out at the front of the fleet with just 7.4 miles separating them after a full month’s racing.

So what does all of this mean, other than the obvious which is that the French are genetically wired differently from the rest of us when it comes to offshore racing. To me it means that the Volvo Ocean Race is in trouble and before anyone starts filling my inbox with hate mail let me point out that I am a massive fan of the VOR and veteran of the event, so I am entitled to my opinion. Hear me out on this one. A decade ago the Global Challenge, Chay Blyth’s around-the-world-the-wrong-way race was a thriving event that billed itself as quite simply the toughest ocean race on the planet. You almost had to be superhuman to race around the planet against the prevailing winds and they marketed this point very successfully. Then along came Dee Caffari, a pretty 33 year old British sailor who took one of the Global Challenge yachts and sailed it single-handed, non-stop around the world. How hard could the Global Challenge really be if one person could do it without even stopping? A few years later Blyth’s event was gone, the myth shattered.

How does this relate to the VOR? Quite simple. In order to be the best you have to innovate, you have to reinvent, and you must never retreat. I understand some of the reasons behind the VOR opting for a smaller One Design boat for their future events, but I view it as the death knell for the race. How do you promote your event as Life at the Extreme, the absolute pinnacle of the sport, when the sailing public and sponsors alike are aware that the Vendée sailors, all alone on smaller boats are matching the pace of the Volvo Ocean Race. All of a sudden it does not seem so extreme, such the pinnacle of the sport.

The IMOCA class are having their own difficulties with costs spiraling upward, but they have chosen to allow innovation to dominate their thinking and the results speak for themselves. Granted they have seen some attrition in their numbers but they started the race with a healthy fleet of 20 boats. The last VOR started with six and was down to four within a couple of days. There are many who claim with some authority, the talented Juan K among them, that the attempt by the VOR to reign in costs by going One Design will have the opposite effect, but I worry that whether or not costs go up or down, by downsizing and placing limits on the boats they are sucking the juice out of the event. Only time will tell what happens but remember this quote by Steve Jobs when you ponder the future of offshore ocean racing. “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” – Brian Hancock, SpeedDream.