we care a lot

IMOCA; it’s one of the most exciting sailing circuits on the planet and one of the most captivating entities in the world of sport. In no other athletic competition on the planet, sailing-related or not, do athletes compete 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for a period of up to three months or more.

One slip-up can see a sailor go from hero to zero, or even worse; dead. The human element of pushing oneself through the most extreme and challenging conditions while relating that story to the public using the most advanced forms of communication available while sailing ultra-high performance racing yachts that are on the cutting edge of technology; it is in the opinion of myself and many who will read this the end all be all most exciting sport in the world. I know it, you know it, and a large portion of Sailing Anarchy’s readership knows it. Unfortunately no one in the United States of America, the world’s largest economy, couldn’t give a shit.

It’s no secret that the economy in France, and all of Europe, is tanking. With an economic union that is on the brink of collapse, nations declaring bankruptcy and further nations selling off gold reserves, the once freely-flowing supply of English Pounds and Euros has dried up to a level we’ve not seen before. When guys like 2-time Vendée Globe champion Michel Desjoyeaux and reigning Route du Rhum champ Roland Jourdain get ditched by their sponsors and can’t find a ride, you know the situation is bad. Relatively few teams are building new boats, the Vendée fleet contracted by a third in just one cycle and old boats are up on the chopping block as previous sponsors desperately want them off their balance sheets. If the IMOCA class is to grow, or even survive, it can’t be a solely French and English-based entity any more. It needs to go global.

And that is what Sir Keith Mills and Open Sports Management are here to accomplish. The über-successful English businessman and sports marketing magnate has made the internationalization of the IMOCA class his newest business endeavor. With the formation of the new Lausanne, Switzerland-based sports marketing agency Open Sports Management, the man who almost singlehandedly saved the 2012 London Olympic Games sees a winner in the IMOCA class and he’s prepared to bet the farm on it. On Saturday morning in Lausanne, Sir Keith, alongside OSM’s Vice President Giorgio Pauen and IMOCA Class President Luc Talbourdet held a press conference to outline their vision for growing the class.

Some of the biggest points made during the press conference:

18-month cycles

The IMOCA class will begin to revolve around two 18-month cycles in a 4-year period with two six-month breaks built in to allow for the formation of new teams, corporate and PR sailing and a breather for everyone involved. One 18-month cycle will be double handed, culminating with the non-stop round the world Barcelona World Race while the other 18-month cycle will be singlehanded, culminating with the Vendée Globe.

One-design rigs and keels

The class has voted to adopt one-design keels and masts. Using new 1-piece forged steel keel fins, the emphasis has been placed on reliability and cost savings, with another major goal of making the boats more insurable. The masts will be standard “classic” style rigs, removing the vulnerable deck spreaders and less reliable rotating wing masts from the equation. Again, a big part of this decision was said to be to make the rigs more insurable and reliable. Technical director (and the victim of two Vendée retirements due to having deck spreaders…) is none other than PRB skipper and 2004-05 VG champ Vincent Riou. The concept for the rule has been agreed upon, and the rule will actually be written in the next 3-6 months.

This new agreement on a class rule allows teams to invest in the future. OSM wanted an agreement on the new rules and racing program so that sponsors and commercial partners know exactly what they are going to get, years in advance. One of the biggest challenges in the past has been the uncertainty related to ocean racing such as vague dates, race locations, a less streamlined calendar of events, etc.

New events, formats and locations

New events will be added to the calendar, stopping in new destinations. These events will now include more grand-prix style events of 7-10 days in length in new stop over cities and ports that the class has not visited before. This is in addition to a handful of Trans-Atlantic race, the around Europe “Europa Warm-Up” and the two flagship round the world races.

Bringing the stories to life and sharing them with a global audience

An increased emphasis on “bringing the stories of the skippers to life and sharing them globally”. Sir Keith mentioned several times his desire to have cameras on the boats, possibly controlled from shoreside, that would capture the drama as it happens and then share it with the world. He insists that the technology is there to allow for 24/7 video streaming from the boats, as opposed to action happening (broach, dismasting, fast sailing, etc) and then having to wait for the skipper to have a chance to edit the video and upload it either hours or days after it’s actually happened. This will obviously create new technical challenges not just with video and satellite communications, but in power management and generation. Being the visionary that he is, he views these obstacles as “opportunities” to engage new technologies and truly global communications in the most adverse conditions. This will require partnering with several new technical partners, mentioned below.

Adding new partners to the class

Bringing in new partners such as a naming rights partner, more technical partners such as telecomm, insurance, nutrition partners, power generation, etc. Sir Keith reiterated “There exists a huge potential on the internet for this sport. It is a unique sport that takes place 24 hours a day for weeks on end. New technologies allow us the ability to leverage this phenomenon unlike any other sport to engage a worldwide audience and to tell their stories on a global stage”.

At the end of the press conference, Sir Keith showed IMOCA’s newest 6-minute promotional video and when it concluded, he offered one final statement, “I made my money selling products and I know a great product when I see it. This is a great product.” In one of those times where less is more, he was a man of few words, creating a moment of silence for his point to resonate with everyone in the room. Just then, the silence was broken by a thick French accent from a journalist in the back of the room who offered one final question, “Sir Keith, will these new rules, races, format and onboard cameras change the spirit of ze race?”. Sir Keith repeated the question one time for emphasis and then quickly looked around his room. With a move that has surely made him a sale or two over the course of his career, his eyes seemed to dart around and make contact with every person in the room. Again offering few words, he simply replied, “no”, which was met with universal praise and applause.

People are inspired. Change is happening, and a new journey is underway for the IMOCA class. Everyone that attended this weekend’s events in Lausanne realize that Sir Keith Mills, Luc Talbourdet, IMOCA and Open Sports Management have set a goal of promoting and growing the IMOCA class on an international level and these guys have the resources and the know how to get the job done. Look for big things to come from the IMOCA class over the coming months and years and with any luck, a couple of properly funded American entries! Title inspiration thanks to Faith No More.

-Ronnie Simpson