autopilot only?

The latest from Brian Hancock and his take on the “new” The Ocean Race

I am really not sure what to make out of the big new branding rollout of The Ocean Race, formerly known as the Volvo Ocean Race and before that the Whitbread Round the World Race. Their big event in Alicante, Spain was nothing more than a snooze fest with a logo that my 10-year old could have designed and a whole lot of nothing said. OK to be fair the logo was probably purposely simple in the hope that it can be easily rebranded if/when they find a new title sponsor. The race, under new ownership, still retains Volvo as a premium race partner but we all know it takes money to stage a world class event and the search for more money is always a priority.

I appreciate that it’s a difficult job for event organizers to keep the interest high while at the same time having very little to say. The Executive Director for the event, Richard Mason, someone who I like and respect immensely stated that “There are nine new IMOCA 60s in build across the world and we know several of them are being prepared as projects for our race. And on the other side, we already have six of the eight VO65s that are essentially spoken for by campaigns planning to be on the start line in 2021.” OK that sounds good but we have heard it all before in previous events and a lot of what was said did not materialize.

The hardest part of a race like this is making the start line, not the finish line. I am sure that there are team working hard to make the start but show me the money. During the roll-out they had a satellite link to New Zealand where Bianca Cook, who raced on board Turn the Tide on Plastic in the 2017-18 event, announced she would be spearheading a New Zealand flagged team.

That sounds great and she has secured Tony Rae, an extremely experience race veteran  to manage her campaign. That’s all good but show me the money. The next race is due to start in 2021, not that far away, especially if you are planning on racing one of the new IMOCA 60’s modified to be raced with a crew rather than single-handed.

There were others at the roll-out stating their intentions to enter. Xabi Fernández, who skippered MAPFRE to a second place finish in the last race, the best ever result for a Spanish team, was in Alicante for the launch event and said he is working hard to have a competitive entry in the next race. “Of course it’s very tempting and hopefully we will be there again as a team. It’s been five in a row, not just for me but for the whole team,” Fernández said. “The IMOCA 60 is very different; it’s a much faster boat, much less people on board.”

One of the definite bright lights was an entry announcement by the Mirpuri Foundation, a non-profit incorporated by the Mirpuri family who have previously put their money where their mouth is and were the driving force behind Turn the Tide on Plastic in the last race. They are eyeing one, perhaps two of the older VOR 65’s and have expressed some longing to have an entry sailing the new IMOCA boats. That for sure is good news and a big boost for the race.

To be honest I was hoping for more especially some kind of confirmation about some really big news that has been floating around for quite a while. That news is that the IMOCA boats will be sailed without helmsman; only auto-pilot. I am not sure if that means they can use both but it seems as if they mean auto-pilot only. I am definitely not sure how I feel about that. One of the great joys of participating in a race like this is being the helmsman. My friend Skip Novak, a veteran of numerous Whitbread’s summed it up quite succinctly in the forward to one of my books. “There is a  certain serenity to being at the wheel while carving a long surf in the deep blue.”

The scuttlebutt on the street is that the new IMOCA boats will be sailed with five crew, two watches of two with a full-time navigator. There is also talk that the autopilots will be compass driven only which is strange. Ask any Vendee Globe veteran and they will tell you that a boat like that needs the pilots to work off true wind and apparent wind. Anyway, as you can imagine there is more opinions on this than answers, many looking toward the future, many nostalgic for the past. I am going to remain mute until there is a formal announcement.

I really hope that the new owners of this iconic event are able to pull of a spectacular race. It’s hard. You can’t have a race if you don’t have any competitors but funding is hard to come by despite the excellent return on investment that previous races have provided. Again, time will tell.

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