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reality check

I have been a passionate sailor all my adult life (and some time before) and was a relative freshman to our sport when the first Whitbread set off from the Solent in 1973.

Back then there was the Whitbread, the Whitbread – oh, and of course the Whitbread.

As someone who has been into sailing for so long, has spent the past 18 years trying to help develop our sport in China and been the occasional writer the idea of a ‘reborn’ Whitbread interested me.

Then I looked and thought deeper.

I have also been involved peripherally, and sometimes at a deeper level in some of the world’s top sailing events while also helping to develop what had grown last year into the biggest one design keelboat event in Asia so I understand some of the challenges of putting an entry, a team or an event together. I have also project managed a Sydney Hobart podium finisher and deal with, shall we say, people with rather more money than I have and understand some of their motivations and desires.

I am also a realist.

46 Years ago if you wanted to sail round world in an organised event the Whitbread Round the World Race was it. 17 Yachts appeared on the start line on September 8th 1973 for what was called, in Peter Cook and Bob Fisher’s book ‘The Longest Race’.  Thing is, a re-run in 4 years time would no longer be that with the latest Volvo Ocean Race following a much longer route.

It would also not be a ‘never before’ event and long distance ocean racing has rightly developed over the years making it faster, safer, more ‘followable’ and if last year’s finish was anything to go by, more competitive. 

The other challenge is of course that the Whitbread re-visited is no longer the only way for sailors, whether high end racers or keen long distance cruisers (or anything in between) to go round the world as part of.

For those who want to crew on someone else’s boat there were two, The Clipper Race and Challenge Business. Sadly the competition has already seen the demise of the latter. For the more comfortable cruiser the World Rally for Cruisers is an option. At the sharp end is The Ocean Race (formerly the Volvo Ocean Race) a direct descendant of the Whitbread itself. Even this Grand Prix event has not been able to muster double figure entries this century and we don’t yet know the likely entry list for the next edition.

So the first obstacle I see would is we are now in a crowded market place which didn’t exist in 1973.

The second element to think of would be just how many of these ‘old war horses’ would be around to be raced?

In 2018 I arranged the charter of Green Dragon for the Volvo Legends Race from Gothenburg to The Hague as part of the celebration of 45 years of the Whitbread. It was a relatively short ‘sprint’ down the North Sea, not a commitment to race around the world.

A total of 12 boats were on the start line, three were VOR 70s, six were Whitbread 60s, one an IOR maxi and only one from the first race and one from the second race AND they all raced with somewhat more than a sextant and paper charts. A 50 year old boat is pretty old to go racing round the world on.

It should also be remembered that modern communications and nav-aids don’t only make weather routing and navigation easier from a racing point of view but also from a safety point of view giving crews the ability to avoid the worst of the weather.

As mentioned these boats would be old, and any idea that they could be refitted cheaply and then sold on afterwards making such a project more affordable is probably a fallacy. We have just completed a keel to masthead refit on a Swan 82 so know only too well how much bringing a boat up to as new ocean readiness costs.

Sponsorship? Well a sponsor’s Return on Investment (ROI) depends on exposure. In 1973 the yachts disappeared out of the Solent (UK) only to be hardly heard of until they approached Capetown on Leg 1. Compare that to the daily video coming off a VO65 in the last race and you can see the competitive edge a more complete comms package has.

Try and discount the cost by taking on additional crew? That brings the additional liability of having what, in law, could be seen as paying customers on board which without the proper training could be as much of a curse as a financial blessing.

And the rich owner? Well the rich owner these days seems rather more likely to want to have a hard days Super-Maxi or TP52 racing followed by a hot shower, cocktails and warm stable bed at the end of a day’s racing. (or 3-4 days at best) and could they afford the weeks at a time away from business in any case.

The attrition rate could likely be high if the Golden Globe or the recent Golden Globe re-run is any sort of measure.

So realism hat off and passionate hat back on? The concept is to be admired and I would wish Don McIntyre best of success with the event but I suspect his getting entries to the start line would be every much as significant a challenge as those ON the start line getting round the world in one piece.

I hope I am wrong and would willingly eat humble pie if that were the case but as mentioned above it IS a crowed market place. Time will tell! – SS.