I am a veteran of three Whitbread-Around-the-World races. The Whitbread was the first fully crewed around the world race and it blazed a trail for many more global sailing races to come. In the early days, not long after it was confirmed that the world was indeed round and not flat, it was a grand adventure. Wine with dinner and a Sunday roast, that kind of thing, but the event has evolved and changed and is now known as The Ocean Race. I have to say that I am really saddened. That once wonderful idea with the free spirits of adventurers and more than a few misfits has ended up as a quite pathetic event with only four (as of now) boats competing with the likelihood of more attrition.
The race started in Alicante, Spain. Good spot Alicante. Nice beaches and some very good restaurants but hardly a place most people can find on a map, but that’s OK. Alicante has done a great job for the event. The first leg went from there to the Cape Verde Islands. Now I have been to the Cape Verde islands. It’s a fairly impoverished cluster of islands a few hundred miles off the coast of Africa, Senegal to be exact. Why on earth was this place chosen to be a stopover port of the world’s ‘greatest offshore sailing race’, as it’s now being touted, is beyond me but I have a theory.
For this go-around there are two classes; the elite IMOCA 60 class and the VO65 class made up of the older boats from previous races. They managed to get six VO65’s to enter and five IMOCA’s. OK so far so good until I found out that the durable VO65’s were only going to sail as far as the Cape Verde Islands before turning back to join the IMOCA’s in Europe later this summer. Maybe that’s why they chose the Cape Verde Islands. It was a place to stop and then cruise back to Europe while the other five boats carried on to Cape Town and beyond. I dunno, I wasn’t in the room, but where else could they have stopped if they didn’t want to get too much water over the deck.
The leg from Cape Verde to one of the greatest cities of all, Cape Town, is considered a ‘Milk Run’, champagne sailing if you will. Nice trade winds with the only danger being getting stuck in the South Atlantic high-pressure system. Despite the generally easy conditions 11th Hour Racing trashed their foils and had to get special dispensation from the race organizers to change them out in South Africa.
Then the really ridiculous stuff started.
The race started in Cape Town this past Sunday. Granted it can get a bit gusty in Table Bay but two boats had to suspend racing before they even got out of sight of land. Err, well, they were just a couple of miles offshore. They could still smell the seafood restaurants that line the waterfront. 11th Hour Racing could have used their spare parts on board and kept going, but decided that it might be prudent to take a few more spare parts so they suspended racing for two hours. Biotherm had to return to Cape Town to fix their mainsail traveler car. A fairly inauspicious start if you ask me.
So this once great race (the ‘greatest offshore ocean race’ if you remember) set off for the longest leg ever in the race; 12,700 miles across the Southern Ocean to Brazil bypassing the city that pretty much put the event on the map; Auckland, New Zealand. Why would you do such a thing? The great Sir Peter Blake would be rolling over in his grave.
One boat, Guyot, is already out and heading back to Cape Town with serious hull delamination problems leaving just four boats. The original races had close to 30 boats competing. Malizia has some serious mast damage and while they plan to fix it they will be sailing across one of the deadliest oceans like an albatross with a gimpy wing. And the real meat of the leg hasn’t even started yet. A lot of rough stuff still lies ahead.
I know that it’s easy to criticize. It is hard to thread the needle between a cutting-edge event that pushes the edges of design and technology, and an event that doesn’t price out most wanna-be competitors. I love this event; it was my dream as a small kid to do at least one of them, but maybe it’s time to drop the moniker the world’s greatest offshore ocean race. The Vendée Globe is by far the world’s greatest ocean race and hopefully, The Ocean Globe Race, organized by the venerable Don McIntyre will become the new face of offshore racing. The Ocean Globe Race is a retro Whitbread that starts later this year in boats that were around back in the day when the event was called the Whitbread. The race is oversubscribed, but they can’t find a Title Sponsor. What a bloody shame.
Meanwhile I wish every success for these four boats competing in their extraordinary sailing machines with sailors that no longer enjoy wine with dinner and a roast leg of lamb for Sunday dinner, but a power bar for breakfast and a smoothie for lunch.