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Sailing imitates mainstream American sports in the 2017/2018 Volvo Ocean Race

by David Schmidt 5 Feb 15:23 GMT February 5, 2018
Vestas 11th Hour Racing - Volvo Ocean Race © Atila Madrona/ Vestas 11th Hour Racing

Sport, by its definition, involves risk, both for the athletes and for their fans, whose moods often hang in the balance of their favourite team's most recent performance. Case-in-point: While New England Patriots fans are likely having a rough start to their day, fans of the now world-famous underdogs, the Philadelphia Eagles, are enjoying their chance to strut. And while I'm no fan of American football, I do know a thing or two about rooting for underdog teams in sailing, and because of this today's news that Vestas 11th Hour Racing, the dual American- and Danish-flagged entrant in the 2017/2018 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), would not be competing in the next two, possibly three, legs of the VOR came as a less-than-welcome start to the day.

A bit of backstory for anyone who doesn't closely follow the VOR: While Vestas 11th Hour Racing was founded for the 2017/2018 edition of the VOR, the team's core has existed for years, starting with Disney's Morning Light project in 2008, where Charlie Enright and Mark Towill, then both college sailors in their late-teens/early 20s, first crossed tacks. While Disney's film was a modest success, the real fruits of the project-as Disney likely anticipated-involved the friendships formed and the experiences gained, both of which would pay big dividends for Enright and Towill, who soon turned their sights on the VOR, starting with the 2014/2015 edition.

Four years ago, Enright and Towill pulled together Team Alvimedica, a joint American- and Turkish-flagged team that sailed well but likely spent their lap of the planet learning many of the secrets that the more experienced teams already knew about round-the-world racing, however the team enjoyed moments of brilliance, including (and most notably) leading the entire fleet around Cape Horn.

Now, having already completed a VOR and having added plenty of other miles to their resumes, Enright and Towill are back at it with a different set of sponsors, some new faces on deck, and a hell of a lot more experience to bring to bear against their highly talented rivals.

Then, heading into Leg 4, which brought the fleet from Melbourne, Australia to Hong Kong, Enright received word of a family emergency that required his attention back in the Ocean State, so he stepped down and left skipper duties to Towill. All appeared to be going smoothly for the American- and Danish-flagged team en route to Hong Kong, and they were in the hunt for a podium position when disaster struck on Friday, January 19, 2018 at 0123 hours (local time), when they collided with a fishing boat some 30 nautical miles from the finishing line while clipping along at 20 knots (in 23 knots of breeze).

While the cause of the accident is still not known (as of this writing), what is known is that the fishing boat's crew was flung into the water and that one of their crew tragically died.

There were no reported injuries aboard the 65-foot racing sloop, however the boat sustained significant damage to its port bow. As a result, the team had to stand down for the Hong Kong in-port racing, as well as the short, round-trip legs from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Yesterday, however, the starboard seaboot dropped that the team has loaded their stricken boat onto a freighter that's headed for Auckland, New Zealand, which is the fleet's next stop once they depart Hong Kong this Wednesday (February 7).

According to reports, a new, class-legal bow section is being built at Italy's Persico Marine and is being shipped to Auckland, where it will be fitted onto its new steed. What remains unclear, however, is if the repair work will be completed in time for the American- and Danish-flagged sailors to rejoin their rivals on Leg 7, which will take the fleet from Auckland to Itajai, Brazil, via Cape Horn.

"Along with our colleagues in the Volvo Ocean Race and the other competing teams, we have all offered our sincere condolences to all those affected by the incident," said Vestas 11th Hour Racing co-founder, Mark Towill in an official team press release. "Now with a seriously damaged boat and a new set of challenges to surmount, we have had to map out the necessary steps that will enable our team to get back in the race."

Meanwhile, the rest of the fleet has now returned to Hong Kong from Guangzhou, and are preparing for Wednesday's start to Leg 6, with Spanish-flagged MAPFRE now solidly in command of the leaderboard for both the offshore and inshore scoreboards.

So while Vestas 11th Hour Racing might not be the underdogs that Enright, Towill and company were when they flew the Team Alvimedica colors, they certainly have a long, steep climb in front of them if they wish to again lead the fleet around the sailing world's most famous rock.

So, while I'm no fan of football and while I live in Seattle, not Boston, I find myself feeling kinship with Patriot's' fans today as we both experience the disappointment of not seeing our team hitting all of the high notes. But, rather than crying into my pint of Harpoon along with the rest of the lads down at Faneuil Hall, I instead take inspiration from the Eagles' fans down in Philly, who patiently waited 58 years between Super Bowl wins. With a pinch of luck, Vestas 11th Hour Racing will be on the Leg 7 starting line, and will once again demonstrate what American sailors are capable of achieving in the windswept depths of the Southern Ocean.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor
Seattle, USA