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What have we learned from The Ocean Race Leg 1?

by Mark Jardine 23 Jan 19:00 GMT
Leg 1 onboard Holcim - PRB Team © Julien Champolion - polaRYSE / Holcim - PRB

As I outlined in 'The changing face of offshore racing', I was concerned about The Ocean Race, and whether - 50 years on from the first Whitbread - a fully crewed, multi-stopover round the world race in the latest cutting-edge foiling machines was relevant.

Now the race is under way, the fleet has covered 1900 nautical miles and reached Cabo Verde, we can finally see what the IMOCA is like with more crew on board, and how the latest generation of these machines stack up against each other.

It's a good time to assess what we've learned about the race itself, and the boats.

The public interest is there

It was great to see the crowds gather in Alicante for the Leg 1 start. 110,000 people visited The Ocean Race experience and wished the sailors well on their round the world voyage.

The weather delivered, with sunny skies and breeze, which really helped The Ocean Race proper get off to the best of starts, particularly after the wind died during the Alicante In-Port Race.

In this post-pandemic world it's hard to predict who will turn up to what, and encouraging to see that The Ocean Race attracted fans in their droves.

Wheelies are good for the camera

There's no doubt it's spectacular to see an IMOCA fully out of the water having risen up on the foils and continued the upward trajectory, but these 'wheelies' are not what the skipper intends to do.

Setting the foil angle is complex, and needs to be done when the load is off, so getting it right for the conditions is a balancing act. An IMOCA isn't a full-foiler (apart from maybe Charal 2) so the aim is to 'skim' with as little wetted surface in the water as possible, to keep drag to a minimum. Too little angle on the foil results in the boat sitting too deep in the water; too much angle results in the boat jumping out of the water.

The photographers and videographers love these moments, the skippers less so, and the designers and shore teams most likely wince. As Isaac Newton said, 'What goes up must come down', and gravity is no friend to a fast-moving carbon structure when it hits the water on the return path from a wheelie.

Let's not forget that The Ocean Race is 32,000 nautical miles, and is as much about boat management as it is about who has the fastest boat. Performing the spectacular at the beginning of a leg, when the cameras are on the boats, may be good for the sponsors when the photos adorn website and newspaper stories, and the videos are broadcast to the world, but have the potential to cause race-ending damage.

Nobody likes to talk about attrition, especially this early in The Ocean Race, but it will take its toll on an already small fleet.

Fully enclosed cockpits spark debate

There's no doubt it's sensible, safer, and necessary at the speeds the IMOCA class yachts now reach, but the fully enclosed cockpits do tend to give a detached feeling to the onboard footage from The Ocean Race. It's almost like they're there, but not there. Taking part, but out of the elements, still providing the power through the grinders, trimming sails on the winches and clutches, navigating on the computers, and even occasionally steering when the autopilot isn't.

Maybe this will make those taking part in The Ocean Race via Virtual Regatta feel more like they're taking part looking at the footage? Build yourself a cockpit, or better still go aboard a yacht, eat a freeze dried packet of food with hot water poured into it, play the game and imagine you're really there!

What of the VO65s?

I've found it hard to get excited about this fleet, and while there is news on The Ocean Race website about the Leg 1 finishers, it was noticeable that no press release was sent out on Saturday when WindWhisper Racing Team crossed the finish line in Cabo Verde to take the win.

The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint Cup is a sideshow, and won't be featuring again until Leg 6 starts from Aarhus, Denmark on the 8th June. That feels like a very long time away, and it's tricky to build any enthusiasm, or back a favourite, when their race is so much shorter.

I find myself still sitting on the fence about The Ocean Race. I loved watching the Alicante start on Youtube, and the foiling IMOCAs are spectacular. I also found myself tracking who was where regularly, with a tab nearly always running on my browser, which is a sure sign of whether I'm engaged.

We're getting decent numbers on Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com reading the articles, watching the videos and looking at the photos as well. Actually slightly higher than the final Volvo Ocean Race in 2017-18, which tells me that the sailing public is engaged as well. These numbers are nowhere near those of the Vendée Globe, which has to now be regarded as the benchmark of round the world racing, but they're respectable none-the-less.

I do worry that if the fleet size gets whittled down by damage, that interest will wane, so my hopes are that the boats stand up to the stresses and strains they're being put under.

We wish all those taking part, and the race itself, fair winds, and the best of luck. We'll report all the twists and turns as it progresses, no matter what they may be.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com

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