The Ocean Race crewed around the world yacht race has started: but crews face a tough 24 hours with a brutal forecast for the early stages

The Ocean Race start, the latest iteration of the crewed multi-stage around the world race, set off today from Alicante, Spain. But the 11 crews – five IMOCA teams, six VO65 crews – face something of a baptism of fire over the opening stages of Leg 1.

Flat water and WNW breezes of 12-14 knots off the Spanish coast gave the five IMOCAs a chance to show off their foiling skills. Paul Meilhat’s brand new Biotherm (FRA) was fastest off the line, lighting up through the last gate mark after the Ocean Race start at speeds of 29 knots.

15 January 2023, IMOCAs at The Ocean Race start in Alicante. Photos: Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race

However, the forecast for the Ocean Race fleet’s exit from the Mediterranean is challenging. Despite an initially light start, the forecast to come is for 25-30 knot breezes with gusts topping mid-40s and 4m-sea states as the fleet approaches Gibraltar.

The IMOCA crews in particular will have to endure some hard upwind miles to begin with, and the kind of potentially boat-breaking conditions that all skippers would prefer to avoid, but those with newer launches must be dreading.

The VO65s, meanwhile, have a strong track record of punching through punishing conditions, but the opening days could be a brutal induction period into ocean racing for the relatively inexperienced and youthful crews that make up many teams in the one-design fleet.

“The north-westerly winds will allow us to sail quite fast reaching angles down to the southeastern corner of Spain,” explained Team Malizia’s Will Harris ahead of the Ocean Race start. “Going into tonight, we will have to fight our way through the light winds, not sleeping much, and doing lots of sail changes. Finally, once we get through this transition, we will be hit by the strong westerlies funnelling through the Alboran Sea, slowing our progress to Gibraltar as we tack upwind in a heavy sea state and up to 40 knots of wind.”

By the time the fleet passed Cabo de Gata this evening, the IMOCAs had overhauled the VO65s, hitting 20-plus knot boat speeds (you can follow the race on the online tracker).

Balancing act

This first leg is also unusual: while the Ocean Race starts from its recently established home port of Alicante in the Mediterranean, setting a course south down the Atlantic, the first finish will be in Cabo Verde, rather than racing non-stop to Cape Town. This makes Leg 1 something of an opening sprint, at around 1,900 miles, and is expected to take the teams around six days.

However, it’s also part of an endurance ‘stage’ of the race, as the Cabo Verde stopover is officially a pitstop, rather than a full stopover, and once in port in Mindelo only the race crews will be allowed onboard. This means that not only do the crews have to provision for the full Atlantic course to Cape Town, but they also have to carry all their spares and tools in case of breakages – a stark contrast to the shared ‘Boatyard’ one-stop-shop that serviced the fleet in the previous Volvo Ocean Race.

It also increases the importance of getting through this first leg unscathed. In the pre-race press conference, 11th Hour Racing skipper Charlie Enright voiced his view that the boats likely to dominate the podium will be the boats that complete the most legs of this seven leg around-the-world epic.

11th Hour Racing Team flying high at the start of Leg 1 of the 2023 Ocean Race in Alicante. Photo: Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race

Long before the Ocean Race start, there has been much speculation about how a fully loaded, fully crewed IMOCA would stand up to the demands of this punishing course. There is potential for retirements around the track, and nobody will want to ‘use up their discard’ on this early stage.

Several boats in the IMOCA fleet are relatively untried: Paul Meilhat’s Biotherm only sailed with his complete race crew for the first time in the final 10 days, after his boat was launched in September. Boris Herrman’s Malizia team, meanwhile, was frantically fitting a new set of hastily purchased foils just hours before the in-port race, after the boat’s original set was discovered to have structural damage. Kevin Escoffier only confirmed his Ocean Race entry in Holcim-PRB, a new IMOCA launched last summer, less than six months ago. These are all relatively early stage campaigns, but unlike the last minute VO65 teams that have been pulled together in previous editions, they are sailing extremely complex, and significantly varying, machines.

While the five IMOCAs entered in this race show some marked design differences, they do share the IMOCA one-design mast. IMOCA skipper Alex Thomson pointed out that a spare rig could become a very valuable commodity indeed, when he posted his thoughts on the race:

“There’s only one spare mast in the whole fleet right now, and that is owned by 11th Hour Racing. If a team were to order one today, it won’t be complete until the end of summer this year – after the finish of The Ocean Race. This could put the teams, and the organisation, in a tricky spot. What would you do if you were 11th Hour Racing? Another team breaks a mast and asks to use your spare, but what if yours then breaks? It’s not a nice position to be in.”

Ocean Race future plans

The VO65s take their start for Leg 1 in Alicante: Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team & Ambersail 2

Today’s Ocean Race start marks 50 years of crewed around the world racing, since the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973. Organisers today also confirmed that they intend to run the next around the world race in three years time, starting from Alicante, Spain over 2026-27.

Meanwhile, following the the inaugural edition of The Ocean Race Europe last summer, another edition of that event will be held late in the summer of 2025.

Richard Brisius, Race Chairman of The Ocean Race, explained: “This is an important and exciting moment for The Ocean Race.

“We are on the eve of an historic around-the-world Race starting tomorrow. It is our first as The Ocean Race, the 14th edition in our history, and it comes as we celebrate our 50th anniversary year.

“We understand that we are standing on the shoulders of all of those who have built this Race into the iconic event that it is today. From the Whitbread Round the World Race back in 1973, through 20 years of Volvo stewardship, to where we are today as The Ocean Race, the race has seen many changes.”

He continued: “With that in mind, it is important that we provide certainty to all of our stakeholders, partners, teams and fans in terms of the future of the Race. Looking forward, we are confirming The Ocean Race Europe in Q3 of 2025 and we will be starting conversations with candidate stopover cities and other partners in the coming weeks. The next two editions of The Ocean Race around the world are confirmed to take place in 2026-27 and 2030-31.”

Follow all of our The Ocean Race coverage and read our race preview.

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