A bitter spat about who gets to run races for ocean racing's biggest growing fleet


Not another sailing spat? Yes, I’m afraid so.

The flourishing of the Class 40 fleet has sparked a clash of rival events, rumours of skulduggery and threats of blackballing that have owners and skippers of the boats looking on in dismay.

On one hand, there’s a fall-out between Josh Hall and Brian Hancock, who jointly founded the Portimão Global Ocean Race round the world. Earlier this year they parted company. Josh Hall continued running the race until its finish and now each has announced a rival 2nd generation round the world race targeted at the fleet, both starting in 2011.

On the other hand is a split partly engineered by the Class 40 Association itself. Irritated by what they regarded as shabby treatment two years ago at the Transat Jacques Vabre (TJV) race, they endorsed a rival transatlantic race for the class, La Solidaire du Chocolat, which sets off from France to Mexico in a few weeks.

As a result, the Class 40 fleet planned for the TJV in November is so depleted the organisers have now scrapped it altogether. Severely piqued, they have been calling skipper-owners to tell them that if they take part in La Solidaire du Chocolat they will be banned from entering the highly prestigious Route du Rhum next year, which they also organise.

How did it all become so acrimonious?

Part of the reason, perhaps, is the potential of the Class 40s to be one of the next big circuits. Over 80 have been built. The racing is close, the eligible events are exciting, the budget is achievable for private owners and increasingly attractive to skippers like Giovanni Soldini and Bernard Stamm who have been too cash-strapped to race bigger boats. All in all, the mix is seductive.

The icing on the cake is that the Portimão Global Ocean Race last year proved what many sceptics doubted: that Class 40s are robust enough to race through the Southern Ocean. That, in turn, has released a surge of interest from individuals and syndicates in racing round the world.

Professionals and amateurs alike are eyeing it up, and the sense of excitement among many for a high profile pro-am circumnavigation – possibly the first true one since the old Whitbread and BOC races – is palpable.

So it’s against this background that the Class 40 association has acted decisively. Earlier this week, they endorsed Josh Hall’s Global Ocean Race over Brian Hancock’s proposal, throwing enormous weight behind Hall’s event in the hope of nipping rivalry and confusion in the bud.

Josh Hall’s Global Ocean Race will start on 12 October 2011. He confirms that the next race is “financially secure”, presumably with private financial backing – “we could call it sponsorship,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Transat Jacques Vabre and Route du Rhum races, both run by French company Pen Duick, potentially face the same guillotine of endorsement or sanction. The class association feels it is in a strong position, and if it isn’t getting what members want and need, is prepared to put a required event out to tender.

The blackballing of skippers wishing to mix and match rival events is a short-sighted and stupidly anti-competitive tactic.

The anxiety I think is that recent history – the demise of the racing multihulls, the sudden ascendancy and equally sudden contraction of sponsorship in IMOCA 60s – show that one can never be certain where the limelight and cash will next fall. These spats underline a suspicion that it could just be the Class 40s next on centre stage.

And so the power struggle has begun.