Race director admits the formula for the original solo round the world race needs a rethink

Why is the Velux 5 Oceans solo round the world struggling by with a mere five entries and no top skippers or boats? This, remember, is the firestarter race of solo round the world racing. Set up as the BOC Challenge by Philippe Jeantot in 1982 it is the precursor of the Vendée Globe, though the upstart imitator has long since surpassed the original in profile and popularity.

Yes, these are straitened economic times, but look: the solo Route du Rhum transatlantic race next week is brimming with over 80 entries and the johnny-come-lately Barcelona World Race in December groaning with two-handed entries and the latest IMOCA 60s.

Startlingly – especially considering the Velux 5 Oceans started and finishes in La Rochelle – it boasts not a single French entry. Arguably, you don’t have a major round the world race in Open 60s without a French skipper. They invented this, they perfected it, they dominate it and they are the engine of its popularity.

There are several factors at work, but I think these are the top two. Firstly, the Velux 5 Oceans clashes every four years with the Route du Rhum. For any French sponsor, this famous transatlantic skirmish is a must. So the top skippers and yachts are in ‘le Rhum’ and most of the IMOCA 60 skippers are following it up with the Barcelona World Race, which offers sponsors some serious tax incentives- more of that another time.

That leaves the ‘Eco 60′ class. This slightly misleading term really only means older Open 60s that are no longer competitive, boats that would otherwise have little prospect of a grand prix racing life. (Personally, I think there’s mileage in developing the ecological side of the tag in a more meaningful way.)

Since these can be bought relatively cheaply, possibly €250,000 or less in some cases, the organisers, Clipper Ventures, very reasonably assumed it would foster a sizeable second league class of adventurer-racers.

But it hasn’t worked out this way. The older boats don’t appeal to French skippers – when I ask a French journalist why he thinks none of his countrymen are here he waves a hand at the boats and pinches his nose between finger and thumb in a mime of extreme disdain.

At the same time the lower budget adventurer campaigns from further afield have been hard hit by the evaporation of corporate sponsorship.

Another factor is the squeeze placed by the inexorable rise of the Class 40s, which will have their own two-handed and solo round the world races in the next few years. This class is affordable – just – to aspiring younger professionals, is buttressed by a large group of wealthy owner-drivers, and resale values are high.

It’s a real shame for Velux, which has poured millions into this race. The same goes for Clipper Ventures, whose race team has worked very hard and succeeded in putting together a media programme, an incentive package and prizemoney like no other yacht race before. With prizemoney of €500,000 the Velux 5 Oceans is sailing’s Roland Garros or Wimbledon.

This is a race that could well tail off with only three finishers. So what can the organisers do to rescue it? There has already been a great deal of discussion, race director David Adams tells me. Adams and his assistant Alan Nebauer were once skippers in this race and are understandably passionate about its future.

“The model is broken,” he admits. “We now have a clean sheet in front of us. In this current economic climate it’s not enough for race organisers to just put on a race every four years. We have to have some kind of ownership and not to be beholden to a class, otherwise we’ll never be able to guarantee there will be anybody here. We have to be able to get some control and manage expectations for the sponsor.”

Adams concedes that Clipper Ventures is considering creating its own class and fleshing out a programme, possibly by negotiating eligibility in other ocean classics, but is undecided where exactly to pitch that class. “We could go for a premium class because the high end always manages to survive whereas at the bottom end we’re struggling. But we’re not sure of that model. We see that the Volvo Race doesn’t have that many entries.”

He says they are also looking at the possibility of making “an owner/driver class, but whether we do that I don’t know.”

I press him on whether he is contemplating a one-design class, such as the Finot 50ft design that never quite took off for the SolOceans race. He raises an eyebrow archly and comments: “I think you’ve been reading my notebook.”

As for clashing again with the Route du Rhum, Adams acknowledges that it is time to stop going head to head with the French race. “This time we’ve come to France at the same time. It’s on the cards to change that.”

American skipper Brad Van Liew provides another perspective. Like Adams, he is a fervent fan of this race; this is the third race for him in its third incarnation: first the BOC Challenge in Balance Bar, then Around Alone in Tommy Hilfiger (both Open 50s), now the Velux 5 Oceans in the 60ft Le Pengouin. This is his first time doing it without title sponsorship.

“I think there are a few issues,” he says. “The race hasn’t been inclusive enough of the European scene. It is no longer a progression or training exercise for the Vendée Globe and the attempt for a second tier hasn’t worked now that the training programme for the Vendée is established elsewhere.”

Van Liew agrees that eliminating a conflict with the Route du Rhum is essential and that a first-league class is needed – “the French guys are not ready to do this on a wing and a prayer.”

But he is a fan of the Eco 60 concept. “They’re real boats with real skippers and there could easily be an Eco 60 class in other events, like the Route du Rhum.”

And Van Liew is adamant that the event can be turned around. “This race is a historical event. Every sporting event has to reinvent itself every so often: look at the PGA, look at Formula 1. A lot of people are very enamoured of this race and would love to do it again.”