Why is the Volvo Ocean Race trailing such a vocal wake of disappointment, even betrayal?


It was never my intention to get into a general debate about the Volvo Ocean Race in this blog, merely to lament a choice of format for this and other races that shuts out women, amateurs and underdog heroes .

But this topic has acted as something of a lightning rod for a stream of generally critical emails about the race. I didn’t start out to get here, but then again it’s not my place to suppress those views.

Take this particularly well-informed email from Eero Lehtinen, a former Whitbread crew and round the world race skipper:

‘Great stuff, you are bringing up very important and critical issues. I could not agree more with you about the costs and technology level of ocean racing.

‘The Volvo Open 70 is bigger, faster, quite a bit more expensive [than what came before] and nearly disastrous when it comes to vulnerability and technical complexity.

‘Canting keels have sunk one boat and we haven’t been far from a real human tragedy, either, in connection to the leaking structures. The number of boats missing a finish line on a leg of the two last Volvo races is not acceptable and does not add to the general public’s interest.

‘Even if Wallenius Wilhelmsen is one of the major sponsors of the event, it should not turn into a race around the world on a container ship!

‘Where are the personalities and great stories the public loves? It is meant to be about the people, not about the gear. Commercially it probably has been a success as there now is way more quality photos and videos available, but the “live reporting” has not quite been what some of us were hoping.’

He adds: ‘I have been kicking myself trying to be positive about the VOR, but it just does not make sense what we are seeing. Now the poor guys are in danger in their own bunks while the superlight bunks are coming off their brackets (E3), at the same time the crew on deck cannot talk or hear anything but their own scary thoughts, wearing a helmet and being hosed for four hours at a go.

‘I would love to see one of the designers to leave their desks for a few months and joining a foredeck crew on a Volvo 70. It’s insane. And the queue to the Volvo garage is longer than the line-up on a starting line!’

I’m really intrigued as to why the VOR should be trailing such a vocal wake of disappointment. The race is designed to be successful on its own terms and Volvo has stated that they see it more as a business tool than a sporting event.

I think the problem is that longtime sailing followers can remember the glory days of the Whitbread races, they would like the VOR to be what the Whitbread was, and are disappointed that it isn’t.

The Whitbread was the Daddy of them all. We grew up inspired by its fables. It shaped our perception of the Southern Ocean and raised legends to create the greatest names in sailing. It was the biggest and the best ocean race of them all, a touchstone that had no compare.

We cherished its history, and it isn’t the same anymore. For one thing, it’s no longer unique.

Also, this year the VOR has been run concurrently with a full-on Southern Ocean heart-stopper, the Vendée Globe, and some comparison was inevitable. If there’s a feeling that the VOR’s place in history has been usurped – or should I say handed over – that might explain the tone of disappointment shading into betrayal.

But things change because they have to. If the VOR suits its sponsors, that’s great. And it undoubtedly does increase the overall audience for ocean racing just as it is. It’s not a zero sum game.

Like Eero, I’d argue that the formula could and should be improved. It would be better if there were more colour, more variety and more characters.

But I’ll enjoy it for now because I believe Volvo are less likely to change a formula that they say is business case led than drop the thing altogether – this is a company that declared a pre-tax loss of $1.46 billion last year, slashed 6,000 jobs – or 25% of their workforce – and Ford is trying very hard to sell.

I think it has left a gaping hole in the events calendar for a blockbuster international, fully crewed round the world race that runs all the way across the Southern Ocean. I’m sure that could be more gripping.

But can anyone get it off the ground and make it pay??

Do email me, I’m sure you’ve got something to add! 😉