Is it right to delay the start of an offshore race?

In the race that stubbornly refuses to get into its stride, the Volvo Ocean Race organisers decided to delay the start of the offshore part of Leg 4 from Sanya to Auckland. The six boat fleet started as normal on Sunday afternoon but only sailed the inshore part of the leg before heading back to the marina in Sanya to wait for the nod from the organisers for racing to resume.

The plan was to release the boats in the order and timings that they finished the inshore part of the race from 0730 local Monday (2230 UTC Sunday).

The decision was taken by the race committee on Saturday to avoid what was described as ‘unsailable conditions’, with winds of over 40 knots and waves of up to 8 metres. And while the official word suggested that all the teams agreed with this, there was at least one skipper that spoke out publicly against the decision. In doing so he has raised what seems to be a more frequent debate as to whether race organisers should postpone starts or whether the ones should remain with the skippers of the individual boats. The issue is a very tricky one indeed.

Until recently many offshore races were started on the basis that it was the individual skipper’s decision as to whether to start the race or not. The organisers simply laid a start line. But in recent years there has been a trend towards organisers taking the decision to delay a start.

Of some of the more high profile delays, in 2000 the Vendee Globe start was delayed for 48 hours in the face of 50 knots. In 2007 the Fastnet start was postponed by 25 hours when 40knot winds and big seas were forecast for the opening phase of the race.

More recently the start of the TJV last year was postponed when a forecast of 45 knots with squalls of 55-60 knots and 8-10m seas caused concerns among the organisers. And just last week the start of Sailing Arabia’s, first leg of the Tour from Bahrain to Qatar was postponed with a forecast of winds over 35 knots.

So is it right for organisers to make the call, and if so how do they set the limit? What happens if the fleet runs into similar conditions thousands of miles down the track when postponing or calling off the race would make little or no difference to the plight of the boats and the crews?

In the 2000 Vendee Globe Ellen Mac Arthur said of the decision, “It’s a good thing. Better that everyone starts together, and safely. In the Southern Ocean, if you were to dismast, you have sea room to deal with it, although it isn’t easy. To dismast along the coast with 60 knots on a lee shore, it would be like hitting a brick wall.”

Clearly she had a good point. Lee shores, shallow waters and tidal effects to name but a few factors, can make even modest conditions more taxing and potentially dangerous than they might be offshore.

Michel Desjoyeaux felt much the same saying, “It makes a lot of sense. If the line had stayed open tomorrow, it would not have been a sensible or sportsmanlike decision.”

But the view was not unanimous. Yves Parlier was against the decision saying, “I am programmed to go on the 5th November and the line is open for ten days. If the start was tomorrow, I would have taken it.”

In the case of the Volvo Ocean race, the carnage that ensued the last time the fleet sailed around this particular stretch of water nearly finished off the race. After the staccato start to this edition of the VOR where there has been just one leg out of three where all six boats have finished and six shipping excursions have been called upon to help the fleet get to where it is, it is easy to see why the organisers might feel a little sensitive in the face of boat breaking conditions. This race is only a third of the way through and with a fleet of six of which three have had major breakdowns, they can’t afford to lose any teams from the competition.

It is of course in everybody’s interest to keep the show on the road. But Camper’s skipper Chris Nicholson spoke out shortly after the decision to postpone was taken.

“As a team we built and designed a boat for these types of conditions and trained in them off New Zealand last winter knowing that we were likely to encounter them in this race. It is frustrating for all of us that this decision limits our ability to race the boat in the conditions we’ve prepared for,” he said.

“This is a professional around the world race and as such we need to be set to go to sea in rough conditions.

“All teams in this race have different agendas they’re trying to push on this decision but ours is pretty simply and up front – we’re well prepared and geared up for the conditions and we want to go sailing.”

Clearly for an offshore race like the Volvo a team needs to employ a very high level of self-reliance. In the Southern Ocean in particular teams are truly on their own as for large areas there are no vessels that can be of help, at least not in the time that would be required. But Nicholson’s comments raise an important issue about the point at which race organisers draw the line. What’s good for some might be survival for others. In their build up to the race the Camper team spent a great deal of time thumping upwind in 40 knots plus and big seas. During their training and trials they pushed the boat and themselves hard and while none of it was pleasant, they ended up with some serious heavy weather experience and huge confidence in their boat.

Drawing the line at a particular point might be below the threshold at which they believe their campaign may shine. Should such details be published in the notice of race so that designers and teams can all work to the same datum? If not it would seem that teams have to second guess what a race committee might decide. This could have big implications when it comes to the strength of build in certain places and weight. Limits on all up weight and scantlings won’t necessarily cover this adequately.

I don’t know if such issues are part of Camper’s case or not, but I use it as one example of why shifting the decision from skippers to organisers might not be as simple as it may seem and could possibly be deemed to be unfair.

At the very least there is surely a risk that our competitive nature will drive us to the stated limits which may in turn lead us down a slippery slope where boats become less seaworthy and crews less capable of dealing with the heavy weather. Anyone who doesn’t believe this should take a look at what happened to offshore racers in the 1980s and 90s and the downward spiral that even modest offshore racing found itself in.

What do you think?