Five high-tech fully crewed foiling IMOCAs will take on 12,000 miles of Southern Ocean, passing all three 'Great Capes' in Leg 3 of The Ocean Race. Could offshore sailing fans ask for anything more, asks Toby Heppell?
This weekend five crewed IMOCA 60s will take to the startline for the third leg of The Ocean Race, on a month-long epic which is likely to be the toughest challenge we have seen in crewed ocean racing in many years.
Five teams will leave Cape Town, South Africa on Sunday 26 February with 12,750 miles of Southern Ocean racing ahead of them, passing south of all three ‘Great Capes’ before finally finishing in Itajai, Brazil. The crews are taking food for up to 40 days at sea.
The last two years have been difficult for the organisers of The Ocean Race, since it lost title sponsor Volvo. Covid forced a year-long hiatus, which created a huge level of uncertainty and a potential clash with the single-handed French classic, the Route du Rhum, in which 38 IMOCA 60s took part at the end of 2022.
So to have a fleet of just five IMOCA 60s on the startline of The Ocean Race is unquestionably disappointing when you consider the size of the available fleet, while the VO65s which were due to make up a second fleet could not attract sufficient backing to take on a full lap of the planet.
However, Covid has delivered one potentially positive knock-on effect. With particularly strict border closures in both traditional around the world stopover ports in Australia and New Zealand, and newer additions to the round the world route such as Qingdao, China, negotiating host city agreements to create separate Indian Ocean and Pacific legs seemed doomed to failure.
Instead, Ocean Race organisers committed early on to the mega-stage Leg 3, a non-stop Southern Ocean epic that takes the fleet from the Cape of Good Hope, across the Southern Indian Ocean, past Cape Leeuwin as they race south of Australia and New Zealand, then across the vast South Pacific, rounding Cape Horn to finish in Itajai, Brazil.
It was a brave move, but it instantly gave the race a certain ‘back to basics’ kudos.
The original Whitbread Round the World Races were characterised by just a handful of stopovers, and long, long ocean stages in between. While this marathon Leg 3 is longer yet than any of the Whitbread legs (they traditionally stopped in Fremantle, Auckland, or both) it restores some of the authenticity that can be lost when courses are determined by a host city bidding war.
This new stage also creates a new level of intrigue for race followers: what on earth would it be like to endure 40 days of racing on a violently moving, deafening, cramped, fully crewed IMOCA?
The Ocean Race’s toughest challenge
One sailor who knows just what she is getting into is Abby Ehler. Ehler is competing in her fourth Ocean Race, now with Holcim-PRB, having previously sailed on the VO65 and VO70s. However, the IMOCAs are a very different beast, and Ehler had originally planned not to take part in Leg 3.
“I was pretty adamant I was not going to do the leg, and that was set in stone during the delivery back from Guadeloupe on this boat,” she said. “It was so uncomfortable – it was just horrendous – and I was like ‘there is no way I could survive 35 days doing this’.
“Then I did Leg 1 and really enjoyed the crew. It was a very different experience. Kevin (Escoffier, skipper) is just positivity off the scale. And I think you just absorb his energy.
“It’s hard not to feel like you’re in good, safe company and in the knowledge that he can sail the boat on his own, and we’re effectively there to help him and make it go faster.
“I thought about it and chatted about it a lot with my husband. The comment he made was this leg IS the race; if you haven’t done this leg, you can’t really say that you’ve done it.”
There’s no question that the IMOCAs are punishing their crew in new ways. In Leg 1 Team Malizia skipper Boris Herrman was badly scalded whilst preparing a meal, and although he brushed it off as a stupid error, clearly the potential for burns, cuts, concussion, broken bones, bruising and ligament strains whilst attempting to live, sail and sleep aboard such a violently moving platform is great.
There is also the mental strain. Video from Leg 2 showed Malizia crew members wearing ear defenders to try and drown out the deafening whine of the foils.
While Will Harris joked that he quite liked it “I can tell when the boat’s going fast!”, Rosalin Kuiper said that the constant noise was giving her tinnitus, and she had to double-up both ear plugs and noise cancelling headphones to try and protect her hearing. Sleep becomes near impossible.
Ocean Race weapon of choice?
Every fleet has its fans and detractors. Even the much beloved Maxi yachts of old Whitbread days, though they attract a great deal of nostalgia, were heavy and viciously dangerous (wire sheets, anyone?).
But when two boats suffered major keel failures on the very first night of racing, and another sank on the return Atlantic leg, it was clear the class had serious reliability issues.
For the final two editions of the Volvo Ocean Race the 70-footers were dropped in favour of a more robust one-design VO65.
While many crews detested the 65s’ lack of cockpit protection, the boats proved impressively reliable and incredibly evenly matched, culminating with three boats in a points tie final for the very final stage of the 2018 race.
Now the race has gone full circle, with a fleet of technologically advanced, box-rule designed IMOCA 60s, four of which are more or less brand new, once again racing thousands of miles through the Southern Ocean.
Although the boats have slightly different performance characteristics, the finishes of the first two legs of The Ocean Race have proven that the class can make for very close racing indeed. Just 25 minutes separated the top three finishers on the Cabo Verde to Cape Town Leg 2.
“After 18 days of offshore racing we crossed the line within minutes of two other boats. It’s crazy!” said Amelie Grasse, crew member on Biotherm, at the finish in Cape Town.
On paper, hugely successful round the world racer Kevin Escoffier and his team on Holcim-PRB would seem favourites for victory, having won both of the first legs of the event. But such was the fine margin of their win in either leg it would be a brave person to put any serious money on the same outcome again.
Charlie Enright’s 11th Hour Racing Team and Paul Meilhat’s Biotherm have both shown impressive pace, and with Meilhat adding the hugely experienced ocean racer Sam Davies to their crew roster for this leg, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
For 11th Hour Racing Team damage to their foils in the second leg has necessitated a change back to their Mark 1 foil designs for this leg, which might well hold them back.
Though it has not been a great showing in the first two legs from Boris Herrmann’s Team Malizia they too have been hampered by foil problems, hastily fitting borrowed foils after they found a structural problem just days before the start of leg 1. But by the end of leg 2 they were starting to show some signs of serious pace.
Team Malizia also has a design that is clearly optimised more towards the heavy wind end of the performance envelope, with a full rounded bow and angular aft sections, so this Southern Ocean leg should be where we see them come into their own.
Though they have shown flashes of pace, Guyot environnement – Team Europe is racing in an IMOCA that is now three generations old (it’s the old boat Hugo Boss on which Alex Thomson was 2nd in the 2017 Vendée Globe) and have struggled to keep the pace of the four new boats. But theirs is a tried and tested design and in the Southern Ocean, reliability will be key.
How to follow The Ocean Race leg 3
The Ocean Race website will be providing key content for 2022-23 edition including latest news and analysis, videos and photos from the yachts (each IMOCA 60 has a dedicated reporter onboard) and a full racing section featuring the offshore race tracker, rankings and scoreboard.
Each leg start and finish will be covered live by Warner Bros. Discovery and shown on Eurosport platforms, including Eurosport.com. Outside of Europe, and depending on the territory, you may be able to access live coverage via YouTube.com/theoceanrace.
At 1200 UTC every day during the offshore legs, there will be a programme called The Race Report – a two-minute quick fix that tells the story of the previous 24 hours in the Race.
Niall Myant-Best will also host The Ocean Race Show, a longer format programme that takes a deeper dive into the stories at sea. This too will be available on the race website YouTube and The Ocean Race Facebook channels.
You can also catch all the latest The Ocean Race content on our The Ocean Race homepage.
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