As The Ocean Race crews charge around the world, is racing under autopilot cheating... or progress? Matt Sheahan considers the implications of the the new normal

That’s not racing. It’s cheating. If you’re going to use the autopilot to sail around the world you might as well simply control the boat by remote control from home.” Comments like these were common online and on the busy dockside in Alicante at the start of The Ocean Race in January.

This year’s start marks the 50th anniversary of the first edition of the most famous fully crewed round the world race of all, the former Whitbread/Volvo. With such a high profile has come plenty of debate as to how much has changed, and what the future really holds for this type of racing.

A fleet of just five boats going around the world means this race doesn’t currently have the punch it once had. The IMOCAs being used are notoriously fragile, which has led to concern about how the reputation of the race hangs in the balance if one or more of them was forced to drop out.

On the other hand, some say that while the fleet size is small, this is what the ‘real world’ looks like when teams arrive with their own funding rather than aboard campaigns heavily supported by the event sponsor. This race, they argue, is a transitional one where a new class and a new definition of fully crewed is setting a marker for future editions.

One of the big talking points is about whether it’s right to race around the world from inside using an autopilot. There were certainly plenty of onlookers on the dockside expressing such frustrations. The irony was that many chose to ignore the fact that the airliner they’d arrived in would have been switched to autopilot just a few minutes into the climb and flown by the computer for most, if not all, of the trip. I’m not so sure they’d have been as happy for the pilots to have been in their sitting room flying by remote control.

11th Hour Racing Team racing followed by a helicopter. Photo: Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race

Having sailed with 11th Hour Racing Team at over 20 knots in flat water it’s easy to see how disorientating and potentially puke-inducing the indoor experience would be in a sea state at full bore.

Inside, where the headroom is frequently safe for crawling only, crews are not only out of touch with the elements, but the noise and the motion are horrendous. Many are so worried about injury below decks while moving about that they’re wearing crash helmets as protection. But, is that any worse than seeing crews being smashed into pedestals, wheels and winches by waves that have come barrelling over the deck at 25 knots plus?

And then there’s the debate about the autopilot – sure, it would be great to think that performance is down to the skill of the helmsman and trimmer but this hasn’t been the case for ages. In the Vendée Globe skippers don’t helm, yet somehow that’s acceptable.

As a sport we can’t have everything. To insist on sailing by hand would be to impose a performance cap on the boats. And what if a heavier, fully crewed and manually steered IMOCA was slower around the world than a single-handed entry? Doesn’t sound like progress to me.

The fact is we can’t uninvent the wheel. Big speeds are here and there seems little chance of winding the clock back and pretending that cruising at 30-plus knots on a 60ft monohull never happened.

And for those who question what a high speed IMOCA has ever done for them and their 30-footer, take a look at Beneteau’s brand new and award-winning First 36.

The First 36 benefits from the decades of ocean racing that proceeded it

On the face of it this is a pretty ordinary looking boat with a cockpit that looks barely any different from the hugely successful, 24-year-old First 40.7. Yet the new 36 is not only 4ft shorter, but is said to go upwind at 8 knots and downwind at 15-20 knots. The 40.7 never did that.

The 36 is more than two tonnes lighter but you’d never guess it from the outside, or indeed from the inside where accommodation is pretty much what you’d expect for a mid-sized production boat. There is a shallower canoe body and a much flatter, beamier run aft to the slender and shallow twin rudders, plus more subtle details that contribute to this big hike in performance – details that have come from the offshore racing world.

Whether we end up sailing from inside in the future is difficult to predict, but it’s not hard to imagine this being a great selling point at boat shows to family crew who may be apprehensive when it comes to the idea of casual weekend cross-Channel trips.

Maybe then we can get away from selling boats by decorating them like a hotel guest suite. An upright saloon at a boat show that’s adorned with vases and sideboard pictures – now that’s cheating.

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