The 2023 edition of The Ocean Race was all change for this historic event. Helen Fretter gets the inside story from the teams at the finish in Genoa
In the sweltering heat of midsummer in the Ligurian Sea, temperatures and tensions were steadily rising on board 11th Hour Racing. Simon ‘Si Fi’ Fisher restlessly tidied lines in the cockpit. Skipper Charlie Enright was glued to his phones, endlessly hitting refresh. “You were either in your bunk staring at the ceiling, or couldn’t sit still and just walking around talking to yourself. It was a weird place,” recalls crewmember Jack Bouttell of the long delivery from The Hague to Genoa.
With zephyr light winds, the IMOCA 60’s usual roar had been replaced with an uncomfortable quiet, broken only by the hum of the engine as the crew frantically tried to make headway to Genoa. It made no difference when they got there. After 36,000 miles of racing, nine months criss-crossing the world’s oceans, the result of The Ocean Race and the fate of the team would be decided by six people sitting in a room as an International Jury came together to decide if 11th Hour Racing should be granted redress after a terrifying collision in The Hague.
When the news came in that average points would be awarded for the final stage, there were no raucous howls of celebration. The four sailors aboard Malama sat, silently stunned, head in hands, as the engine hummed on. It was, by any count, a very strange way to win an around the world race.
A bit different
The 2023 The Ocean Race was always going to be a little bit different. While it marked the 50th anniversary of the first edition of the then-Whitbread Round the World Race, the changes for the 14th running of the event were peculiarly of its time.
It was the first edition of the race without a title sponsor. After Volvo sold the event after the last race, owners/organisers Johan Salem and Richard Brisius made it clear that they were not looking for a replacement main backer. The event was to stand on its own.
When the shift to the foiling IMOCAs was first mooted, there were fears that the development class simply wouldn’t stand up the rigours of the race. While the IMOCA 60s are designed to withstand the toughest ocean conditions in the solo Vendée Globe, the strains on the boat, many argued, are different when there is a full team pushing 24/7 – and a shore team standing by at the end of each leg to piece the boats back together again.
But those concerns weren’t universally shared. IMOCA class president Antoine Mermod told me in Genoa he was always confident the boats would be up to the job, having done analysis work with designer Juan Kouyoumdjian that showed the safety margins were remarkably similar between the two classes.
“I was confident the boats would get round. In the last Vendée Globe we had 33 boats at the start, and at the end 29 finished – that means the class was in a very positive loop in terms of reliability.
“But hypothesis is one thing, and the reality is another. For sure, it was a big challenge to finish this race and to validate actually that our theory was right.”
The other challenge was to draw IMOCA entries in: and that comes down to money. “We were at a point where to win the Vendée Globe, you need something like €10-15 million for an IMOCA campaign where the returns were mostly in France. And The Ocean Race was the same kind of money to make a good campaign. But it was fully spent in 18 months,” said Mermod. To do both events, he estimates, is a 25-30% increase in budget – but gives sponsors double or triple the return.
Nevertheless, when just five IMOCAs lined up in Alicante for the start in January, doubts lingered. And with a 13,000-mile monster leg ahead of them from Cape Town, encircling the entire Southern Ocean, even a couple of retirements would throw the viability of the whole fleet into question.
There were plenty of points at which it looked like boats would fall out of the race. But what was remarkable was that while no boat escaped without issues, the teams – both sailing and shore – performed minor miracles to keep the show on the road.
Against the odds
Malizia suffered a potentially leg-ending tear to their mast a week into the Southern Ocean leg – the team making a heroic repair which held until the finish in Itajai; Holcim-PRB dropped their rig when a furler failed just four days into Leg 4 – their logistics team somehow getting a spare mast shipped to Newport in time for them to restart Leg 5; Guyot-environnement had to return to Cape Town after discovering cracking in Leg 3, then dismasted 600 miles off Newport, but returned to restart in Aarhus after 11th Hour Racing gave them the use of a spare mast.
While ocean racers are experienced in handling such incidents, and might report them as almost par for the course, it’s easy to forget how serious the dismasting of a 60ft yacht is. Annie Lush was racing on board Guyot-environnement. She recalls: “The dismasting was horrific when it happened because we were going into a big low pressure. We had virtually no sail up as we had a couple more hours or a few miles of storm left to get through. And when it happened, as with all good horror stories, it was in the middle of the night.
“It was blowing 55 knots, big seaway, freezing water – I think 6°C. So when the mast came down, my first concern was that it would put a hole in the side of the boat. So it was quite an intense time until the mast was gone [cut away].
“Then there was the realisation we really had no fuel left because we were near the end of leg, and how on earth are we going to get anywhere? It was a really tough few days. We built the jury rig and that felt like an achievement. Then you realise you’re doing 1.5 knots against the Gulf Stream and not going anywhere.
“But one of my favourite moments of the race was when we managed to radio a ship coming past and he said he would help us.
“They filled seven 20lt jerry cans with diesel, and then tied them to some fenders with a light on, floated it out to us and it took us a couple of attempts to pick it up, but we managed to get it all on board. It was an amazing moment.”
The crew on 11th Hour Racing had more reasons than most to question the viability of their race. With the longest preparation time of any team, they were flagged as the early favourites, but outpaced by Holcim-PRB on the first two legs. Then going into the third, huge, Southern Ocean stage, things went wrong from the outset. First the team had to return to port after breaking batten end fittings in their mainsail during a gybe in Table Bay during the leg start.
“Four days into the Southern Ocean leg, the foil line broke and I had a complete meltdown like I’ve never had before,” recalls Jack Bouttell. “And it wasn’t the line – yes it’s a pain to repair, but you deal with it – but it was knowing that that was the difference between us being just behind Holcim-PRB, and falling off the back of that low. They ended up with a 700-mile lead, and I knew that would happen.
“Making a repair is only sailing 6-8 knots slower for 2 hours, but that’s enough when you’re trying to hang on to the back of a weather system.”
Tougher days yet were to come for 11th Hour Racing as they faced repair after repair. With rudder delamination and huge mainsail damage to contend with, simply getting to the finish became a battle.
“I see this race in two parts. Until Brazil, it’s about getting there. You don’t necessarily have to win the leg, but it’s about not losing the race there,” reflects Bouttell.
“We were all very aware that with the Southern Ocean in one leg, if something happened on that leg, it’s effectively game over from a winning perspective, because if you end up in Australia or New Zealand you either miss the next leg or have a massive logistical challenge and don’t have any time to prepare the boat at the other end.
“We faced that a few times in the south, like when the rudders were delaminating, when we were thinking can we realistically finish this leg? My mindset shifted to ‘we’ve just got to get the boat there, whatever happens.’ Because that’s what would keep this race alive for us.”
Having arrived in Itajai – after one final 50-knot knockdown – in 3rd overall, the American team needed to regroup if they were to stay in contention.
“I think on paper it might seem that things changed in Brazil,” skipper Charlie Enright reflected in Genoa, “but certainly our approach was consistent throughout: just try not to get high, not to get too low. Celebrating the good moments and learning from the bad ones and implementing those learnings over the course of the race.
“We always knew it was going to be the team that was sailing the best at the end of the race, and the team that improved the most over time that was going to take this thing home. And I think that’s what allowed us to believe.”
There was, Enright admits, some tough management needed to turn the team around. “In this position, in an event like this, a sport like this, you’re forced with making some difficult decisions and it’s difficult for a reason. And sometimes the harder decision is the right decision. I think over time, I’ve become more willing and able to make those difficult decisions, despite what sometimes are uncomfortable consequences.”
One of the key decisions every team had to make was how to rotate crew. The demands of pushing the complex, tweaky and often temperamental IMOCAs around the world while racing four-up drove many crews to new levels of exhaustion. Most teams made planned crew rotations, with 11th Hour Racing hiring in exceptional talent including IMOCA champion Charlie Dalin and offshore legend Franck Cammas in the later legs of the race.
But things happen quickly and unexpectedly in this race. Leg 4, from Itajai to Newport, saw Holcim-PRB dismasted in the early stages and Guyot-environnement in the latter. While the race leader was out, 11th Hour Racing handled the challenging North Atlantic conditions best for a dream finish 1st into their home port of Newport, Rhode Island.
Then just as Holcim-PRB had got themselves back into the race with a replacement rig, events ashore during the US stopover turned their campaign upside down. A sexual harassment claim was lodged against Holcim-PRB skipper Kevin Escoffier, and in Aarhus, after the transatlantic leg 5, he stepped down. Benjamin Schwartz, who’d been rostered on to navigate, was moved up to skipper.
“So I arrived on Friday evening, the in-port was on Sunday, when I got a phone call from Marinne [Derrien, team manager] saying: ‘This is the situation, do you want to take the role of skipper?’ I didn’t hesitate,” Schwartz said.
“When you jump on the boat like that, if you want it to work, you have to leave your ego aside and work for the team. And that’s what each one of us did, and that’s why it worked,” he recalls.
11th Hour Racing, meanwhile, won their second back-to-back leg. From Aarhus to The Hague, they won again. The momentum shift was complete, and 11th Hour Racing set up for a fairy-tale comeback, with a two-point lead going into the last leg from The Hague to Genoa the race win was within touching distance. Then Guyot-environnement smashed into them shortly after the start.
The videos of the crash in The Hague are a gut-wrenching watch. The reality of the port-starboard collision inside the cockpit on 11th Hour Racing was far worse.
“You’re already on this real adrenaline high when you start. The racing in-port is full-on and non-stop, and the boats are ripping around,” explains Bouttell. “We tacked over, and I heard Charlie say, ‘Starboard!’. Where I am for a manoeuvre, I can’t see to leeward, which was where Guyot were coming from. So Charlie was to leeward looking at them, and I heard ‘Starboard, starboard, starboard’. But that’s just part of sailing. Then I eventually looked down because he was just screaming and saw a bowsprit 4m away.
“The collision just brought me to tears instantly. Normally that release of emotion comes finishing the last leg. Whether you win or lose, it’s all the preparation before. It’s that pressure that keeps building for six months. It’s the fatigue that’s built up. It’s all these emotions. And normally you let that all go in relief when you finish the last leg. So it was quite a different way to feel it. And it was really heavy.”
After a momentary overwhelm of emotion, the whole team snapped back into managing the situation. “Two seconds later it was: is the rig still up? Is Charlie hurt? Is anyone hurt? We’re pointing straight at Malizia. The tiller’s snapped off, the boat’s filling up with water.
“I went into safety mode for the boat. Put the bulkhead hatches in, get the keel canted the other way, get the headsail ready to furl. Frankie [Francesca Clapcich] was sorting sheets and ropes in the water, thinking about getting the engine on. Amory [Ross, OBR] was helping on the bow and Si Fi did a really good job of managing the protocol.”
The team suspended racing, and lodged a protest. The question everyone was asking, was ‘now what?’.
Determined to arrive back in Genoa under sail, the 11th Hour Racing shore team pulled out one final miracle, rebuilding the smashed topsides in record time to allow the race crew to deliver the boat to the final stopover – though not in time for the protest hearing. Enright and Fisher assiduously prepared a protest case, with onshore meteorologist Marcel van Triest and team manager Mark Towill representing them on shore. And then, they waited.
When the jury decision came in, it awarded the overall race win to 11th Hour Racing. To honour their victory, the other teams spontaneously gathered outside the port of Genoa, circling after the afternoon’s pro-am races as a flotilla to escort the American team back in. The celebrations could finally begin. “It’s been 10 years trying to achieve this goal, and it still hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Enright some days later.
Was the 2023 Ocean Race a success?
So was the IMOCA experiment a success? On many levels: absolutely.
When the rule changes were announced there was concern that one of the biggest legacies of the previous Volvo Ocean Race – the gender rules designed to improve female participation in the race – would be undone by the smaller crew numbers of the IMOCA fleet.
In fact, the opposite seems to have happened. Annie Lush, who was part of the all-female Team SCA for the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race then sailed with Brunel in the last edition, says progress has been marked for the female sailors who competed this time. “This race feels completely different. It’s completely changed. Abby [Ehler] said something like that there was diversity before, but now it’s inclusion, and now it feels like they are fundamentally in the fabric of the race and part of the teams.”
With a full crew, the IMOCAs were able to deliver unheard-of record speeds. And the incredible work of the OBRs not only showcased the IMOCAs at full stretch mid-ocean in a way never seen before, but captured the intimacy of life on board in a four-man team that brought new characters to the fore – Malizia in particular winning fans all over the world.
With 11th Hour Racing’s win, the Ocean Race has delivered the first non-French victory in an IMOCA race around the world, and seems to signal a new internationalism creeping through the fleet.
It has been an impressive proof of concept. What it needs, above all, is more boats. Early indications are that more IMOCA teams will be keen to participate next time around, in part because of the huge knowledge gains made possible. “We launched a boat in September and in nine months I think we have done two Vendée Globes in terms of miles, two around the worlds now. It’s a really big step,” said Biotherm skipper Paul Meilhat.
“But I don’t do The Ocean Race to prepare for the Vendée Globe. I do The Ocean Race to do the race. For me this race is a return to basics, offshore sailing like it has been done for many centuries, travelling around the world by boat.” Some things don’t change after all.
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