Off to The Ocean Race

Three of the IMOCA 60s bound for The Ocean Race got a preview of the competition during Le Defi Azimut.Photo courtesy of The Ocean Race: Vincent Curutchet /IMOCA

It’s been a long five years since the conclusion of the 2018 Volvo Ocean Race, and a lot more than the event’s name has changed. Here’s everything you need to know about this season’s premier ocean race before it kicks off on January 8.

The Route

Illustration courtesy of The Ocean Race

Throughout every iteration of this event since 1973, The Ocean Race’s route has followed the same basic parameters: a circuit of the globe starting and finishing in Europe with stopovers scattered throughout. However, the route itself changes for every edition, and the stopover ports vary. This year, Alicante, Spain; Cabo Verde; Cape Town, South Africa; Itajaí, Brazil; Newport, Rhode Island; Aarhus, Denmark; The Hague, Netherlands; and Genova, Italy, are scheduled to host, and a “fly-by” in Kiel, Germany, creates an additional opportunity for fans to see the boats in race-mode while underway.

A discerning eye will note that this route is somewhat of a deviation from the typical Volvo Ocean Race routes of the past decade, which incorporated the Indian Ocean via stopovers in the Middle East, India, and Asia. It’s not clear whether this decision stems from a lack of willing host cities in the region, or the race organizer’s reluctance to put sailors back in waters that proved problematic in recent editions—including a fatal nighttime collision with a fishing vessel, the marooning of one team on a reef, and one memorable leg cancellation during which the boats had to be shipped from one port to the next due to piracy concerns. Instead, the teams will face off against a monstrous Southern Ocean leg, bypassing Oceania and stretching three-quarters of the way around the globe, south of the five Great Capes and through some of the planet’s most treacherous waters.

The Boats

The Ocean Race’s primary class is now the IMOCA 60, a box-rule class that’s been in production since the early ’90s, primarily used for elite shorthanded ocean racing such as in the Vendée Globe. According to 11th Hour Racing Team CEO Mark Towill, this means that sailors will have to be more in tune with their boats than ever. “When all the boats were identical, you pushed the boat as hard as you could. But with different designs in the race, you need to be more aware of your own boat’s limitations and strengths,” he says.

This approach has pros and cons—on one hand, winning a race in the design office doesn’t make for exciting spectating; on the other, different strengths call for more strategic racing—not to mention the introduction of technological innovations like foils. The IMOCA 60s will sail with five crew on board, including one on-board reporter and at least one female crew member. Since the 2018 edition, the race has mandated that every team include female sailors.

For the past few editions, the Volvo Ocean Race has been sailed in VO65s, a one-design class with a race-operated boatyard maintaining all the hulls, hardware, and sails to identical standards. Though VO65s will still race in the 2023 edition, they will be used as a training class, with all boats required to have at least three of their 10 crew members (plus an on-board reporter) be under 30 years old. The VO65 teams will also have at least three women as part of their crew and be allowed one additional crew member for the Southern Ocean leg.

Another interesting addition for this fleet is the VO65 Sprint Cup, which will add VO65 teams not competing in the full round-the-world race to some of the shorter legs and in-port series. Presumably, this has been done to provide more opportunities for underfunded teams and rookie sailors to get experience. But given how exhausted Volvo Ocean Race sailors typically are when they arrive at stopovers, it’s hard to say whether experienced teams will have the upper hand on these green short-course teams or not…

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