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The Ocean Race: What’s it like on a fully crewed IMOCA 60?

Since the announcement The Ocean Race would use IMOCA 60s, designed for solo racing, there has been much talk about how these usually single-handed designs would perform with a full crew on board. Matthew Sheahan finds out

How much faster could an IMOCA 60 go if it were really pressed? Not in bursts, not for brief peak speeds, but at a sustained average pace over days or more. In other words, how much faster would they go if they could be pushed harder, for longer, than a single-handed sailor could cope with at one stretch? The Ocean Race will answer many of these questions, but with The Ocean Race Europe now finished, teams are starting to get a better idea.

It’s a question that has been discussed for some time, even more so since the 60-footers started to fly five years ago.

Vendée Globe sailors frequently comment that they’re often sailing their boats at well below 100%, because they simply cannot keep up the intensity of going full-bore when they’re sailing alone.

But if you could keep your foot hard to the floor, day in, day out – just as a full crew would be able to – how much faster would one of these globe scorching monohulls go? And would their notoriously fragile structures be able to stand the pace?

As soon as The Ocean Race organisers announced that the IMOCA 60 fleet would be invited to join the VO65s in the fully crewed multi-stage race around the world (formerly the Volvo Ocean Race), speculation ramped up.

How could you fit a full crew into a boat designed for one or occasionally two? Just how many people is ‘fully crewed’ anyway? What would the crew roles be? And what would you do about the autopilot?

Many of the top solo sailors point to the fact that their advanced pilot systems can now steer an IMOCA 60 faster than a human at times. Putting a full crew on board, along with the associated weight of people and provisions, and then making them hand steer, could actually slow the boats down. (Come The Ocean Race, autopilots will be allowed on the IMOCA 60s although details as to the limit of the pilot’s intelligence are still being discussed.)

IMOCA 60s are designed for manoeuvres made step-by-step, by one skipper. Photo: Sailing Energy/The Ocean Race

The first opportunity to answer some of these questions was The Ocean Race Europe – an offshore event intended as a preamble to the postponed Ocean Race (which now starts next year, and in which crewed IMOCA 60s will join the VO65s around the world). It addressed some, but also shone the spotlight on other issues.

Five IMOCA 60 teams entered this summer’s event, a four-leg 2,000-mile offshore from Lorient, France to Cascais, Portugal, then Alicante, Spain, to the finish in Genoa, Italy.

The fleet included a range of designs and generations. The newest boats were Corum L’Epargne, Bureau Vallée (ex-L’Occitane en Provence) and LinkedOut, all designed for the previous Vendée Globe and sporting wing-like foils. Then there was 11th Hour Racing, previously the 2015 Hugo Boss, also sporting foils.

The oldest boat in the fleet was Robert Stanjek’s Offshore Team Germany and, aside from a cockpit that by today’s cave-dwelling style looked open and spacious, the most telling sign of her age was her ‘conventional’ straight daggerboards.

Although quicker in the right conditions, the foilers do have limitations in lighter weather and upwind. Photo: Bureau Vallée/The Ocean Race

But while this Owen Clarke design from 2011 might have looked a little dated alongside her flying friends, it was this boat that went on to win the event. It was no fluke either. Not only did this boat and her crew remind the rest of the fleet what all round performance looked like when the breeze went light and upwind conditions prevailed, but the hands-on, inshore style of sailing that the crew adopted seemed to pay off as well.

Crew member Annie Lush was already familiar with the boat, having raced with Stanjek and his crew in the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race. But for the four-time match racing world champion and twice Volvo Ocean Race competitor, the race around Europe fell between her two worlds and helped to redefine what was meant by fully crewed.

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“For over 90% of the time or more, the Vendée Globe sailors are not driving, the autopilot is. So, for me, that was a bit of a shock, realising that we wouldn’t really be steering in the race,” she said. “And even when you do it’s quite hard with a tiller, especially when it’s windy. It takes quite a lot of force and it’s also tricky to find somewhere to sit where you can drive and still be able to see.

“Inside the boat, it’s really designed for one small person, so it’s pretty cramped,” said Lush. “But when it comes to handling, one thing you notice straight away is that they’re a lot lighter so you feel the acceleration, but you also become aware about the limits to how hard you should push.

“I’m pretty used to the Volvo 65, which basically you can just push and push and push and they don’t break. But the IMOCAs can. So, knowing how hard to push and how far to take the boat is pretty new to me.”

This, by the way, is on a boat that by comparison with others in the fleet is pretty robust.

Highly protected cockpits on modern IMOCAs are a squash for a team of five. Photo: Sailing Energy/The Ocean Race

Another sailor with both crewed and solo experience to draw upon was Pip Hare. Having recently completed the last Vendée Globe aboard Medallia, the contrast between sailing alone aboard an IMOCA 60 and sailing with a full team was very evident as she joined Louis Burton and his crew aboard Bureau Vallée for two legs of the race.

“It was an amazing experience seeing just how different the new breed of IMOCA 60s is,” she said. “On the leg from Cascais to Alicante we had the A2 up in 25 knots as we blasted past Cabo Vincente on our way towards the Gibraltar Strait. For me 22 knots of breeze would have been the absolute max and even then I’d be pretty nervous. When I asked Louis what the limit was he sort of shrugged his shoulders in a relaxed way and said, ‘I suppose around now’.

“And while I can see that he’s naturally a relaxed sailor, it was also a clear indication that even for experienced solo sailors this was very new territory where the confidence of having a full crew to get the sail down was allowing them to see just how much further they could push the boat.”

But while the fast downwind sections of the race were good fun, light conditions revealed some of the drawbacks of a full crew. “The cockpit has been designed around one, maybe two people,” she continued. “So, four or five is a squeeze. And when you’ve got lots of water coming over the deck, or it’s furiously hot, it’s difficult to manage with people. You’re trying not to be in the way, but it’s difficult not to be.

“We did two watches of two with Louis floating. And when you’re just trying to maintain boat speed in a straight line there is only enough for two people to do. In the super light winds, it was basically just go and lie in the bow. And that’s frustrating because we all wanted to do more and be more involved.”

Grinding is one of the few areas where adding more manpower can boost speed. Photo: Felix Diemar/Offshore Team Germany/The Ocean Race

Having competed in three Volvo Ocean Races 11th Hour Racing’s onboard reporter and crewmember, Amory Ross, is well versed in living aboard a carbon racing shell and keeping out of the way. Yet his blog outlined how different life was aboard an IMOCA 60.

“In contrast to the VO65/VO70 all you do down below is sleep and cook,” he wrote. “There’s no room for anything else. Eating, navigating, telling bad jokes all happens in the cockpit. If you’re important like Charlie Enright [skipper] and Justine Mettraux [crewmember] you get a luxury lee-cloth. We have no bunks. I’m like a house cat and roam. I enjoy the freedom.

“Sifi [Simon Fisher, navigator] is in the companionway with the tackable nav screen. The MSR burner and red butane canister is under the tunnel and between the longitudinals. Very conveniently located, ideal for operation in excess of 27 knots. It gets wickedly hot, wickedly fast. The rest of the boat is empty, dark and scary. It’s worth finding excuses not to explore!”

One of the biggest potential advantages of a full crew is the ability to change gear more quickly. A sail change which might take 45 minutes alone can be accomplished in 10 minutes with a full crew. But even this wasn’t straightforward.

“When you’ve got two guys on the pedestal in the middle of the cockpit they pretty much fill up the whole space,” said Hare. “Through manoeuvres, I managed lines and winches, but I had to squeeze myself down the side of the cockpit to grab lines. I’d know what they wanted and in which sequence but I’d have to squeeze round on the side of them so I didn’t get an elbow in the face. And while we found efficient ways of doing that, it was constantly a battle not to be in each other’s way.”

Sea state is of vital importance in navigation decisions for the foilers. Photo: Felix Diemar/Offshore Team Germany/The Ocean Race

Communication was also an issue. “We had headsets, because if you are running the pedestal inside the covered cockpit and there’s light reflecting off the windows there’s no way you can communicate with the bowman,” she continued. “So, for these situations they were wearing three headsets, one for the guy on the pedestal, one for the skipper and one for the bowman. As well as being able to carry out the manoeuvre you can do much more advanced peels and sail changes and can push sails right to the limit, so in that respect you can definitely push the boat harder.”

Even when they could talk to each other directly, communication still presented challenges between those used to working as a team and those that have led more of a solitary life afloat.

“For the Vendée sailors it’s been about getting used to having other people on board,” said Lush. “They’ve [told me] that they don’t really know how to ‘be’ on board with the team. They don’t know what to do or how to communicate. For me, I’m very clear on how I think the boat should run, I’m used to that role, but maybe not just with four. So, it’s a completely different viewpoint.”

Once routines and systems had been sorted, the advantages of being able to push the boat harder with a full crew began to appear. “In the Mediterranean when there was breeze and flat water you could get the boat into a mode where you’d constantly be making small tweaks and seeing the improvements in boat speed,” said Hare.

Amory Ross selfie shows how little room there is below on 11th Hour Racing. Amory Ross/11th Hour Racing/The Ocean Race

“Gradually, with the ability to work intensely for a short period and rotate through the crew we were achieving a pace that you simply couldn’t do on your own because at some stage you have to do other things such as navigate, cook, sleep or fix something.

“So, we got to see the real potential of the boat. Plus, for me, I learned what ‘good’ feels like, which is a really important thing. On your own it’s difficult to get to this level of performance and therefore difficult to know what you’re seeking and I think that will be true for even the experienced crews.”

All-round performance

With five Volvo Ocean Races under his belt, 11th Hour Racing navigator Simon Fisher is certainly experienced when it comes to crewed racing around the world. For him, IMOCA racing has involved learning how to race with a team of just four, as well as making the switch to double-handed racing with Mettraux.

In light airs it makes sense to vacate the cockpit. Photo: Corum L’Epargne/The Ocean Race

“I’m certainly learning all the time about how you operate with fewer people on board,” he said. “I get to be much more involved in the sailing than I’m used to and you start to see the French approach where short-handed crews need to be good-all round sailors. Everybody on our boat is capable of navigating as well as driving and trimming and going on the bow.

Corum crew and French solo rock star Sebastien Josse knows both the IMOCA 60s and fully crewed Volvo Ocean Races. What does he think a team looking to compete in an IMOCA 60 next year would need to succeed?

“You need to have a boat designed for it. If you use an IMOCA to do this race, you have to think about what life on board with five people for 10 legs around the world will be like, and then adapt it to suit. It’s not the same as going to a designer with a clean sheet of paper, which would likely deliver a very different looking boat.”

So, while The Ocean Race Europe started out as a promotional preamble to the big gig next year, the learning curve turned out to be steeper than many had expected. It also offered some hints as to the potential pace this new style of sailing might deliver, with speeds well into the 30-knot range. The IMOCA 60 could yet have plenty more to give.


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