Volvo Ocean Race at a crossroads

By the time this report is published, eight talent-packed entries in the Volvo Ocean Race will have completed the 7,350-nm opening stage of their 32,000-nm, nine-leg odyssey.

However, given that there are absolutely no weak teams for this go-around (although some are clearly better prepared than others), the final outcome of this all-pro offshore contest will likely remain almost as uncertain as it is at the time of writing – about a week prior to the first leg start. Indeed, Volvo has gone to great lengths to improve the odds of an exciting, down-to-the-wire finish. The long-term survival of the famous race that has often been described as "the Everest of ocean racing" may well depend upon it.

In 1996, the Sweden-based Volvo Group took over primary sponsorship of this event from Whitbread, a British brewing and leisure products conglomerate that, along with the Royal Naval Sailing Association, started the ball rolling back in 1973. Although the ’97-’98 race retained its Whitbread title, Volvo was running the show, largely from behind the scenes. In terms of equipment, this "final edition" of the Whitbread marked the final stage of a transition from 80-foot IOR Maxi boats to the much smaller but potentially more potent Whitbread/Volvo Ocean 60s (VO60s). When the two types shared the stage in ’93-’94, Grant Dalton’s Maxi ketch New Zealand Endeavour emerged with top honors but not before being pushed to the limit by several of the water-ballasted 60s (even though the latter had been banned from flying their masthead spinnakers on the windy Southern Ocean legs).

Four years later, Dalton was back skippering a 60 on what would be his fifth Whitbread, part of a nine-boat fleet that was brimming with hardened race veterans. However, it was the "novice" skipper Paul Cayard who ran away with the race, thanks to a systematic, America’s Cup-style, two-boat tuning program that carried on during stopovers; combined with a new strategic approach to long-distance ocean sailing that borrowed heavily from inshore racing techniques. Achieving a substantial head start on the development of the so-called Code 0 sails – essentially masthead spinnakers for very close reaching – was a third key factor. Cayard’s EF Language had first place locked up before the final leg began.

Whitbread broke the circumnavigation down into just four legs and attracted 15 to 30 entries (although attrition rates up to 33 percent suggested that not all were prepared to go the distance). Beginning with the ’89-’90 race, the number of legs increased to six in an effort to attract more regional sponsors while increasing public awareness and achieving greater media coverage. With 22 predominantly well-prepared boats at the starting line in ’89 (including the first all-woman crew aboard Maiden), the Whitbread certainly appeared to be on the upswing. However, the momentum began to falter again with the ’93 race when, despite the much-anticipated debut of the closely matched 60-footers, the entry list shrank back to 15 (10 60s and five Maxi boats). Clearly the Whitbread was no longer the undisputed king of global adventure races, and other types of professional ocean racing (such as the Vondée Globe) were siphoning off more and more potential sponsorship support.

In taking over the Whitbread reins, Volvo elected to apply the formula that had apparently re-stimulated Interest back in ’89. For the ’97-’98 race, the number of legs increased to nine, while an enormous effort was mounted to boost media exposure using elaborate onboard communications systems to deliver real-time TV coverage. Even more significantly, the upstart Internet company Quokka Sports put together a pioneering website that enabled race followers to track the event around the clock and in great detail, even racing their own "virtual boats" against the actual Open 60s on their home computers.

While these developments made trans-ocean racing a genuine spectator sport and gave the ’97-’98 Whitbread/Volvo a huge boost in popularity, the same technology soon had a similar positive impact upon the fortunes of competing events like AroundAlone, the Vendée Globe, and the 60-foot open multihull circuit. Each of these alternatives offered the added attraction of more “modern,” or at any rate more radical, raceboats. In sponsors’ eyes, the human drama of single- or short-handed competition, and in many cases, substantially lower costs, translated into better bang for the buck.

Without question, the next couple of years are shaping up to be a pivotal period in the evolution of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR). This will likely be the last go-around for the VO60s – a class that has by now matured to the point that only small (although critical) performance gains are still being achieved (and the development costs for achieving these incremental gains have escalated almost out of sight). The nine-stopover format, although it offers important advantages in keeping the racing close, has also become a serious cost impediment.

Image Credit: Jon Nash
The eight boats of the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race at the start. While the field for this running of the race, the first under the Volvo banner, is small, it is a select group of experienced around-the-world racers.

Every team now includes upwards of 30 shore-side members, plus equipment containers and even tune-up boats, all needing to be transported from port to port and set up in time for fleet arrival. Securing Wallenius Wilhelmsen, a major marine transport firm, as a VOR sponsor has obviously gone a long way toward making this possible, but it’s still a huge logistical challenge.

The greatest challenge of all has been a recent “salary war” that’s swept through the top ranks of professional sailing lately, sparked by half a dozen billionaires simultaneously entering the America’s Cup arena. Not only has this driven up the actual cost of fielding a competitive VOR sailing team, but just as significantly, it’s lured away quite a few of the big-name players who could otherwise have attracted the sponsorship to field additional entries.

So as it stands, the upcoming VOR will involve a small but extremely select fleet. Several of the teams, most notably the German illbruck program, are closely linked to ongoing America’s Cup efforts. And despite intense competition for big-name crew, the vast majority of the sailors involved will have already completed at least one Whitbread race. Several have up to half a dozen circumnavigations on their résumées.

Thanks to state of the art broadcasting and communications facilities aboard every boat, race coverage on TV, via print media and on the Internet will be unprecedented, both in terms of quality and quantity. Certainly, anyone with an interest in ocean voyaging can learn a great deal about global weather and strategic routing by following the VOR.Fine-tuning the course

When the nine-leg format debuted in ’97, a weighting system was devised to give the shorter legs greater impact in terms of overall scoring than would have been the case under the cumulative time system used in the earlier Whitbread races. Nevertheless, the long legs still counted more heavily than the short one – part of the reason why EF Language had first overall sewn up before the final sprint leg from La Rochelle back to Portsmouth.

Crewmen on illbruck prepare for a sail change.

For 2001-’02, it’s a new ballgame. All nine legs, whether the 7,350-nm from Portsmouth to Capetown or the concluding 250-nm dash from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Kiel, Germany, will count equally on the score card. Not only does this improve the odds of a dramatic final-leg showdown, but it greatly enhances the significance of the short legs that are, for the most part, in crowded coastal waters near major population centers. Several skippers have indicated that the 875-nm Miami-to-Baltimore leg might easily determine the overall race outcome and have spent considerable time training in Southeastern U.S. waters. The magnified importance of the shorter legs also puts a premium on short-course racing skills; so with more or less unlimited crew changes allowed, many boats will be slotting in rock star tacticians for the three potentially critical sprint legs.

Equal weighting for all legs will certainly help to level the playing field for the teams who have less work-up time under their belts. Although everyone will be practicing the “learn as you go” techniques that Cayard used so effectively in ’97-’98, the teams with the least work up time will obviously have the most to gain. As Roy Heiner, skipper of the thoroughly prepared Assa Abloy program, rather wryly put it, “By the time you’re out of the Southern Ocean and wrapped up in Rio [more than 2/3 the total distance], you’re not even halfway ’round on points.”

Another interesting feature of the revised VOR course is the inclusion of two islands roughly 200 nm off the coast of Brazil that must be passed to port on the opening race to Capetown. Introducing these gates will greatly restrict the options available when it comes to traversing the doldrums – an innovation that’s clearly aimed at reducing the likelihood of a one- or two-boat breakaway (as has often occurred on previous Europe-to-Capetown legs). Just as intriguing is the decision to incorporate the notorious Sydney-to-Hobart Classic as the first portion of the Sydney-to-Auckland leg. Note that in this case, although the VOR boats are scheduled to pause for three hours in Hobart, it will not be a true stopover like the other eight, and there will be no opportunity for crew shuffling. It seems likely that the race organizers are experimenting with the two-in-one leg format in hopes of eventually cutting back on the full-fledged stopovers while retaining the promotional and scoring benefits of a nine-stage event.
An overview of equipment

The third generation VO60s are fundamentally very similar to their predecessors, despite the fact that two teams have brought in major new design talent to challenge what, until now, has been pretty much a Bruce Farr monopoly. Carbon-fiber masts are now permitted (and will be used throughout the fleet), but tight specifications for the new spars ensure virtually no weight advantage over their aluminum predecessors. Instead, the new carbon masts are much stiffer and, at least in principle, will offer far greater safety margins. Again, the aim is to tighten up competition – in this case by avoiding a repeat of the dismastings that cut short the hopes of favored competitors like Tokio and Silk Cut in previous races. As in the past, VO60 hulls and decks must be built of Kevlar rather than carbon; and only “solid” foam- or balsa-core materials are allowed. These features are intended to reduce costs while improving impact resistance and hence, survivability.

Image Credit: Illbruck Challenge
Juan Vila, the navigator of the Volvo racer illbruck, engages in last-minute preparations at the VO60’s stripped-down and impact-hardened nav station.

Another area that won’t be changing for the current race is the spectacular lack of creature comforts for the sailors involved. Average freeboard for a VO60 is a little more than four feet, so for the most part, the flush-decked hulls offer less than five feet of headroom. What with extensive sail and gear stowage, plus two sets of water ballast tanks totaling 2,500 liters per side, and a bulky satcom antenna beneath the foredeck, actual living space for each crew of 12 is down to about 65 square feet. Many boats carry just five sleeping bags for 12 people, and there are no provisions aboard for showering. Moreover, VOR rules allow more than 1.5 tons of onboard gear including bagged sails, provisions, spare lines, etc., to be moved around the boat at will, to optimize trim. In practice, this means the off-watch must re-stack almost everything belowdecks each time the guys on deck decide to tack or gybe. Unlike solo racing boats, the VO60s are not permitted any sort of self-steering gear, and roller furling is only used for a few flat, close-reaching headsails. As a result, physical stamina, plus an ability to function despite severe exhaustion and sleep deprivation, will again be key to successful crews.

For all their technical refinement, the VO60s are much more conservative boats than Open 60s, and are necessarily designed to carry far heavier loads. In essence, this puts them noticeably closer to the new breed of performance cruisers in terms of both hull form and sailing characteristics. Particularly when it comes to sail shapes and rigging, advancements originating with the VOR have quite often found their way onto voyaging boats.Some key players

Limited space precludes discussing the makeup of the eight teams in any real detail (and in any case, the details are readily available at the VOR official website: All the entries, including the all-woman team aboard Nautor Challenge’s Amer Sports Too are crewed by vastly talented ocean racers with years of experience at the highest levels of the sport. Most observers seem to feel that illbruck has a small but possibly decisive edge thanks to four years of nearly non-stop preparation, the most extensive sail development program in the fleet, and a dream team crew lead by American John Kostecki, backed by two veteran round-the-world navigators.

However, after allowing a small advantage to this meticulously prepared German challenge, the next group of entries – Amer Sports One, Assa Abloy, SEB, Tyco and Team News Corp – are pretty much too close to rank. All have strong programs, and several have gone to extraordinary lengths to find a unique edge. For example, Assa Abloy built two identical Bruce Farr boats from a female mold, thus achieving perfectly fair hulls while saving an estimated 250 lbs of filler and exterior paint. (All VO60s must weigh-in at 13,500 kg, about 30,000 lbs, so all weight saved in the structure is normally added to the ballast bulb to boost stability.)

Perhaps the greatest intangible faced by odds-makers prior to the Sept. 23 start is the impact of extremely limited preparation time on the otherwise impressive two-entry program fielded by Nautor Challenge. Although only established February 2000, the new competition division of the famous Finnish yard has somehow managed to build two new VO60s while simultaneously recruiting a top-flight sailing team spearheaded by Dalton.

Interestingly, although Nautor has an exclusive agreement with Argentinean designer German Frers for their Swan line of high-end production boats, Dalton insisted upon building at least one Farr design so the late-breaking program would have a known benchmark. Although it was widely assumed that Dalton would elect to race the Farr boat while relegating the unproven Frers design to Lisa MacDonald’s all-woman squad, the decision – announced barely more than a week before the start – went the other way. The Frers boat, designed primarily by German’s son Mani, who heads up the firm’s European office in Milan, is believed to trade off a bit of sail area in favor of marginally greater sailing length. It is also slightly wider and more powerful than the Farr norm. If indeed it proves quicker, the vast experience of Dalton backed by a singularly talented crew that includes Bouwe Bekking as co-skipper, plus Roger Nilson as navigator, is quite possibly enough to offset the shortage of pre-race training time.

As for Amer Sports Too, MacDonald’s all-woman crew would at least appear to have a boat with potential equal to the fleet norm. Lack of work-up time will be a handicap, but this is doubtlessly the team much of the world would wish to do well.

Image Credit: Team News Corp.
Sailors on Team News Corp eat a meal amid piles of gear.

Other than the women’s team, the wild card of the VOR mix is djuice, the Norwegian entry skippered by Knut Frostad who selected a crew comprised largely of short-course racers. Moreover, this VOR team has broken entirely with the Farr norm by opting to go with two-time America’s Cup-winning designer Laurie Davidson. Like the Frers boat, djuice is marginally wider than the Farr boats with more freeboard, a fuller bow and larger foils.An uncertain future

Despite the spectacularly high caliber of this year’s fleet, VOR organizers are doubtlessly concerned by the steadily diminishing entries. Better cost controls and a shift to more modern, glamorous raceboats appear to be essential. Although these goals might, at first glance, seem mutually exclusive, in reality it’s the inflated costs of team salaries, multi-boat testing programs and the “moving expenses” associated with a nine-stage circumnavigation that cry out to be addressed.

Seven existing Open 60s, sailed fully crewed by teams of five or six, were recently raced across the Atlantic and back in the first edition of Chay Blyth’s EDS Atlantic Challenge. But, although these exciting boats might appear the obvious choice for the next VOR, costs would most likely continue to spiral out of control unless multi-boat testing could somehow be effectively curtailed.

However, all these knotty issues can wait another day. For now, it’s time to sit back, tune in and enjoy the VOR – still easily ranking among the world’s top ocean races.

Contributing Editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, is based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator