VOLVO OCEAN RACE: Sailors on course for their greatest challenge yet in the next Volvo Ocean Race
by Julia Zaltzman
Just when you think it cannot get much tougher, they go and raise the stakes! Already the most physically gruelling and mentally testing professional sailing challenge in the world, the new route for the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 edition is undoubtedly one that will separate the wheat from the chaff.
Featuring almost three times as much Southern Ocean sailing as the previous event, the 2017-18 race will be contested over the longest distance in race history at around 45,000 nautical miles (nm), crossing four oceans and taking in 11 major cities on five continents.
Once again, competitors will set sail from Alicante, on 22 October 2017, with a 700-nm sprint to Lisbon, Portugal. The fleet will then plunge south towards Cape Town in South Africa to embark on an epic few weeks racing through 12,500 nm of Southern Ocean where the fast-moving, ice-cold waters around the Antarctic harbor some of the deepest weather depressions. It is no mean feat. Even for the world’s best sailors, the Southern Ocean does not play fair.
“It’s a very different kind of sailing to the rest of the racetrack. It’s where legends have been made and people are at their absolute limit,” says newly appointed race CEO Mark Turner.
As well as providing some inevitable hairy moments, the new Southern Ocean course replaces what used to be two very long and laborious (from a sporting perspective) legs up to Abu Dhabi and on to China at low latitude. Instead, the fleet will now head back north across the equator to Hong Kong SAR, China in what will be one of the longest stages in race history.
The boats will stop off in Guangzhou, China where an in-port race and full set of stopover activities will be held, before resuming from Hong Kong to Auckland, New Zealand. The course then heads back through the Southern Ocean, around the infamous Cape Horn, and up through the South Atlantic Ocean to the southern Brazilian city of Itajaí.
“In losing Abu Dhabi from the equation, we’ve lost the Middle East as one of the commercially valuable areas of the race,” says Turner, “but the race itself is still going to 11 great stopovers from a business perspective. Two of the new venues we’re visiting are Hong Kong, a great hub of Southeast Asia and an iconic city, and Guangzhou, in mainland China, one of just four premium Tier-1 cities in China. It’s the first time the race will visit a Tier-1 city so both those places are very important.”
The new Southern Ocean leg also means that whilst it will be the longest-ever route in nautical miles, it will actually be significantly faster – an average boat speed of 4 knots faster and almost a third quicker than the previous race in terms of average speed around the world, says Turner.
“It’s a very wild, very untamed place with weather conditions that just push the people in the boat to their limit. It’s probably one of the only places in the world where you may have to throttle back a bit, and not have the pedal down the whole time, and that’s where the pressure and stress comes in.”
The change in course will have a big impact on the race, on what matters, even the kind of sailors that will take part, Turner says. Even more so now that the two Southern Ocean legs will be worth double points, which means they count twice as much.
“There’s a thin line between how hard you push to be safe, and how hard you push to win; that line is a key aspect all around the racecourse but particularly in the Southern Ocean. So we’re really putting the focus back on this part of the ocean – it’s where the lows and the highs are more intense, as is the fear and the happiness. On the leg from Cape Town you really do go deep down into the Indian Ocean, and it’s the most renowned section for catching sailors out, so the teams may not always enjoy all of it but it’s a place where any sailor wants to have gone and raced,” Turner explains.
From Brazil, the route takes the teams back into the northern hemisphere to the Eastern seaboard of the USA, Newport, Rhode Island before a blast across the North Atlantic where they are due to arrive in Cardiff, capital city of Wales, in May 2018. Then it is a short but testing leg to the penultimate stopover in Gothenburg, Sweden, before ending with a grand finale in The Hague, Netherlands.
“One of the key additions to the race is that we’re going back to the United Kingdom for the first time in 12 years,” says Turner. “The UK is the origin of the race, so I think that’s very important. We’re really reconnecting with our roots in many ways, but equally maintaining this very powerful global business platform going to all the major continents and a lot of the major markets.”
For Turner himself, the role as race CEO follows hot off his success as executive chairman of OC Sport with the Dongfeng Race Team, which came third in the 2014-15 edition. They were the first Chinese sailing team to take part in the Volvo Ocean Race, crewed by the first Chinese sailors ever to take part in any form of competitive, global offshore sailing.
“They held their own, went up some steep learning curves and went back heroes,” says Turner. “We’re expecting the Dongfeng Race Team version 2 back on the racetrack soon, so it was a very successful campaign, the sponsors were very happy, and the sailing community in China got a big boost from it. It was also the first big sports sponsorship of any government in China, so as a case study for using sport and the Volvo Ocean Race in China it’s been a very powerful campaign.”
For 2017-18, however, the focus for Turner and his team is on the commercial side of things, and, of course, to have eight boats (in the new design) on the start line. “We’re in good shape compared with other cycles, but we’ve got plenty of work to do to get those teams across the line.
“In terms of thoughts for the future, I think we’ve probably increased the commercial value of the race with the current changes and additions. The Middle East will remain an important area to go to, but there are plenty of other areas that we can open up from a business perspective that will also add more value. Everything is on the table for the future; there’s no constraint with that one,” concludes Turner.