The 2023 edition of The Ocean Race finished in Genova with victory for the US team 11th Hour Racing Team ahead of Holcim-PRB and Team Malizia. Tip & Shaft now examines the event with some proper experts with an insider’s view: event co-owner Johan Salén, Imoca class president Antoine Mermod, designers Guillaume Verdier as well as Quentin Lucet (VPLP Design), sailor Franck Cammas and journalists Jacques Guyader (Ouest-France) and Stéfan L’Hermitte (L’Équipe).
11th Hour Racing’s win was announced Thursday morning after the decisions by the race’s international jury. The IJ had received a request for redress from 11th Hour Racing Team who were forced to retire from the seventh, final stage after their Imoca was hit by Guyot Environnement-Team Europe when they were on starboard tack just after the start in The Hague. The request was accepted by the jury who awarded four points to 11th Hour Racing Team who then won with a three-points margin over Holcim-PRB and five points over third placed Team Malizia.
Holcim-PRB team had also filed a protest against the American team, as they said they believed that 11th Hour had not done everything to avoid the collision. Was this protest, which was rejected by the jury, poor sportsmanship? “No,” answers Antoine Mermod. “The goal of the teams is to win the race and for that you have to know how to use the rules, it’s part of the game, that’s what they tried to do.” Holcim-PRB did not choose to appeal the decision. Of the final outcome Johan Salén says: “It is the first time in the history of the race that it finishes like this. But we know this can happen in sailing, it created a kind of different suspense compared to the previous races!”
This 2023 edition was the first to be raced in Imocas, a change of class which, according to our experts, has been successful, even if there were only five boats at the start. “The results are positive, summarizes Quentin Lucet, architect at VPLP Design, who designed Malizia. The boats all managed to complete the circumnavigation of the globe having been sailed hard, even if we consider the two dismastings due to mechanical parts that failed. The big foilers had not been able to fulfil their potential on the last Vendée Globe but The Ocean Race made it possible to validate the concepts of the new generation.” For Franck Cammas, “Racing with a crew made it possible to discover new ways of sailing with the big foils, hence the very good averages and a 24-hour record which is brilliant, because 20 miles more than Comanche, a 100-foot boat, had to be done!”
“The winners are the ones who knew the race best”
In the end, then, the victory went to 11th Hour Racing Team who finished on the podium of all the stages, winning three out of seven. But that is not really too much of a surprise in that the American crew, part of which had competed in the two previous editions in the VO65s, was widely considered as the favorite for a race which was always the focal point, the pinnacle event for the the project, and they started long before all the others. “The Ocean Race is a very tough race, I think the teams that had never raced it did not expect it to be so tough. The winner are the ones who knew the race best”, summarizes Salén.
Winner of the 2011-12 edition as skipper of Groupama 4, Franck Cammas, who raced the sixth leg aboard the American Imoca, adds: “The Ocean Race is a long, hard endurance race, during which you have to try to keep the team together, that’s what they did well. They had their share of problems, however, but they were able to rectify them. Even when things weren’t going well, you could feel that the mindset remained positive, them knowing they were going to perform. They also relied on a very stable, experienced core team with Charlie Enright and Simon Fisher, who certainly has the most experience on the race as offshore navigator.”
Asked about the qualities of the winning boat which he has designed as well as Holcim-PRB, Biotherm and Guyot Environnement-Team Europe (along with VPLP), Guillaume Verdier responds: “Where Holcim-PRB is a very stiff boat, super good at reaching but it’s a little more specifically type formed, 11th Hour Racing is more homogeneous.” That according to Franck Cammas, constitutes its great strength compared to his competitors: “The others had weak points that were a bit too prohibitive to hope to win the race. Malizia, for example, has a lot of good qualities downwind in the bigger seas, thanks to its hull which has rocker in the stern which allows the bow to lift well when needed, but it is less good upwind and downwind when there is not too much wind.”
What does Malizia’s architect Quentin Lucet think? “Malizia won the stage in the Big South and the last leg in light airs. They go well in these conditions,” he believes. “There are other areas where there is room for improvement, in particular medium winds. The design of the hull works very well, we have to work on the intermediate phases where the foil is more important.”
Moderate media interest in France
If there are plenty of lessons for the design teams, on their side the organizers will soon communicate about the media and popular following of an event that journalist Jacques Guyader has covered almost in its entirety, only missing the stopover in Newport. For him, the best stopover prize goes to Itajai: “The village was full of people every day, I did not expect that, because I made many Transatlantic finishes into Salvador de Bahia where there was no one . It must be said that the state of Santa Catarina had put in a lot of resources in to bring people into the fun, festive village.”
And what about the media? “Outside France the race was very popular, particularly in Germany with the real phenomenon that is Boris (Herrmann) who is a big star, he is on the front page of the television news of the major national channels,” notes Imoca’s president Mermod. “ In France, it didn’t work as well as we had hoped, not in terms of social networks, but more in terms of the “traditional” press, it’s a bit of a disappointment. We have not managed to get the narrative of The Ocean Race to find its place.”
Journalist at L’Équipe, which really only gave a limited space to the race, Stéfan L’Hermitte gives something of an explanation: “The Ocean Race is undoubtedly a fantastic race, very tough, even if the number of boats was reduced this year, but it is not very understandable for our readers who are interested in sailing really twice in four years, they follow the Route du Rhum and the Vendée Globe. Sailing is one of the niche sports that most people will never make the effort to learn and understand, so the niche must be wide open to make it easier.“ Jacques Guyader nevertheless considers that the content, the narrative is strong: “What we are looking for is to tell stories. And for me, over the five months, I had quite a few in my net, beautiful and less beautiful.”
The next edition is in sight
Guyader refers in particular to “the Kevin Escoffier affair” which he says, “made people really talk in France”, which Johan Salén confirms. It did, however, lead some of the protagonists in the race to react concretely, as Antoine Mermod points out: “Now that we have a bit of perspective, we are setting up a unit within the class to quickly deal with problems of this type, by making it easier for potential victims to speak out and to support them. ” Within the Ocean Race organization, this process had already been initiated, Salén assures us. “Three months ago we started working to create a position of safeguarding officer responsible for ensuring that behaviors are proper and to deal with any problems, we will continue with this initiative.”
Over the coming months the organizers will work to draw up the main aspects of the next edition to be contested in four years time, but also those for the second edition of The Ocean Race Europe, in the summer of 2025. These two races which will be run exclusively in Imoca. Johan Salén hopes to unveil the course for the European edition “early next year” – “there could be one or two stopovers in France” -, and “the following spring” for The Ocean Race. Salen suggests, “The idea is to keep the duration roughly the same, so it will be a pretty similar course. Perhaps we will have one less stopover in Europe and add one more in Australia or New Zealand.” That would meet the wishes of Guillaume Verdier who “finds it too dangerous to do such a long stage without checking the boats halfway”.
How many teams are expected in four years? “Between 10 and 15 seems like a reasonable range to me,” replies Antoine Mermod.
Photo: Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race