The Ocean Race

Fri, 01/20/2023 - 4:45pm

Having sailed out of Newport Harbor for about 20 years or so—and hanging around the beaches and waterfront since the 60s—I’ve been witness to some pretty wild sailboat designs and their sailors. It’s a harbor town with a rich sailing history dating back to the American Revolution when the French were ganging up to help Washington shut down Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. It’s a town where gutsy sailors like the formidable Ted Turner, Ken Read, and the late Mike Plant left their marks in the annals of competitive international sailboat racing. It’s a town where the Herreshoff brothers probably cranked their newly designed boats around the fairway of the inner harbor in a fresh southwest breeze. It’s a town where the record-breaking and cutting-edge catamarans of the late Steve Fossett and the Frenchman Bruno Peyron spent time at the local docks preparing to scream across the Atlantic and break records. I’ve never sailed my own boat in or out of this harbor without sensing a strong pull of maritime history. Furthermore, it’s a living and ongoing history, or shall we say, history while you wait.
A few years ago a guy’s name kept popping up around the campfire in regard to ocean sailboat racing, i.e. The Volvo Ocean Race. The guy’s name is Charlie Enright and he is a Rhode Islander. I’d hear his name now and again from some people on the docks who are in the know of the international racing circuit. I figured if people were talking about this guy, then he must be an up-and-coming player in the around-the-world sport of ocean racing. As it turns out, Charlie Enright is without question a serious player in this sport, and was the only American skipper in the fleet for a recent and extreme sailing
event called The Ocean Race. Currently, Charlie is the skipper of a racing boat called Malama of the 11th Hour Racing Team that as of this writing, is racing off the coast of Alicante, Spain and bound for Cabo Verde— via the straits of Gibraltar—an island nation off the coast of Africa. The Ocean Race was originally called The Whitbread Round The World Race, and The Volvo Ocean Race. The Ocean Race is a grueling experience for the boats and crews. It’s a 35,000-mile race in sometimes very hostile ocean conditions; especially in the Southern Ocean which is a 12,000-mile bash from Cape Town to Itajai, Brazil. This is the third leg of the race and is in the most desolate body of water on the planet. (Google the Southern Ocean to see what I mean by desolate.)
There are two classes of boats in this year’s race. In the latest iteration of this wild and competitive ocean marathon, the Volvo 65 and the IMOCA 60 designs are racing in two separate classes. They are totally different boats. Furthermore, the race is broken down into different legs; the IMOCA class will have seven legs and the Volvo 65 class will have three, and each class will compete for different trophies. The Volvo 65 is a canting keel racer, while the IMOCA 60 is a canting keel foiling racing boat, and therein lies a major difference in their designs, affecting both speed and performance respectively. ( A canting keel is a keel that shifts the ballast of the lead bulb at the bottom of the keel, in order to balance a heeling sailboat.)
The IMOCA 60 was originally designed for double- and single-handed sailing and the foiling nature of the boat is a complex mash-up of math and physics. This boat’s genesis evolved in the minds of French engineers and designers who have always had a knack for thinking outside of the box in sailboat design.
The IMOCA 60 will sail this race with a crew of four, and one onboard journalist. The Volvo 65s will sail with eight or 10 crew and will also have an onboard journalist, who on both boats are limited to what they can do to actually sail the boat with the crew. (Amory Ross, who hails from Newport, is the OBJ aboard Malama; we have two Rhody guys in this race—Go Rhody! This will be Amory’s fourth go at The Ocean Race.) These OBRs are a very important part of the team because of their technical skillsets, using for example, drone technology that can provide solid intel on the boat’s performance for the skipper and crew. The Ocean Race has evolved into a high tech arena of ocean combat.
The IMOCA class boats left Alicante on Sunday 12-15-2023 in ideal foiling conditions: flat water, perfect wind, and great visibility. While watching the livestream start of this race we could see the complexity of sailing these fast, nimble, and fragile boats. I say fragile because at the speeds that the IMOCA class boats can go there is a higher chance of something going afoul with the foils, sails and rigging. Faster into disaster, as it were. And, these boats can break. Although the IMOCAs are built of carbon fiber, and the stress and loads on the hulls and rigs are baked into the designs of the boats, things can go wrong in a rough patch of ocean. The IMOCAs can reach speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour. At these speeds the vigilance of the sailors is on call 24 and seven for very long distances, which will test their resolve and physiology. I do not use the word grueling in an exaggerating manner. It’s truly a brutal test for each sailor aboard these foiling boats. For example, carbon fiber hulls make a booming noise as they pound while they are in the process of finding the sweet balance of foiling. This constant auditory stimulus must play havoc with the crew when they’re trying to sleep. Adding to this stress, is the fact that if a boat is 600 miles from any point of land, rescue is in the range of impossible.
Sailing the IMOCAs burns calories; the crews must eat to refuel daily. We can live on meat and potatoes; however, these delicious staples take up space and add weight to these boats. Therefore, all of the food that the sailors consume is freeze-dried—just add water, heat and eat. Or, just eat. There will be no ribeye steaks, new potatoes, or tiramisu until the crew go ashore at the appointed legs. In late May, the IMOCAs will stop in Newport, which is the halfway point of The Ocean Race. I met Charlie Enright and Amory at Fort Adams this past summer after they raced Malama to Bermuda. That day at Fort Adams I got a chance to see Charlie address his crew and team and I sensed a powerful leader and was impressed by the demeanor of him and his crew. Finally, Godspeed to Malama and her crew as they find the sweet spot for their foils, and put the pedal to the metal as they charge to Cabo Verde and the subsequent legs of The Ocean Race. We’ll see you in Newport! For more information see: 11th Hour Racing, or The Ocean Race.