Whether you prefer the solo or fully-crewed format, the ability to follow elite ocean racing has never been better
In November two of the greatest ocean races were playing out simultaneously: solo versus crewed. The Route du Rhum versus the closing first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. It brought to the fore the question of which discipline captures the most public interest. Which format of elite ocean racing is the most engaging?
The Volvo Ocean Race, of course has an advantage in that it is a much bigger budget affair. There is a media crewmember aboard each yacht charged solely with delivering engaging content from on board. And the build-up to this first one-design edition of the race was substantial.
So although we received regular updates from the solo skippers on the Rhum race, the quality of pictures and video would never be able to match those coming from the Volvo yachts. But then to parachute in a media crewmember aboard a single-handed yacht might lose the point a little – a short, occasional textual report from each solo skipper is more fitting (and as much as they can manage!).
The online trackers for both races are annoyingly addictive, especially on mobile devices. Monitoring how the incredibly tight-knit, seven-strong Volvo fleet would negotiate the Doldrums and gybe west, or watching the coloured triangles struggling across Biscay – why have they stopped moving? – is a compelling reason to stay connected.
Viewing the live footage from on board the Volvo boats, watching the grizzled, battered, crimson-eyed crew still fighting for every last mile into Cape Town, proved truly gripping.
But then the new-look one-design Volvo Ocean Race is trying to play on the human interest side: the brutal reality of what life is like aboard for these endurance races, a recipe the solo events like the Vendée Globe and Route du Rhum naturally drum up.
And it has been interesting to see solo sailors creeping into the Volvo crewlists. The Chinese Donfeng entry surprised many with their 2nd-place finish, after pushing Abu Dhabi to the death. Skipper Charles Caudrelier is a solo racing expert, who selected a couple of fellow Figaro sailors to join his crew. Choosing that skillset is not fullproof however – the god of solo sailors Mich Desjoyeaux has left the Mapfre crew after a disappointing first leg last place finish.
For me personally, the two disciplines did not start on an equal footing – I admit to having a longstanding gripe with solo sailing. I know this may cause adverse reaction, but I have always thought that solo racing places too great an expectation on rescue services, and can endanger the lives of others at sea who have nothing to do the sport.
The rate of attrition on the Rhum race, for example, is worth noting: half the skippers abandoned the 2002 event, and the average dropout rate is 30 per cent. The competitors are sent clattering across the Bay of Biscay at a time where autumnal storms are typically raging. And when an accident happens it can be catastrophic.
But solo ocean racing sailors tend to be phenomenally well prepared and the human side of such a single-handed endeavour is hard to match. Why and how these sailors have the desire to put themselves through such feats of stamina while running on dangerous levels of sleep deprivation is fascinating. And the ever-growing, ever-faster machines they use to cross the Atlantic are awe-inspiring.
This hit home when I went to the race village at St Malo prior to the Route du Rhum start – along with an estimated two million others. This edition has been particularly gripping because of the scale of the ‘Ultime’ multihull class, with several trimarans around the 100ft mark, plus the almighty 140ft Spindrift 2.
Spindrift’s skipper Yann Guichard spoke candidly when he finished in Guadeloupe. He describes the physical effort of managing a monster originally designed for 14 crew as ‘unbelievable’, and how the four-hour effort to hoist the gennaker reduced him to tears. Although his safe arrival is a testament to his strength and endurance, he admits the boundaries were pushed too far. “My boat is too big for one single-handed man.” (See our video here)
Nevertheless, the achievement of Guichard and his ilk, including the incredible Loick Peyron, who set a new Rhum record by averaging over 20 knots, is immense, super-human even.
With the Volvo crews pushing harder and longer to gain every inch over their identically equipped rivals, and the Rhum multihulls getting larger and faster, are we reaching the zenith of what is possible in ocean racing? How hard the envelope can be pushed in this sport?
All credit to both racing formats. The result, for us armchair viewers is spectacular engagement, albeit with an anti-social requirement to remain hooked on 3G.