I read with interest an article by British sailing journalist Magnus Wheatley. He had a pretty acerbic take on the state of the current Volvo Ocean Race and I have to say that agree with him. His article starts, “Like the drunken uncle that refuses to leave the coming-of-age party, the Volvo Ocean Race staggers on.” That should give you a pretty good idea of his opinion of where the event now stands on the offshore sailing calendar. His article continues, “But just like the uncle, its glory days are way in the distant past and the cool, relevant ones desperately want it to go home, tuck itself quietly to bed, and get on with the proper party.” Hmmm, pretty tough talk, but I think it’s time for some tough talk when it comes to the Volvo Ocean Race. Up to this point I have been the lone voice out there lamenting the demise of what was once a magnificent international sporting event.
While I may have been taking a hard line on the state of the race, I am not criticizing. I fully recognize the difficulty that race management has faced over the last decade and it starts with one simple premise; you can’t have a race if you don’t have any competitors. The balance between reeling in costs while at the same time knowing that innovation is what’s really needed has resulted an incongruous dance that has led to the death of the event, in my humble opinion. There are not enough boats to make it an exciting race, the boats themselves are boring dinosaurs, and there are no characters among the sailors that can bring the race to life with their charisma. There are no Eric Tabarlys or Peter Blakes or even for that matter the Flying Dutchman, Conny van Rietschoten. Conny might not have been the most interesting sailor but he did have swagger and he twice convincingly won the race.
I don’t want to be the skunk at a garden party here and I appreciate the effort that it takes to sail one of those boats around the world, but to me the event has lost its soul. I came to this realization a few years back when I attended a Volvo Legends event in Alicante. There were a number of the old boats there and plenty of washed up, worn out sailors but looking around the room I saw characters. There were adventurers, misfits and professional sailors and the room oozed with personality. Outside the room the current crop of Volvo Ocean Race sailors were strutting around in sponsor garb with an air of self-importance. As Wheatley noted, “most of the sailors today are duller than a winter in Gothenburg.” The boats looked like Farr 40’s on steroids and were colorful, resplendent in sponsor’s livery, but something was missing. Perhaps, again as Wheatley pointed out, who can get excited about boats named Mapfre, Brunel or Dongfeng?
The reason to go One-Design was forced as a way to cut costs as was the reason to go for a smaller boat from the Volvo 70 to the Volvo 65, but in doing so it tore at the fabric of the event. The Volvo Ocean Race calls itself the pre-eminent offshore sailing event, but it seems to pale against the Vendée Globe or the excitement that is generated by those massive French trimarans that are raced all over the world. Now that’s sexy and big and impressive and how the Volvo should look and feel. Look at Hugo Boss and how the boat is branded. Video of Alex Thomson careening along, foiling at high speeds is something that I can watch over and over again. Not so much the footage from this current VOR. It just does not look as exciting.
Going forward the Volvo Ocean Race will be under new management. Volvo has agreed to remain involved and to fund the next race but the details of how it’s all going to work are pretty sketchy. Unless there is some kind of miracle and money pours in, the next race is going to sailed in the same tired old boats that are currently being used. Unless money pours in there is not going to be any innovation in the fleet and no big change in direction, something that would have the public saying “now that’s what the pre-eminent around-the-world yacht race should look like.” Unless money pours in the next race is going to look like the one just finishing up and frankly I lost interest in this race before the fleet departed Alicante. Wheatley has an even bleaker view of the future of the race. He writes, “Can it, under new ownership, come back from the dead? No, is the short answer. The dead horse has been flogged. The life support machine must be switched off. The world has moved on. It’s a pointless charade of a format and it’s time to admit that it’s “Game Over.”