The round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race is attracting new teams after cutting costs in half by making competitors use identical 65-foot yachts instead of building their own boats.
Seven teams are competing, up from six in the 2011-2012 race, and Volvo Ocean Race Chief Executive Officer Knut Frostad said he hopes as many as three more boats will be built for the next edition.
With changes including shared maintenance, the cost of a campaign in the 2014-2015 race is between 12 million euros ($13.5 million) and 14 million euros, down from more than 25 million euros, according to race organizers. The 4.5 million-euro boats were also designed to be re-used in the next race in three years.
“Without the move to one-design, there wouldn’t be the Chinese team,” Mark Turner, executive chairman of OC Sport, the management company of third-ranked Dongfeng Race Team from China, said in a telephone interview on June 11. “It leveled the playing field.”
The Volvo is a nine-month test of endurance and seamanship with storms, massive waves, the threat of icebergs or floating debris, and nights with no sleep. The 38,739-nautical mile course around the globe started in Alicante, Spain, in October.
The ninth and final leg, 960 nautical miles from Lorient, France, to Gothenburg, Sweden, begins Tuesday and may confirm leader Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing as the winner.
“In the previous races the teams with the most money and probably as well the best development programs, they would nine out of 10 times win,” Team Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking, who’s taking part in his seventh Volvo, said at a press conference in Lisbon on June 5. “But this time it’s just the best team will win.”
Boat speed has been one of the “overriding factors” in the race, said Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker, who’s completing his third Volvo.
“So that would lead you to say you need the best trimmers and helmsmen,” he said. “But having said that, you have to have a good strategy.”
At sea, the seven boats have access to the same meteorological information and are restricted to 25 megabytes of data on average per day, Team Alvimedica navigator Will Oxley said as he set up a laptop inside the boat that’s stripped of any non-essential equipment.
“The danger with one design is that unless you keep advancing, then you get left behind a little bit in terms of the technology,” he said.
The boats taking part in this edition will be upgraded before the next race and some tweaks might be made including possibly making them lighter, said Frostad, who has sailed four Volvos.
“Decision-making was important in the past too, but now it’s more visible,” he said.
America’s Cup organizers are also trying to reduce the cost of taking part in that sailing race dating back to 1851. Billionaire Larry Ellison spent at least $100 million on Oracle Team USA’s successful campaign in 2013.
“We came in later so the one-design rule was essential,” Mirella Vitale, commercial director of the team sponsored by wind turbine maker Vestas Wind Systems A/S, said in an interview before the boats set out in the penultimate leg from Lisbon to Lorient. “We neither had the time nor the expertise to go out and develop a boat. It’s the first time we’ve done a global sports sponsorship.”
The Vestas boat, which is in last place, re-joined the race in Lisbon this month after missing five legs when it ran aground on an Indian Ocean reef in November.
Another new team, Team Alvimedica, founded by Brown University alumni Mark Towill and Charlie Enright, currently lies in fifth place.
“For us being the young and relatively inexperienced team in the race it’s really leveled the playing field and made it all about the sailors and the decisions you make, and not about the enormous race that is designing and building the best boat,” Towill said. We’re “already talking about the next race.”