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In the trenches with the teams on the ground

The Ocean Race is a new world for IMOCA teams and not just on the water. Anyone who has followed the Volvo Ocean Race and the Whitbread before it knows that winning “the unofficial full-crew offshore racing world championship” requires a massive team effort both on the boat and ashore.

For the IMOCA unions, this represents totally new challenges. In IMOCA GLOBE SERIES races, boats race from point to point and then return to base, or start and finish at the same port. Shore crews rarely work under acute time pressure with a race start – or restart – just days away, when their boat needs to be in peak condition.

It is in this area that we see the two worlds come together – the French school of single-handed and double-handed racing, and the more Anglo-Saxon tradition of crewed discipline with stops halfway through.

And someone who sees this up close is The Ocean Race’s technical director, Neil ‘Coxy’ Cox – an outspoken 54-year-old Sydneysider who has run shore crews or race operations with the event for over 20 years old.

Coxy says all five IMOCA teams are making the jump, but some are better equipped than others when it comes to shore team support. “You can see them all getting into it, and it’s not the traditional way they do things,” he said from the dock in Itajaí in Brazil, where all the teams are working on their boats. before the start of stage 4. on April 23. “Some have done it really, really well, while others can’t resist it, but it’s more about whether they have the resources to do it.”

Representing the race organisation, Coxy – who previously ran the entire Boatyard maintenance fleet during the VO65 one-design era – sees his role in this edition as a facilitator. Drawing on his experience and contacts, he ensures that each team has everything it needs to be on track at each stopover. This includes basics such as dock land space, electricity, water and internet, as well as local contacts with companies providing cranes, forklifts and air freight. At Itajaí, Cox also oversaw the preparation of a docking marina for the fleet, which involved a dredging operation.

“We’re setting up all the facilities for these guys to show up with their own strengths,” he said. “It’s like trying to make sure they almost feel like they’re arriving in Lorient every time they hit the ground, apart from the fact that each place is culturally very different.”

Coxy knows better than anyone that having the right team element on the ground in this race is essential to success. “It’s a total team effort to get through the whole race,” he explained. “To me, this is the hardest yacht race in the world to win and the easiest to lose. Because at any level, or any layer, within the machine, something from small can spread into something that only costs points. And that can be on the boat offshore, or how things are handled ashore – in every race, it’s always an incredibly well-rounded team that’s a successful team.

After the 14,000 mile Cape Town marathon, this stopover is fundamental to the fortunes of each team in this race. Cox says the condition that the boats leave Brazil, as they sail for Newport, will go a long way in determining the final outcome. “The way you leave here is really how you prepare for the rest of the race, with Newport a non-stop stopover and then you end up in Aarhus and the sprint through Europe. The state of base of your boat, as to how it goes from here, plays a huge role in how you go for the rest of the race,” he said.

To put the workload of the shore team in Itajai into perspective, Cox points out that with the Volvo 70 and VO65 fleets, the boats would benefit from full maintenance every 10,000 miles. “These boats have just done 14,000 miles in one leg, so just about everything needs to be overhauled,” he said, laughing at the absurdity of what these teams have just accomplished at sea.

Having worked on the 70s and 65s, Cox has been impressed with both the IMOCA crews and the boats, which he says have arrived in Brazil without what he calls “show” maintenance issues. , and in better shape than previous fleets. who had arrived in South America after covering less than half the stage 3 race distance.

“I think the state of the fleet here is a testament to the boats themselves, the design of the boats, the way they’re maintained and the people who sail them,” he said. “Right now there’s probably more rehabilitation and rebuilding required for some sailors than for the boats. That’s what we’re not talking about – there are some pretty exhausted humans who have taken these boats 14,000 miles so far.

Coxy has no doubt that the skippers and sailors involved in this race will have already learned to fly their foilers to a level they could not have achieved solo. He believes the knowledge gained will be to his advantage in future shorthanded races, but the lessons learned will also carry over into the class. “You can see the performance curve going up in terms of what these single-handed versus crewed boats are like, and the skippers have witnessed that, so anyone outside of that should be careful,” he said. declared. “There are certainly learnings for these guys that only they have now…but I think the greatest sharing of information will probably come from those who have done it here.”

Coxy thinks understanding the culture of the shore team at this event is part of how IMOCA expands its reach and expertise as a class and he wholeheartedly agrees. According to him, the roots of this merger of the French and Anglo-Saxon offshore worlds go back a few years.

“Everyone had gone off to their own world and we never really had a chance to mingle, but the fact that we had canting keels on the Volvo 70s shows that we were already looking over the fence this what was happening in France, where it was happening. with these fantastic ideas for successful offshore boats. So there was always this connection and this respect for what was happening there. Now it’s starting to fit together a bit and the reality is that the more we can start to get a bit more internationalization of the fleet, the more it will benefit everyone, especially from a commercial point of view,” he said.

On the boat side in this event, Coxy has seen it all. We asked him if he thought the IMOCA 60s were the coolest fleet to have taken up this historic challenge. Here’s what he said: “Yeah, they’re pretty unique, that’s for sure. The Volvo 70s were incredible machines and now the IMOCAs are even better. Obviously, these boats are labor intensive both to sail and to maintain – there’s a reason for that, and it’s all about performance.

Ed Gorman for the IMOCA


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