Antoine Mermod: A great race that proves the partnership between IMOCA and The Ocean Race is here to stay
There were only five boats in the fleet, but the inaugural IMOCA participation in The Ocean Race certainly delivered.
There was drama a-plenty on the water and off it, including dismastings, a big crash, days of compelling racing, plus extraordinary speed that produced a new monohull 24-hour distance record, and finally a worthy winner in 11th Hour Racing Team.
Antoine Mermod, the President of the IMOCA Class, who championed the Class’s involvement in the race, has been impressed by what the teams have achieved on the global racecourse over seven legs since the start in January at Alicante.
Speaking at the finish in Genova this weekend, Mermod said: “I would like to offer huge congratulations to the five teams that did this race, because it was very hard for the sailors and it was incredibly complicated and tough for the shore teams who worked day and night at the very short stopovers.
“I would also like to recognise the contribution by the OnBoard Reporters, who told the story in a way that we have never seen before, and I think all the people who have participated in this story will remember it for a very long time. It has been a very good first race for IMOCA in The Ocean Race,” he added.
Mermod says the race has established that the IMOCA fleet, sailing fully-crewed, and The Ocean Race are a great combination.
“I am super-happy about it because when you change something – when you build something new – it is always a challenge with a lot of unknowns,”he said. “But we have shown that, technically speaking, the boats are at a level to do this race. And we also learned a lot about how to improve them, but also about reliability, about the way to sail the boats, about the fatigue of many components – there has been a huge amount of information from the race. On the sporting side, meanwhile, we had a great race with a lot of different winners in the legs and in the In-Port races.”
Team Malizia did not win The Ocean Race, but they still had what they call their “pinnacle moments” – repairing their mast in the Southern Ocean, then winning the epic Leg 3, setting a new 24-hour distance world record and winning Leg 7. They also took to the challenge of sharing their experiences with a growing audience on shore with great skill and enthusiasm.
Team manager Holly Cova says the race takes over your life. “I really think it is an amazing, amazing race to do. The Ocean Race gets under your skin and you can’t let go of it,” she told the Class. “But it’s true – you become so close to the other teams and you learn a lot from each other. You also learn so much about your boat – you break everything there is to break and you repair it so fast.
“And I think for the shore team,” she continued, “they learn so much because they are having to do something in such a short amount of time which normally you would never imagine. And from a purely communications point of view, you are going to places that on the French IMOCA circuit you would never get to experience and you would never have that reach. So, for partners as well, it is just incredible.”
Cova says the secret of success in this event is the strength of a team that needs to bond tightly together to deal with all the challenges the race can produce. “Being close as a team is the key because you really do put everything into this,”she explained. “I mean the whole team, every single person, not just the sailors but everyone – 40 people. The sailors have one role to play and of course it is a really important one, but they don’t get anywhere without everyone else in the team. Every single person, from the most junior to the most senior, plays such an important role.”
Paul Meilhat, skipper of fourth-placed Biotherm, says The Ocean Race is for people who want change and new experiences. “Benjamin Dutreux, Boris Herrmann and I have always wanted change,” he said. “So if I had to say why we did this race, it would be to do something different, and a change from what we are used to, and to enrich ourselves and discover new things from everywhere.
“The organisation is new, sailing with a crew is new and going to different countries is new. Everything is new – the Pro-Ams, the In-Port races, the teams and the team bases, and I think that’s great. Also you get to experience some very strong emotions – unlike in solo races, you are much more involved in sharing your feelings and emotions, and you experience seven starts, seven finishes, seven in-port races – it’s enormous,” he added.
Like Cova, Meilhat believes the strength of a team is a vital ingredient in any Ocean Race campaign. “You have to take only the best players, but also those who are going to get on and work well together for six months. And you have to take people who really want to do it, especially not people who don’t want to travel or do anything out of the ordinary. It’s a race for the extraordinary, so you need people with a passion for it,” he said.
At 11th Hour Racing Team, winners of the 50th anniversary The Ocean Race, CEO Mark Towill is hoping that the success of this event will encourage the Class to expand its offer of fully-crewed events. “I am optimistic, or at least hopeful, that there can be a solo or double-handed schedule, and then a fully-crewed schedule within the class, that will allow teams that are more Anglo-Saxon, or Ocean Race focused, to have events that they can do on an annual basis,”he said.
Mermod is thinking along the same lines. “My goal is to open, as much as possible, opportunities for skippers, for crews, and for partners,” he said. “We are opening new markets for partners that are more international. We are introducing another way of sailing for teams who are not focused on short-handed events. And I think for the whole business, it’s very important having opportunities from which teams can choose. So the signs are very positive. The Vendée Globe is the top single-handed race in the world and The Ocean Race is the top race for crews – we can be very proud about having the two biggest races in the world in our calendar.”
In the meantime, the focus now switches back to the IMOCA GLOBE SERIES Championship and a busy season ahead, continuing (after the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race in May) with the two-handed Rolex Fastnet Race in late July, then the Défi Azimut-Lorient Agglomération, the Transat Jacques Vabre and finally the solo Retour à la Base.
Mermod says the two transatlantics are big milestones on the way to the 2024 Vendée Globe, as the two-handed season comes to an end and the skippers return from the Caribbean alone. “We can say that, in these races, we will have more or less all the boats that will compete in the next Vendée Globe with all the skippers on their boats, first sailing two-handed and then coming back single-handed. It will be a big moment for the Class and I think the Retour à la Base will start to tighten the focus on the next Vendée Globe which is very exciting,” he said.
IMOCA RACE REPORT #5 I Retour à La Base 2023
A colourful first day off the Caribbean coast. Having set out from Fort-de-France 24 hours ago, 30 of the 32 solo sailors entered in the Retour à La Base race are finding their feet single-handed and still enjoying some …•••
Off and racing!
Good start out of Fort-de-France in light conditions with the fleet in close contact. - The fleet of 30 solo sailors leave Martinique heading across the Atlantic towards Lorient, France.•••