Mermod: IMOCA is stronger than ever
As its Annual General Assembly in Lorient comes to a close, Antoine Mermod, President of IMOCA, says the Class is in better shape than ever before and with an exciting new season of racing to come
IMOCA: Antoine, the IMOCA family seems to be enjoying excellent good health with new commercial partners, new skippers, new boats – 14 in all – and new races all in the mix for the IMOCA GLOBE SERIES 2022-23 season?
Antoine Mermod: "For sure, this is probably the best time for the IMOCA in its history. We have a lot of new projects underway, but also a lot of high quality projects too. In addition to that, we have quite a few boats in build now and most of the partners that were with us in the last Vendée Globe have decided to continue or even to upgrade their campaigns. That shows the class is very strong. On top of that, we’ve got quite a lot of new partners coming in and interesting ones like Hublot – from the luxury watches industry. This shows we are a very attractive and dynamic Class and we can be very proud of that."
IMOCA: Isn’t it the case that of the 16 new commercial partners and sponsors coming into the Class, 10 of them are international companies – more evidence that IMOCA is reaching out to a wide international audience?
AM: "To be honest the budget that is required to participate in the IMOCA world, especially for winning projects, is significant and that needs a big company to back it. These kinds of companies have to be organisations that are not just interested in the French market, but have a worldwide reach. And yes, we are happy that these sorts of companies are interested by our history, by our boats and by our skippers. It’s a great thing that we can have such major brands entering our circuit."
IMOCA: Another feature in recent months has been the busy market for older boats changing hands between teams. This again suggests that the IMOCA Class is thriving, with new skippers coming in and older boats being given a new lease of life?
AM:"Yes that’s true and you can see that in the new season for 2022. I would say that almost all of the IMOCA boats that exist now have a skipper and a partner and they are entering races. That again indicates that we are healthy and strong and there is a lot of interest in our races and our Class."
IMOCA: Given that we live in a very uncertain world, with a war in Ukraine, a recent pandemic still affecting many countries, and major stresses on the world economy, you might imagine that the IMOCA Class would be struggling. But this is not the case. Why do you think that is?
AM:"The word I would choose in this context is resilience. The point is that when you sail around the world, either crewed or single-handed, one of the main qualities you need is resilience. It means that you are doing your best all the time, even in the challenging environment that is all around you. What we are trying to do within the IMOCA family is to be resilient, just as our fantastic skippers are when they are struggling on their way around the world. We are not responsible for the war or the pandemic, but we are living in this world and our job is to do our best and to do what we know how to do – and that is to help bring people’s dreams to life. And maybe in these very difficult times, it is especially important that a few people are dedicated to this sort of work."
IMOCA: This year offers an exciting calendar of races, starting with the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race in May, then the Vendée Arctique in June, the Défi Azimut-Lorient Agglomération in September and finally, the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe in November. It’s a mouthwatering prospect?
AM:"Yes, and it’s four races this year and four single-handed races. It’s a very tough programme for the skippers, but we are very proud to be able to offer such a demanding season."
IMOCA: The Vendée Arctique is an interesting one because it was created to fill a gap during the Covid-19 pandemic, but has now become a permanent feature?
AM:"Yes, exactly. And also, it’s the SAEM Vendée that is organising the Vendée Arctique race this year. For us, it is very important to strengthen our links with SAEM Vendée and we are very happy that they are investing in, and developing the concept of this race. We really think that, in the future, it will become one of the main races within our four-year circuit."
IMOCA: Obviously the Route du Rhum is the big focus this season. Do you know how many IMOCAs will be on the startline?
AM:"There are 138 boats in the race all together and part of that will be IMOCAs. So far the first 27 IMOCA entries have been announced with the remaining boats expected to be announced before the end of this month. It seems there could be more than 35 IMOCAs at the start in St Malo. Four years ago there were 20, so this is another indication of the dynamism of our Class. The other thing to remember is that we are talking about very high quality projects among these entries too and the level of quality is continuing to increase."
IMOCA: Moving on to The Ocean Race – we know it is going to start on January 15, next year and the IMOCA Class will be taking part. Perhaps you can explain why this is such a key objective?
AM:"For us, to include The Ocean Race within our programme is something very, very important. Our boats are made to go around the world. We have the Vendée Globe, which has been the main race for the IMOCA Class for a long time; having a second round-the-world race has been a key goal and The Ocean Race is it. We are working closely with The Ocean Race organisers, and I think there could be more good news on this front, that could be announced before the end of this month."
IMOCA: That sounds interesting. Can you say how many IMOCAs you believe will take part, come January?
AM:"It’s early to be sure, but let’s say six would be a good number."
IMOCA: Do you believe that The Ocean Race will become a permanent fixture in the IMOCA GLOBE SERIES going forward, so that in four years time it will also be there and more boats will take part in it?
AM:"Yes, definitely. That is more than a hope, it is what we are working towards."
IMOCA: Can we talk about sustainability and how the Class is progressing in this area? There was plenty of discussion on this at the Annual General Assembly this week?
AM:"Sustainability is another critical subject for us and, more and more, it is important that we are leading and upgrading our sport in this regard. Within the IMOCA Class we have been working for four years on this and it is not always easy to deal with. But we are investing more than 10% of our annual budget on this and, increasingly, we are finding plans, solutions and making progress. At the Assembly we saw a strong commitment from all the skippers to focus and act in this area and, for sure, it is at the heart of our entire evolution over the next four years. We still have a lot to do, and we are not communicating about it much, because it is important to actually achieve our goals first before we talk about it. But it will be at the heart of our story as we go forward."
IMOCA: Is it true to say that 11th Hour Racing has been leading the way in this area?
AM:"They are leading yes, but they are not the only ones. Boris Herrmann has been doing a good job on this subject for the last four years and there are quite a lot of other teams that are contributing. Benjamin Dutreux, with Water Family, is doing interesting work and Paul Meilhat is also pushing the Class towards change and, with his new commercial partner Biotherm, is working hard on sustainable solutions."
IMOCA: How about female participation in the IMOCA GLOBE SERIES? Are you continuing to make progress on getting more female athletes involved?
AM: "To be honest, we would like to have more female skippers. We are trying to do our best to attract more female sailors. The last Vendée Globe had six women skippers, which is one of the best percentages within the offshore sailing world. At the next Route du Rhum, we are likely to be the Class with the most women. We are on top of this challenge, but we need to push and encourage even more women to come in. The Ocean Race is good for this because it is a crewed race with four sailors on board, one of which has to be a woman. This will help female skippers to get to know our boats and perhaps to prepare to start a short-handed project after The Ocean Race."
IMOCA: Finally, you must looking forward to another great season of racing coming up, with perhaps some new names coming to the fore and climbing to the top of the IMOCA podium and the IMOCA GLOBE SERIES?
AM: "Yes, for sure, it’s going to be a fantastic year. But with all the new designs and new boats* that will appear, they will need a few months of work-up before they are racing at 100% of their potential. So there is a good chance the level of performance will increase among the top teams, but maybe they won’t be at full potential to start with. But it will be very exciting to see the new concepts and new designs and to be able to make the first comparisons with what we already know."
IMOCA: So you see a chance for some of the second-generation boats and their skippers to shine too?
AM:"Yes. In single-handed racing the quality of the skipper is a big part of the result. You can see that in the last big solo race – the Vendée Globe – where it was not the newest boat that won. Then in the last Route du Rhum, Paul Meilhat was the winner, again not in the latest boat. So it’s very, very open. The development and quality of the boats is one part of the game, but the reality is that the best skippers will win."
IMOCA: Thank you Antoine.
*Seven new boats will be launched in 2022 : PRB (Kevin Escoffier), V and B-Monbana-Mayenne (Maxime Sorel), Initiatives-Coeur (Sam Davies), Maître CoQ V (Yannick Bestaven), Charal 2 (Jérémie Beyou), Malizia-Seaexplorer (Boris Herrmann), Biotherm (Paul Meilhat)
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