Portimao Global Ocean Race: Josh Hall talks of boats and Round the World Races

Monday, 23 March 2009


With the fleet of four 40ft boats in the Portimão Global Ocean Race safely around Cape Horn and into the South Atlantic, the Race Director, Josh Hall, takes a frank look at this achievement, the implications this has for future events and the likely impact:

March 18th,19th and  20th 2009 have become historic dates in the history of Round The World Yacht Racing and true milestones for The Portimão Global Ocean Race. At the same time as the fleet of 70ft Volvo Ocean Race yachts rounded Cape Horn, so did the Portimão Global Ocean Race fleet of 40-footers. Both fleets manned by passionate, talented sailors and both fleets followed by a massive internet audience that held their breath as the boats carried their crews around the world’s most notorious cape and swiftly from the inherent dangers of the Southern Ocean back into the relative safety of the South Atlantic.

The latest crop of Cape Horner’s across the two fleets have many shared goals and aspirations, but the way they are achieving them are, shall we say, oceans apart. Every Race has its place and at the totally professional end of the scale, I am a big fan of the Volvo Ocean Race, its boats and crews, but it is worth looking at some disparities between these two events that became apparent at Cape Horn.

Firstly, to compete to win in The Volvo Ocean Race demands sponsorship levels of 30 million Euros per boat; the average net cost of campaigning in The Portimão Race is 200,000 Euros. Secondly, a pre-requisite to crew aboard a Volvo boat is that you are one of the top 50 offshore sailors in the world with a wealth of experience; sailors in the Portimão Race range from young, up-and-coming professionals, through to one skipper who until three years ago, had never sailed in his life. The sheer level of sponsorship required to compete in the Volvo Race is only viable for companies and countries that have a mature, pre-existing  relationship with the sport; the affordability of The Portimao Race has attracted entries from countries, sponsors and individuals who would otherwise be unable to contemplate an around the world race.

The Chilean entry Desafio Cabo de Hornos is a shining example of the access offered by such an event. The fact that they are an entry at all is amazing. The reality that they have become an inspiration to their entire nation, proving  that with drive and ambition anything can be achieved is, quite simply, stunning. I sincerely hope that the Portimão Race will act as a springboard for some talented sailors to go on to race in the Volvo or to have their own Open 60 project for the Vendée Globe. However, the core value that we will always have is to provide an affordable, achievable platform for people who dream of racing around the world.

The boats competing in the Portimão Race are all 40-footers. When the race was announced, we had our fair share of detractors, including some members of the yachting press, who felt a 40ft boat was too small for the Southern Ocean. Arguably, this was perhaps due to short memories as in previous eras, 40ft boats have successfully circumnavigated in races such as the BOC Challenge when their bigger sisters, the Open 60’s, have been involved in dramatic offshore failures.

Prior to announcing The Portimão Race, I had spoken with numerous skippers and designers who were all extremely positive. I also have personal experience of the conditions they would be sailing in. Having spent 20 years managing Open 60 campaigns, I could see that whilst this genre of boat has become very glamorous and is rightly at the forefront of development in design, they had also become expensively fragile. They are also far beyond the reach of most sailors as they require multi-million Euro budgets and a level of specialist competence that is not easily attained.

For me, a well-built, well-prepared and well-sailed 40-footer was more than capable of being raced hard around the planet. The materials used in the construction of these boats is non-exotic and therefore not only very forgiving offshore, but cheap to maintain and repair in port.

In the strong downwind conditions that are prevalent in the Southern Ocean, your best friend is speed. The average wave travels at 25 knots and the closer your boat-speed is to that, the better chance you have of not being overwhelmed by them – similar to a surfer. This new generation of 40-footers are surfers. They are fast boats that surf readily and that is a fundamental reason I believed in their safety in the south. I also believe that we demanded the correct level of safety features for the boats by requiring Category 0 compliance – notably the addition of extra water tight bulkheads and a plumbing system to aid self-righting in case of capsize.

Having had the privilege of racing solo around the world a few times, I also know that some of the worst conditions are not necessarily in the Big South but in ocean areas where large waves and strong winds conspire on continental shelves creating shallow depths and dangerously steep waves with a short wavelength - areas such as the Bay of Biscay and Cape Horn. So, pre-race start I was very confident regarding the integrity of these boats. What I have been astonished by is their average speeds (at times over 13 knots for long periods), their durability, their reliability and the close proximity in which they have been racing.

The Portimão Race fleet have sailed through 80 knot storms and massive seas from Cape Town to Wellington and now from Wellington around Cape Horn. I am totally impressed with our sailors and their boats. They have proved what we believed in – that these boats and these sailors are more than up to the challenge of racing around the world.

The future of The Portimão Race burns brightly today.

Josh Hall

See Portimão Global Ocean Race Images:

Last Updated ( Monday, 23 March 2009 )