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The Ocean Race: Ken Read analysis of 2021-22 round-the-world route

The Ocean Race

The recently announced round the world route for the next edition of The Ocean Race in 2021-22 revealed an interesting mixture of familiar stopover ports along with three new cities for the fleet to visit on its way around the world.

But what do the sailors think of the new course configuration? We have been speaking to a variety of past and present competitors to find out. We begin with American yachtsman Ken Read – a three-time Ocean Race competitor (2005-06 with Ericsson, 2008-09 and 2011-12 as skipper of Puma Ocean Racing) and now the President of North Sails and EVP of North Technology Group.

The Ocean Race
Image © Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing

We spoke to Read from his home in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, a short distance from the legendary sailing city of Newport which will once again host the Ocean Race fleet at the end of Leg 5 from Itajaí, Brazil, prior to the transatlantic crossing on Leg 6 to Aarhus in Denmark.

Read said that at first glance it is clear that the 2021-22 edition racecourse – like the last several editions – has understandably been influenced by commercial factors.

“This kind of modernish racecourse certainly takes into account some commercial stops that obviously weren’t there in the good old days, in the Whitbread days,” he said. “But at the same time they tried to minimise stops a little bit, because frankly stopovers are hugely expensive for the teams who are all trying to get the budget down.

“But they have still come up with some really interesting legs and an overall course that still has plenty of excitement to it. Cape Town to China is certainly the one that has still the most question marks. The rest are pretty straight forward and in some form or fashion have been done in the past or at least something like it has been done in the past.

“So all in all, no shocks and I’m happy that the race is coming back to Newport.”

According to the official announcement the 2021-22 Ocean race will be shorter in distance (38,000 nautical miles) and there will be two less pit stops. However Read discounts the mileage reduction at least as pretty irrelevant.

“I never really look at the overall length of the race versus the actual sailing distance of a race,” he said. “The sailing distance just depends on how easily you can get into some of the trade winds. There’s a lot of legs here that you will end up actually looping yourself way out and around going the long way to avoid either land or a wind obstacle that’s traditionally in the way – like the Atlantic high that we sail around normally on the first leg.

The Ocean Race
Ken Read’s crew in the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race suffered a dismasting in the Atlantic and ultimately retired from Leg 1 after spending a week on the remote island of Tristan da Cuhna.

“This time, as an example, on the Cape Town to China leg who knows where the fleet will choose to go and how much upwind work there is? So 38,000 miles sounds short (compared to previous editions) but it’s still going to be a 50-something-thousand-mile race when it’s all said and done.”

Given that the next Ocean race will see a new class of fully crewed IMOCA 60s taking part, as well as a fleet of the tried and tested VO65s, Read believes that the teams with 60s will be zoning in particularly closely on the “big” legs – like the mammoth third stage from Cape Town to Shenzhen, China, Shenzhen to Auckland, New Zealand on Leg 4, and the notorious leg around Cape Horn from Auckland to Itajaí.

“At this stage it is all about planning,” Read said. “So you’re planning not only the makeup of a crew, if you’re in the 60 footers you’re also potentially planning the makeup/configuration of the boat. What you are looking at is how much are you going to spend going upwind, versus reaching, versus sailing downwind? That was always the big challenge back in the Volvo 70 days – which was the last time it was kind of opened up from a design point of view.

“So for the 60-footers especially, they’re looking at the route with a view to which dagger board setup/design they might choose, taking into consideration foiling board developments at this stage. They are asking: Do we really need to go up wind? How much do we need to go up wind? Are there multiple legs where upwind is actually a real factor?

“Or are these legs that you can make the educated guess that is mainly reaching or downwind? Each of those scenarios completely lend themselves to totally different style boards. For sure I think it’s more of a challenge for the 60 footers than anybody else at this stage.

“There’s all kinds of historical weather data you can get your hands on. Several of the really good French routers have all kinds of data on this kind of stuff. I’m sure they’re selling packages as we speak to a different variety of teams.

“But then you have to think about how many new sixties are being built specifically for this race, and how many of the Vendee Globe teams who might be be taking a 60 built for single-handed sailing and turning it into a fully-crewed boat.

“They have to be looking at the route very carefully from a rebuild and a budget standpoint. How much do we need to change this boat? Not just to get multiple crew onboard, but also deck layouts and things like that, and again, the board choices. How much do we have to change virtually a downwind boat built for the Vendee to be a little more all-purpose?”

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How competitive did Read believe a converted existing IMOCA 60 could be against new boats that have been purpose-built for The Ocean Race 2021-22?

“Listen, there’s no question that a purpose-built boat always has a little bit of an advantage on paper, but at the same time, the Vendee Globe boat will have likely just successfully gone around the world. You know how much you learn on a boat racing it versus just training on it.

“It was fascinating to talk to some of the competitors about how radical the speed differences were in the TJV race from France this past Fall,” Read said.

“They said at times some boats were going many knots faster or slower than others. Then the conditions would change, and it would be a total flip flop. Many knots faster or slower dependent upon a change of conditions. So there’s a lot of big decisions to be made.

“Then you’ve also got to get a little lucky, too. Is the weather going to be what you want it to be? Sometimes you’ll look at a leg and say, ‘You know what? That’s a bit of a throwaway leg. We’re going to be good on these other five, so we’re going to have to throw away this one.’

“These are all really interesting backroom decisions that are made now, but in essence start to really form the pecking order. The decision’s made now, like in the America’s Cup and the Ocean Races of the past, will determine who wins and loses the race. I always maintain that the race is kind of over before it starts based on decisions made now.”

The Ocean Race
The Ocean Race 2021-22 route

There are no extra points for breaking speed records in The Ocean Race, but it is always a big deal when it happens – and Read believes there is plenty of potential for the foiling IMOCA 60s to surpass existing race and overall monohull benchmarks.

“I think we will see, with these sixties lit up in a somewhat flat-water broad-reachy conditions, I would be stunned if we didn’t see 24-hour records shattered. Comanche’s 24-hour record still stands from when we did a transatlantic race a few years back, and I think it’s 618 miles.

“I think these foiling boats have a chance to, especially fully-crewed, to just crush that record. That gives you an idea of the power of the foils themselves – that such much smaller boat can actually consider going at pace with or even faster than a boat like Comanche is utterly incredible, but that is where we are.”

Returning to his assessment of the new racecourse, Read singled out the passage from China to Auckland as one that should not be underestimated by the sailors or fans of the race.

“Traditionally that’s a hard leg because it can be really nasty in the South China Sea. I’ve been there twice and both times got pretty ugly. First time was super ugly. There is a big decision whether you go all the way east before you go south, or whether you kind of cut the corner as it’s drawn on the route map.

“For people that don’t remember, on second Puma at one point we were 600 miles away from the closest boat early in that leg. In order to get to Auckland we were heading directly away from Auckland towards Japan.

“But by the time we were coming in on the islands of New Zealand, Groupama had a little lead on us of about four or five hours and we were essentially crossing tacks with Telefonica for a second place. After sailing such radically different routes that was just incredible.”

How different might the transatlantic leg from Newport to Aarhus play out compared to the last edition when we witnessed a full on drag race between the two Dutch teams, ending up with Brunel winning the leg but team AkzoNobel grabbing the headlines with a new race 24-hour distance record.

“As an Ocean Race sailor, there’s no question that when you round Cape Horn and start heading North, you breathe a sigh of relief that you’ve kind of mentally put yourself in a position where the worst is over,” Read said. “Traditionally that’s far from the case, unfortunately.

“The North Atlantic, especially in the early spring, can be a really nasty place. Some of the worst tragedies in this race’s history have been on that transatlantic crossing. It all depends on the next low. It all depends on where the ice gates are. Current-wise, you’ve got the Gulf Stream and you’ve got cold streams way up north and warm streams down south. Lots depends on the importance of the current against big potential of cold fronts.

The Ocean Race
Brazilian Olympic gold medalist Martine Grael on boat Team Akzonobel during the team’s record setting 24-hour run across the Atlantic. Image © Konrad Frost

“It’s really a question of whether it’s totally frontal dependent versus a kind of a traditional Atlantic route, as to whether you’d be going up wind all the way across the ocean or screaming downwind in massive waves all the way across. It’s a really hard one – almost impossible – to predict.

Read is a fan of the race starting and finishing in the Mediterranean as he says it will add to the sense of closure the competitors have after completing a lap of the planet.

“It goes back a little bit to the early days when the race started and finished in England,” he said. “Sailing around the world is emotional in its own right. It is. It’s hard, and when you’re done, the sense of relief is beyond comprehension. Starting and finishing around the same spot is pretty good.

“That said, some of the nastiest weather I’ve ever seen has been in the Med. You could get warm weather, flat water and downwind conditions, but then again it could be a fully upwind leg. On the last race I did, we started in Alicante and damn near a third of the fleet got wiped out the first night in the Med.

“This time, once you go in past Gibraltar, especially in the 60s, you really have to look at your design on the basis that you could be looking at a close race with a full upwind Med, for two and a half days to get up to Genoa.

“Finishing back in the Med just makes the planning that much harder – and that’s good for the race and I think that’s good for the best sailors.

Asked to sum up his thoughts on the new route, Read had this to say:

“I think if I were running a team, I would be happy that there are fewer stops. I know that the organizers were really looking to try to get back towards more of a traditional route, but I think this is a nice compromise.

“Whoever wins these races – whether it’s in the one design 65s or in the 60s – is going to be a little bit lucky and a lot skilled and awfully fast. The fast boat always wins this race.”
If they get all the way around., we prompted.

“Yep, got to get all the way around first. I know the hard way. Don’t stop in Tristan da Cunha. That doesn’t help.”

Main image © Ian Roman