Outsiders in the heart of offshore sailing

Published on September 13th, 2022

The US-based 11th Hour Racing Sailing Team is focused on The Ocean Race 2022-23, but they have entered in the IMOCA division, a class of boat with very little experience in the USA. Now in France, American skipper Charlie Enright has recruited experienced internationals for the team’s first legitimate test at the 2022 Défi Azimut – a multi-stage event on September 14-18 in Lorient.

While Enright is familiar with the region, as his boat is a product of Guillaume Verdier’s design studio and built at CDK Technologies in Brittany, France, he remains very much an outsider. In this report, team member Amy Monkman describes the landscape:

Unless you are French, or you holiday in Brittany, there’s a very real chance you won’t have heard of Port La Fôret, Concarneau, or even Lorient. Spanning 62 miles, these towns lie deep in the heart of Brittany’s coastline and are home to an overwhelming proportion of the world’s best offshore sailors.

One name in particular stands out: Éric Tabarly. Although no longer alive, the modest French Naval Officer has often been described as the spark that ignited the fire of offshore sailing for the French.

After unexpectedly winning one of the first ever OSTAR races (a Transatlantic crossing from Plymouth, UK to Newport, Rhode Island US) back in 1964, he became something of a national treasure to the French. And from the nation’s pride in Tabarly, their love affair with the tumultuous sport of offshore sailing was born.

Today, through strategic investment of public money in the region (for example renovating the old Nazi submarine base in Lorient into a marine hub literally named ‘The Base’), this north-western coastline offers a certain domesticity for the wild souls of offshore sailors. A natural gravitational point – if you will.

Whilst in some countries, sponsoring a sailing team would be considered an unlikely and even risky investment, the French have pushed the sport to develop a robust and resilient commercial pyramid allowing brands to propel young sailors to become household names and vice-versa.

The sponsorship spectrum currently ranges from a local tomato growing association to a national French bank. This infrastructure has ensured sailing is a sport for everyone.

Disregarding the occasional stratospheric ego, these sailors tend to reflect the characteristics of the region of Brittany itself. Most are grounded, modest and remain un-fazed by fame and fandom. There is no glitz or glamor here … just a palpable obsession for adventure and innovation.

This is felt by the locals as much as those in the industry. Anytime Mālama is rolled out of the MerConcept shed in Concarneau, there is always a small crowd who have gathered for the occasion, undeterred by a lot of standing around and often in the driving rain.

The coastline offers numerous logistical advantages such as limited tide restrictions and easily accessible specialist boat parts – never underestimate what a technical and exhaustive logistical sport sailing is! A regular Gulf Stream also makes for endless offshore training conditions without actually having to go hundreds of miles offshore.
Enter ‘Les Américains’

The 60-foot yacht ‘Mālama’, in which 11th Hour Racing Team will race around the world, is called an IMOCA (International Monohull Open Class Association). The IMOCA’s slick, innovative, and performance-led design originated here in Brittany and the region has led the charge on its continuous innovation ever since – particularly from a renewable energy perspective (hydro-generators, wind turbines, solar, fuel-cells …)

Despite Mālama being designed and built here, the team staying here during lockdown, and our performance partners MerConcept being French, technically-speaking we remain outsiders.

A (crewed!) Anglo-Saxon team is rare in the IMOCA/French offshore sailing scene. It’s almost comical observing the differences, particularly in terms of ways of working and communication methods.

Bearing the American flag with an English-speaking team, our hometown is Newport, Rhode Island, home to 11th Hour Racing, our title sponsor, our core fan base, commercial connections, and most importantly, many of our families.

For the most part we have been warmly welcomed here but it is clear we are ‘Les Américains’ hanging on the periphery of a tight-knit, well-connected, protected community where everybody looks after each other.

The want (and some might argue the need) to prove ourselves is very real. Sizing up the competition will happen in real time over the coming weeks and months and there is apprehension in the air as the Défi Azimut approaches.

Newport is our home, Concarneau is our second home. Some might say it’s the best of both worlds, however, there are plenty of sideways glances and the pressure is on.

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The Ocean Race 2022-23 Race Schedule*:
Alicante, Spain – Leg 1 start: January 15, 2023
Cabo Verde – ETA: January 22; Leg 2 start: January 25
Cape Town, South Africa – ETA: February 9; Leg 3 start: February 26 or 27 (TBC)
Itajaí, Brazil – ETA: April 1; Leg 4 start: April 23
Newport, RI, USA – ETA: May 10; Leg 5 start: May 21
Aarhus, Denmark – ETA: May 30; Leg 6 start: June 8
Kiel, Germany (Fly-By) – June 9
The Hague, The Netherlands – ETA: June 11; Leg 7 start: June 15
Genova, Italy – The Grand Finale – ETA: June 25, 2023; Final In-Port Race: July 1, 2023
* To be confirmed – Prologue: September to December 2022

The Ocean Race (formerly Volvo Ocean Race and Whitbread Round the World Race) will be raced in two classes of boats: the high-performance, foiling, IMOCA 60 class and the one-design VO65 class which has been used for the last two editions of the race. Entries in the IMOCA 60 class will compete for The Ocean Race trophy, while those racing the VO65s will chase the Ocean Challenge Trophy. The 14th edition was originally planned for 2021-22 but was postponed one year due to the pandemic.

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