11th Hour Racing Team started out as reluctant favourites to win The Ocean Race. They had the longest build-up and preparation for the race, and leaders of the team, skipper Charlie Enright and CEO Mark Towill, were now on their third consecutive campaign to win sailing’s toughest test of a team.
The expectation weighed heavy on their shoulders, and the favourite tag was not entirely fair, as with the COVID-created postponement of the race by a year, other teams had been able to develop newer generation hulls and foils in the ever-developing IMOCA class. Still, all those doubts and fears had to be cast aside as the fleet readied itself for the start of a 32,700 nautical mile adventure around the world.
Team Holcim-PRB was looking fast and well prepared. And so it proved on the opening 2401 nautical mile leg from Alicante, Spain to the Cabo Verde island of São Vicente. This was a brutal leg almost from the moment the start gun fired. The fleet had to battle its way through winds more than 50 knots before the boats even managed to break out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. Once out into the big wide ocean, Team Holcim-PRB led the charge to São Vicente, winning the leg with 11th Hour Racing Team in second just under three hours behind the Swiss boat. Enright described the leg as a ‘baptism of fire’: “That was an incredibly tough first leg,” said the exhausted skipper. “Tough on the boats, and physically tough on the crew. Nothing we haven’t seen in training, so it didn’t come as a surprise, but it is no surprise that with a forecast like that, you end up with damage to the boats, but now we are here, we can turn our minds to the repairs.”
For all of the fact that it took almost 18 days of racing down the Atlantic to cover the 6,500 nautical miles from Mindelo, Cabo Verde to Cape Town, South Africa, the outcome of Leg 2 all came down to the final 24 hours. With six lead changes, the result hung in the balance until the fleet was right in front of Table Mountain. Team Holcim-PRB again came out on top, Biotherm in second. Although only 25 minutes off the winning time, 11th Hour Racing Team had to settle for third. “We are a little disappointed with a third place after 17 days,” said Enright. “But the bigger picture to take home is that we sailed the boat fast and well, and I think that bodes well for the future. This race is a marathon and not a sprint, and we have a big doubler pointer coming up on the next leg through the Southern Ocean.”
At the press conference in Cape Town, Charlie Enright predicted that the mammoth Leg 3 from South Africa to Itajaí, Brazil, would not be a speed race. It would be a war of attrition. Keeping the wheels on the wagon would take priority over all-out performance. With that in mind, the start of the race could barely have gone more poorly for the Americans. Battling their way around an impossibly gusty race course in the uncompromising shadow of Table Mountain, the team was forced to suspend racing after just 42 minutes due to broken battens in the mainsail. Having returned to port to make repairs before setting out again, it was time to play catch-up on the rest of the fleet.
The journey through the Southern Ocean was anything but straightforward. The team had to contend with two damaged rudders, damaged foil downlines, as well as a huge tear in the mainsail. The team had to continuously dig deep to find the solutions to complete the repairs while racing. While it was a team effort to make the running repairs, it was boat captain Jack Bouttell who was the main Mr Fixit. Navigator Simon Fisher paid tribute to his teammate’s resilience and ability always to find a solution for any problem. “Jack has done a fantastic job as boat captain keeping the boat together,” said Fisher, “but there came a point in the leg that it wasn’t about winning, it was about getting to the finish line. We knew it would be difficult and long, but we all agreed that we should make the most of it. It was about setting the mindset and enjoying it – you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it.”
Five days out from the finish in Itajaí and there was another challenge for the team, when firstly they were knocked down by a 50 knot squall, and then just 10 hours later they crash gybed, resulting in another hole in the already patched-up mainsail. 11th Hour Racing spent much of the remainder of the leg limping towards Itajaí but just managed to hold off Biotherm for third place across the finish line.
The team completed their 14,840 nautical mile race across the bottom of the world in 37 days, 20 hours, 10 minutes, and 23 seconds. “That leg was gruelling, it was the ultimate test,” said Enright. “It didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, and it tested our team, and it tested our platform, but the resilience that we all showed was absolutely outstanding.”
With a few days to recover from the rigours of the Southern Ocean and the war of attrition, Enright and his crew had to face up to the fact that they were lying in third place overall, behind race leader Team Holcim-PRB and Team Malizia who had both just collected nine points on the double-points Leg 3.
This was not in the script for the American team, who were just about to set out from Brazil towards their hometown port of Newport, Rhode Island. If ever there was a leg that the Americans needed to win, this was the one. Towill, Enright and the whole team knew they needed to hit the reset button. With the help of their in-house psychologist, Anje-Marijcke van Boxtel, there was a fresh injection of optimism, self-belief and ‘can do’ spirit. “The first half of the race has been Holcim-PRB’s,” admitted Enright. “Now we need to make sure the second half of the race is ours.”
Even after all the stresses and strains of the previous leg through the Southern Ocean, the 5,500 nautical mile race up the Atlantic was not at all straightforward. An early dismasting for Holcim and one late in the leg for GUYOT changed the complexion of the race dramatically. Over the 17 days of racing the crew faced multiple weather system transitions as they sailed through the southern hemisphere tradewinds, through the Doldrums, and onwards into the north Atlantic tradewinds.
Thanks to a brutal final 600 miles to the leg with the team facing the strongest winds so far in the entire race, and with 12 hours of 40 knots plus, gusting over 50 knots, the crew was exhausted, But as they stepped onto the dock in Fort Adams they were exhilarated. 11th Hour Racing Team had won their first leg of the race, and they had won it in home waters. “What a beautiful day to arrive home to Rhode Island,” smiled Enright in front of a hugely appreciative home crowd. “With a smokin’ southwesterly seabreeze, and having so many people out on the water to welcome us home and here on the dock at Fort Adams, it’s very humbling.
“The last 24 hours have been the longest of my life, and we have been negotiating really challenging conditions, but for the past 17 days, we have been pushing it 100% each and every day and night. It’s been incredibly hard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
This was starting to look like a race that 11th Hour Racing Team might still be able to win. But with the leg across the Atlantic counting for double points, the 3,500 nautical miles across to Aarhus, Denmark, would be doubly important. With a new, replacement mast for race leader Team Holcim-PRB, the battle was back on. The racing was incredibly close, and unbelievably fast. Speed records tumbled as the IMOCAs encountered perfect conditions for fast foiling across an unusually smooth Atlantic race track.
In an incredibly tight battle across the Atlantic, the top three teams each posted record-breaking 24-hour distances, taking advantage of the North Atlantic’s downwind reaching conditions, with 25-27 knots of breeze and a relatively calm sea state.
11th Hour Racing Team was the first to break a record, setting a new 24-hour IMOCA distance record of 611.9 nautical miles. However, this was soon surpassed first by Team Holcim-PRB racking up a mammoth 640.9nm, then by Team Malizia sneaking past with 641.13nm, both of which beat the outright 24-hour monohull distance record of 618.01 miles set by the 100-foot maxi yacht Comanche in 2015.
With such high speeds also comes higher risk, however. Amory Ross (USA), the team’s media crew member, and Charlie Dalin (FRA), the double IMOCA World Champion who joined the crew for the transatlantic leg, were both injured in an incident when the team activated its Hazard Button to alert Race Control and the wider fleet they had hit something, suspected to be a marine mammal or megafauna.
Ross and Dalin were confined to their bunks and getting as much rest and recovery as is possible on an IMOCA that’s bouncing from wave to wave. Despite being down on human horsepower, the American crew managed to maintain their lead into Aarhus and won the leg. The double points bonus put 11th Hour Racing Team into the overall lead for the first time.
For Justine Mettraux, this transatlantic leg was her last onboard Mālama, having been a core member of 11th Hour Racing Team since 2020. “This is probably my last day sailing on the boat and I was feeling a bit emotional coming in,” said the Swiss sailor. “It’s been really nice to finish with a win and I wish everyone the very best for the rest of the race.”
At 915 nautical miles, Leg 6 from Aarhus, Denmark, to The Hague, The Netherlands, was the shortest of the race, but also one of the most demanding tactically. 11th Hour Racing Team led the fleet through the fly-by in Kiel, Germany, and then out into the North Sea for the race towards The Hague. Nothing was ever straightforward, and the Americans never took their lead for granted. “This leg really found a way to turn the stress up to the max,” said navigator Simon Fisher. The outcome was never certain until the finish line, but 11th Hour Racing Team again held on for the win, making it three in a row. “It has been a crazy leg – we were in a tacking duel with Holcim 30 miles offshore! It wasn’t going to be over until it was over.
“Everyone is exhausted. We each got maybe three to five hours of sleep over the course of the whole leg. I only relaxed and felt the win was ours about two minutes before the finish and the land breeze filled. We went from drifting around in four knots, to 10 knots fetching at the finish.”
With a two-point advantage at the top of the leaderboard ahead of Team Holcim-PRB, 11th Hour Racing Team were geared up for one last push on the final leg of the race, 2,500 nautical miles from The Hague, The Netherlands to Genova, Italy. Just 17 minutes after the start, however, and everything changed in an instant. GUYOT environnement – Team Europe failed to spot the American boat in time to avoid a port-starboard collision. The impact from GUYOT’s bow punched a large hole in the aft section of the Mãlama, and both boats were forced to retire from the leg and return to port.
The shore crew set to work to repair Mãlama as quickly as possible. Even though Enright would be unable to get a result from Leg 7, he and the team were determined to sail their heavily bandaged IMOCA to Genova. While 11th Hour Racing Team were still sailing the final miles towards the Italian city, the World Sailing International Jury met to discuss the American crew’s request for redress.
With 11th Hour Racing Team judged to be blameless in the incident, it was up to the Jury to decide how many points to award the Americans. Head of the International Jury, Andres Peres, said it was a straightforward decision. “We basically used the Racing Rules of World Sailing. It’s a standard procedure, which is to award average points based on 11th Hour’s performance in the previous legs of the race.” Based on their strong results to date, including three consecutive leg wins, 11th Hour Racing Team were awarded 4 points, sufficient to give them overall victory by 3 points. It’s the first time a USA-flagged boat has won the race in its 50-year history.