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Keep out – why the exclusion zones exist

There are numerous exclusion zones the teams must avoid when racing. Some are for commercial shipping, others to protect the wildlife…

Each leg of The Ocean Race has featured some sort of exclusion zone. Leg 3, with competitors racing deep in the southern latitudes, had a long exclusion to the south, in place to keep the teams from pushing into areas with dangerous icebergs.

In Leg 4, Race Director Phil Lawrence and his team have outlined a number of exclusion zones. Lawrence says the exclusion zones fall into four broad categories:

— Areas with high levels of hazards or marine traffic – the oilfields off the coast of Brazil fall into this category and featured in the first days of the leg;
— Areas with high levels of protected marine life – the whale breeding grounds on the Abrolhos Bank off the coast of Brazil are an example of an area the boats have routed around (see more below);
— Areas with specific hazards – later on this leg, the exclusion zone off the northeast coast of Brazil is in place to keep the boats away from debris that comes out of the Amazon River Delta;
— Designated shipping lanes where traffic can only travel in one direction – there is a zone like this on the approach to Rhode Island.

In addition to reducing the risk to the fleet and to marine life, exclusion zones often force tactical decisions as teams must make a decision that involves a commitment to either stay with the group (lower risk / low potential reward) or try to gain separation (higher risk / higher potential reward). Early in a leg, the teams will generally take the lower risk option unless they truly believe they can make a gain by separating.

While some of the exclusion zones are to avoid dangerous commercial shipping activities, others are designed to protect the boats and marine life from a dangerous encounter.

Damian Foxall, the Sustainability Program Manager for 11th Hour Racing Team is also on the Marine Mammal Advisory Group. He has joined the team as trimmer on board for Leg 4, and is a hugely experienced sailor in the race. Over the years, he has gained an appreciation for the ocean as more than just the field of play for The Ocean Race:

“(It’s a privileged) opportunity to be out here racing on the ocean and seeing the amazing bird life and marine mammals. But this also has a risk to it – a risk in that these boats go so fast, and with the foils and the keels, there is the risk of endangering a marine mammal. So the Race puts in place exclusion zones and we are working our way around the Abrolhos Exclusion Zone right now.

“In the Marine Mammal Advisory Group we have worked with The Ocean Race to integrate a proper risk assessment for marine mammals and marine life for each leg of the course. This involves assessing where the high levels of the marine mammal population are and what zones are best avoided.

“We have one here called the Abrolhos Banks which is one of the zones where up to 25,000 Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks come from Antarctica to where the warmer waters are, and to breed. We are a month away from this activity, but just to be safe, the organizers have defined this exclusion zone for us to sail around.

“The exclusion zones are very specific to each leg, and in Leg 4 of this edition of the race there are quite a number, (including some) due to the high level of whales that we have along the coast.

“When we will be sailing into the finish at Newport, Rhode Island, we are in the territory of the very endangered population of Northern Right Whales. Luckily we are also out of season and they have moved away from the waters outside Narragansett Bay.

“The area has very good underwater live tracking systems, with flyovers, underwater drones and ships all reporting sightings. And the live tracking system is updated all the time. If the mammals are seen as we approach Newport, we will be informed and the Race Organisers will adjust our race course accordingly. Right now, we are doing a few extra miles for the whales and no one has any complaints about that.”

Lawrence says there will be more exclusion zones on Leg 5, the transatlantic leg, especially on the departure from Newport.

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