HomeThe Ocean RaceThe Ocean Race : Spot the difference

The Ocean Race : Spot the difference

The five IMOCAs in The Ocean Race may represent different design expressions, but the result has been remarkably close racing

To the untrained observer, the five 60-foot high-tech foiling IMOCA yachts competing in the current edition of The Ocean Race may look highly similar in terms of their general design strategies.

But there are subtle differences in how each team has approached the design question posed in creating a boat that will race around the world quickly, safely and reliably.

The rules of the IMOCA class prescribe a set of maximum dimensions – hull length 60 feet / 18.28 metres, length overall (including bowsprit) 66 ft / 20.12 m, draught (depth) 14.76 ft / 4.5 m, and air draft (mast height) 95.14 ft / 29 metres – that create a virtual box within which the designers must make their yachts fit.

IMOCA rules also specify a number of standardised one-design components, such as the wing mast, the outrigger poles and the rigging used to support the mast, the mainsail boom, the fin and the control system of the canting keel – and also specify what hull appendages are allowed: two rudders, one keel, two foils.

No more than eight sails are allowed on board while racing. Other than a ban on the use of carbon and a compulsory requirement to carry a storm jib constructed from heavyweight cloth and coated in a highly visible colour, there are no other limitations on the individual teams’ sail inventories.

According to IMOCA Class measurer Noémie Provost, though, there are few significant sail plan differences across the fleet.

“Given that the mast is a standardised element, the sail plans don’t vary much between teams. Which sails they use and when is more about the strategic routing choices the crews make while racing.

“As an example of that, we saw during the in-port race in Alicante that the 11th Hour Racing Team chose to sail with the J1, while the other boats used the larger JO headsail. This helped the American team to foil a bit earlier than the others in the light wind conditions, because they were less loaded at the bow.”

“We can also see that they tend to use their spinnakers less, because of how quickly the newer generation boats can create apparent wind.

“On the flip side, in the lighter winds of the opening days of Leg 2 GUYOT environnement – Team Europe performed better in downwind VMG mode with their spinnaker.”

As a development class, the IMOCA rule gives designers plenty of scope for innovation and creativity – as evidenced by the hull designs of the five participating yachts in The Ocean Race 2022-23.

France’s three best known yacht designers – either working alone, or in collaboration with each other – are responsible for all five of these yachts.

The legendary Guillaume Verdier worked exclusively with 11th Hour Racing Team, Holcim – PRB, and Biotherm – having previously partnered with Marc Van Peteghem and Vincent Lauriot-Prévost French design house VPLP on GUYOT environnement – Team Europe’s 2015 boat (originally Alex Thompson’s Hugo Boss and then 11th Hour Racing Team’s training and development boat ALAKA’I). Meanwhile, VPLP was chosen by Team Malizia for the design of Malizia – Seaexplorer.

According to Provost the key differences in design thinking across The Ocean Race fleet centre on two aspects: the shape of the bow, and the design of the cockpit area.

It is worth noting here that the only boat that was designed from scratch specifically for fully-crewed racing in The Ocean Race was 11th Hour Racing Team’s Mālama. The other four teams are also planning to race their boats single-handed in the 2024-25 edition of the nonstop round the world race, the Vendée Globe.

As the original fully-crewed IMOCA creation, Mālama’s design process incorporated significant input from the sailing team, who spent copious hours in a wooden mock-up created to simulate the  ergonomics of the final boat.

Launched back in 2021, it is important to note the American boat was designed for The Ocean Race’s original pre-pandemic timing and a route around the world that would have featured two additional equator crossings with a stop in Asia.

Back then, Verdier commented that to win The Ocean Race it was very important to have a boat that could perform well across the full range of expected weather conditions.

“It is quite easy to make a boat which is extremely good in one corner of the picture, but we want to be homogenous,” he said. “I don’t really care about being the best boat upwind or downwind – I want the full picture.”

Likewise, GUYOT environnement – Team Europe’s 2015-generation boat also featured a lower narrower bow entry than 2022-gen higher, fuller bow profiles of the Holcim – PRB, Team Malizia and Biotherm IMOCAs.

Team Malizia describe their boat as having a ‘spoon bow’ rather than a true ‘scow bow’ – with what they believe to have better all-round performance characteristics.

Nevertheless, IMOCA’s Provost believes there will be times during the current edition of The Ocean Race when the conditions will favour both 11th Hour Racing Team and GUYOT environnement – Team Europe.

“Mālama still has a lot of volume at the bow even if we don’t recognize a scow bow shape,” she says.

“There could be an advantage for both these teams when there is less wind. When these boats are not foiling – i.e. in Archimedean mode – they still keep a long waterline length and that is directly linked to boat speed – even if this needs to be balanced with the slowing effect of additional wetted surface area.”

The breakneck speeds at which the foiling IMOCAs can now cross open oceans precludes the sailors spending extended periods of time on deck. Instead they race their boats from down below, protected from the elements by a solid coach roof.

According to Provost, as the oldest boat in the fleet, GUYOT environnement – Team Europe stands out as having the most open cockpit – a contrast to the other three, which are almost completely enclosed.

“There are two philosophies on display regarding the configuration of this cockpit area. Team Malizia has opted to have a lot of space, with plenty of headroom, and, unusually, they put the cockpit forward of the crew living space. Meanwhile, Holcim – PRB and Biotherm have kept the cockpit at the back of the boat with a much lower ceiling.”

When it comes to the design of the gigantic protruding foils that enable the IMOCAs to skim, and at times fly above the ocean surface, all five have have opted for the latest generation of so-called ‘Dalí’ foils (named after Salvador Dalí, with a nod to the famous Spanish artist’s iconic moustache).

However, although the foil shapes may look similar at first glance, it is clear that there are subtle differences between them that reflect the individual teams’ interpretation of what is optimal for an around-the-world racecourse.

“It looks like the designs have tended to converge – even if in reality we are still at the beginning of the evolution of ocean racing foil design,” Provost explains.

“The foils that The Ocean Race teams have chosen are a small snapshot compared to the entire range of existing boats and numerous foil configurations.”

Although race rules mandate that teams can only use one set of foils for the entire race around the world, dispensation was granted to 11th Hour Racing Team to swap to a pair of old generation foils after serious damage was discovered at the end of the second leg from Cabo Verde to Cape Town.

Despite all these design differences the relative performance of all five boats over open ocean legs has proved to be surprisingly similar.

Accordingly, die-hard fans of The Ocean Race will have been delighted to discover that the racing has been tantalisingly closely fought on the opening three Legs of the 2022-23 edition with the boats often racing within sight of each other after weeks at sea.

With more than half of the scoring opportunities yet to be contested, the second half of The Ocean Race has potential for surprises and close racing.

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