“I’ll admit, it’s still hard to watch the boat leave the dock sometimes,” says former Volvo Ocean Race sailor Mark Towill. Since meeting during a Transpac campaign over 15 years ago, he and his teammate Charlie Enright have sailed thousands of miles together aboard two Volvo Ocean Race campaigns, championing sustainability along the way. During the 2023 edition of The Ocean Race, however, their boat will be setting off without him, and though that’s been an adjustment, it’s just one of many big changes for their team.
After the wrap of the Volvo Ocean Race in 2017-18, some big changes were announced for the crewed around-the-world event, the biggest of which was the addition of a second fleet. In recent years, the event has been sailed aboard VO65s, a one-design fleet with identical boats managed by a traveling boatyard, which was rebuilt in each stopover city to do maintenance, gear checks and repairs. When the event kicks off in 2023, now under the name “The Ocean Race,” the VO65s will still be present, but they’ll be joined by a fleet of IMOCA 60s. Despite a similar LOA, the new boats couldn’t be more different, not just from the VO65s but from each other as well. Unlike the uniform VO65s, IMOCA 60s are governed by a box rule, which means given certain guiding parameters, teams can design their boats however they like. This wasn’t a total departure from the norm, as the VO60 and VO70 fleets that sailed the VOR from 1993-2012 were also governed by a box rule. But for Enright and Towill, the change was uncharted territory.
Almost as soon as the addition of the class was announced, the pair knew they wanted to step up and build their own IMOCA 60. “The timing of it was fantastic for us because we didn’t have to go through the whole design and construction process when we were starting out in 2014-15,” says Towill. “It helped narrow the gap between the experienced teams and the novice teams like ourselves. But now that we’ve had more experience, two races under our belt, and the chance to build and refine our team, it was the next step.”
Even as the natural evolution of their campaign, building a 60ft boat is no small task. Despite going from nine active sailors on a VO65 to four active sailors on an IMOCA 60, the behind the scenes complexity skyrocketed. Without the one design boatyard, they were responsible for designers, builders, managing maintenance and transportation and more. “The sailing team has gotten smaller, but the overall team has grown two to three times,” says Towill, who served as team director for the most recent Volvo Ocean Race while also sailing on the boat—something nearly impossible to do with the scope of an IMOCA 60 campaign.
“With the increase in campaign complexity, and the reduction in onboard crew, Mark and I had to change the way we ran things,” says Enright, who will continue to manage the sailing while Towill manages the campaign from shore as Team CEO. Towill’s departure from the boat has been bittersweet for both of them. “It’s always better to leave the dock with a trusted and respected teammate like Mark on board, believe me. But it’s those same qualities that make him so good at running the rest of the team.”
Fortunately, their pivot is paying off. Their American-flagged campaign has already clocked some success in the big events of the 2021 fall racing circuit and is poised to be a top contender in The Ocean Race, to say nothing of the fact that its all being done while pioneering one of the most impressive, comprehensive sustainability efforts of any race program to date.
The Five Million Dollar Question
Towill and Enright retained one of their title sponsors from the 2017-18 campaign for the upcoming Ocean Race: 11th Hour Racing, a name synonymous with clean campaigns and an ethos of sustainability. The sponsorship begs the question: How does a supposedly environmentally friendly team square their green mission with building a massive fiberglass boat with all the costs, chemicals and carbon footprint associated with that? Couldn’t the roughly five million dollars that go into building an IMOCA 60 be more effectively spent elsewhere?
“It’s a really, really good question, and one we should be asking every time we do anything,” says Amy Munro, 11th Hour Racing Team’s Sustainability Officer. “When it comes to our new build, our belief is that it’s easy to throw stones from the outside and not really make much headway, but by really embedding ourselves within the build culture, within the supply chains, within the value chains, we’ve had the opportunity to engage with over 40 different suppliers on quite a detailed level on sustainability management. We can ask more of them, but we can also provide data and testing to support changes for the future of the class.” In short, influencing ideas, materials and suppliers from within the supply chain has a much greater potential to ripple outwards through the industry for widespread impact.
With this in mind, the 11th Hour Racing Team wasted no time gathering data to produce a massive 128-page Sustainable Design and Build Report, which chronicles everything from materials to government and industry standards. Two life cycle assessment case studies provided a map of the estimated impact of both a standard IMOCA 60 build and the team’s improved build, highlighting impact hot spots and ways to reduce the footprint. “We looked at the teams that came before to get a ‘business as usual’ understanding of what the starting point was, and then we worked with our many suppliers to understand the footprint of all the parts that go onto the boat to create a high resolution study. That has now been shared with all of the other teams so that they can use it too,” says Munro.
This collaboration is a huge part of their sustainability approach, whether it be with suppliers, other teams or the general public. “Everywhere else in professional sailing and sport, there’s a lot of secrecy around design and strategy, but one place we can really be collaborative in is the sustainability space,” she says.
So what did the life cycle assessment actually find?
Around 80 percent of the overall impact was related to the composites used. “It was clear that composites were a huge amount of the footprint, so we did a big program around looking at alternative materials, researching biomimicry solutions to boat building, looking at bio-based materials, resins, recycles and more circular materials to address that.” Because of the schedule to get the boat on the water for The Ocean Race, however, the timeline was short. When the team first approached builders about using more sustainable materials, they were told it would require 18 months of testing and integration before the builders would feel confident sending a boat built from a new material around the world. Undaunted, the team looked for other options to continue developing the materials.
“We created a list of removable parts that we could test the materials on that wouldn’t have a detrimental impact if the parts failed,” says Munro. “We also have used them for important non-structural parts, like hatches and the foredeck fairing. And we’ve been able to use recycled carbon in the boat’s cradle and bio-based dyneema for all of the rigging, so there are lots of lessons learned from getting our hands on the materials and trialing them ourselves.”
There’s also a huge opportunity that lies in the hull molds. “In life cycle assessment No. 1, there’s the hull mold and the deck mold, and between them, they make up almost 50 percent of the footprint of the build,” says Munro. The study found that using a female mold without a plug would reduce the footprint of the entire build by 1.6 percent or 8.3 metric tons of carbon. Additionally, the molds could be made from recycled carbon. However, as is often the case when reducing, reusing and recycling, the least impactful option is simply going with what you already have. “We can reuse our molds or repurpose them for use a second time with another team, so they’re essentially receiving a mold impact-free, which brings down the overall impact of their boat.”
Beyond that, perhaps the single biggest way to reduce impact was to switch to a build site with renewable energy. The build study took place in France where energy has a low carbon mix, and when compared with an average European IMOCA 60 build, the footprint of the IMOCA 60 they studied was approximately 30 percent lower overall. “Ultimately it all comes back to energy usage and what kind of energy you’re using,” says Munro.
The new materials and technologies developed with suppliers as part of 11th Hour Racing Team’s build process will also undoubtedly wash outwards to those suppliers’ other clients. “The strength of it is that it’s quite a transparent report,” Munro says. “It’s not just what works, but what really didn’t work and firsthand accounts from the boat builders on their discoveries, so we hope that it’s a really practical, useful report.”
Design and Strategy
This brings us back to Mālama, 11th Hour Racing Team’s new IMOCA 60. Mālama means “to care for” in Towill’s native Hawaiian, and even without its revolutionary build process, the boat undeniably would have come out as an unusual one for its class. The typical IMOCA 60 is designed for the Vendée Globe, a nonstop solo circumnavigatory race, but The Ocean Race will be sailed with four crewmembers and an onboard reporter. At press time, it is the only purpose-built IMOCA 60 for this event—or for five people.
“First and foremost, the thought process was to design a really powerful boat,” says Towill. “In the Volvo, someone’s always actively trimming the sails and adjusting things to maintain performance at any given time, while I think in the Vendée, it’s kind of about finding a good average sail trim, because if you’re sleeping or exhausted, nobody’s making those adjustments.”
Then there are the boat’s other performance features, including a set of totally unique foils. “Within the class there’s still widely different design philosophies on foil shape, whether they’re really straight or C-foils that you see on some of the boats, but ours are a design that no one’s really gone for before,” says Towill. “We have a really tight shaft radius, meaning that the elbow of the foil is much deeper in the water than any of the other boats. And from what we’ve seen so far, we’re quite optimistic about that being a big performance gain”
Of course, even the worlds best foils don’t help if they’re smashed off by a growler deep in the Southern Ocean, and Towill says the team has been cautiously noting the number of foil breakages in the IMOCA 60s class and even on their own boat in 2020. “It’s absolutely something we’ve been watching, not only from a design and construction standpoint with foils breaking, but also just the fact that you have massive things sticking out of the side of the boat when you’re sailing through the ocean. There’s a lot more surface area to have a potential impact with something you don’t know is there.” Obviously there are ocean health concerns that tie into the issue as well—like flotsam or whale strikes—but from a technology standpoint, it offers a unique opportunity for innovation. “We are implementing a collision-avoidance system and a marine mammal deterrent system, and we work with the race organizers on marine mammal mitigation plans,” says Munro. Still, it’s new tech on a new boat.
“We’ve basically only done a month’s worth of sailing, so we’re still learning a lot about the boat itself,” Towill acknowledges, but that month of sailing has included plenty of lessons with both a first-place finish in one of the events of Le Défi Azimut and a painful 13th in the Transat Jaques Vabre due to keel failure.
“Those are ultimately team building and defining moments that you can take a lot away from. That’s certainly how we’re trying to look at it,” says Towill, although he adds, “One thing that sailing these boats has really highlighted is just how challenging it is physically on your body, and mentally as well. When Charlie and Pascal got to the finish of the Transat Jaques Vabre, they were completely shattered.”
With this grueling nature of the sport in mind, Towill and Enright are working to build redundancy into their team in the event that not only things but people break down. “It’s this fine balance between needing consistency in the team, the overall team ethos and performance level, and being able to adapt when you need an injection of fresh energy or when someone gets injured,” says Towill. “As much as I hate to think about it, that is the reality of what we’re doing. To not have a backup plan for all the people onboard would be naive. It’s a long way around the world.”
So far, it looks like Enright as well as the co-skippers of 11th Hour Racing Team’s training boat Alaka’i, Justine Mettraux and Simon Fisher (affectionately known to the team as Si Fi), will be on Mālama come the January start of The Ocean Race. The fourth spot and alternates are still in the works. “With few people onboard there’s a lot less job specificity. Everyone has to do a bit of everything from performance, to navigation, to maneuvers and operations,” says Enright, highlighting just how important selecting the right crew will be.
And it’s not just crew selections that will keep them busy in the coming months. Between now and January there will be more repairs, boat optimizing, two transatlantic crossings, a summer pitstop in Newport and possibly even some practice racing. “The big emphasis right now is to develop our boat the best we can to prepare. We’re definitely keeping a loose cover on what the other teams are doing, but our focus is on how we can best prepare as a team,” says Towill.
As for Enright, it’s going to be about learning how to cooperate with Mālama’s temperament. “The IMOCA is a fragile platform. Knowing when to push and how hard to push is going to be a key in this upcoming race. The old adage has never been more true: ‘To finish first, you must first finish!’”
Regardless of the outcome of The Ocean Race, however, the strides 11th Hour Racing Team has already taken to advance sustainability in the industry as a whole cannot be counted as anything other than a win.
“It’s easy to really care about the ocean when you interact with it all the time; it’s easy to care if you know it and are connected to it,” says Munro. It comes as no surprise that sailors are generally pretty invested in keeping the oceans clean. If you’re looking for ways to bring 11th Hour Racing Team’s green mission to your organization, look no further than their Sustainability Toolbox. This eight step program includes a suite of guides, tools and templates created by 11th Hour Racing Team to help any organization develop a sustainability program, no matter the size or industry sector. To learn more, visit sustainabilitytoolbox.com