13 January 2023, IMOCA Skippers Press conference in Alicante: Boris Herrmann, Kevin Escoffier, Benjamin Dutreux, Paul Meilhat, Charlie Enright.
Last call: the Ocean Race Skippers press conference
The 11 skippers who will lead their teams across the starting line on Sunday met the media ahead of racing.
For some teams, the date of the skippers' press conference sat amid an intensely hectic period as they prepared for the 32,000 mile, seven-leg, race around the world. For others, the date for facing the world's cameras and microphones en masse has been in their diaries for several years.
But for all, today's presentation of all 11 skippers across both the IMOCA and VO65 fleets signified a key stage along the road to The Ocean Race, two days ahead of the start of this classic and historic race on Sunday afternoon.
This is also the 50th anniversary of the event making it all the more pertinent that the 14th edition should include the longest leg in its history, 12,750 miles from Cape Town, South Africa to Itajai, Brazil. The leg is expected to take 30 days as the IMOCA fleet head deep into the Southern Ocean.
When asked, it was clear that the challenge and significance of this leg was not lost on the IMOCA skippers that are all highly accomplished.
"I've never done 30 days (with a crew on board) before in my life," admitted GUYOT environnement – Team Europe (FRA/GER) co-skipper Benjamin Dutreux.
Others were similarly candid.
"I think Leg 3 will be particularly hard as it will be about knowing when to slow down and how hard to push," said 11th Hour Racing Team (USA) skipper Charlie Enright. "We may find we end up sailing at 70 percent under autopilot because that's all the boats can handle, it's a big question for sure. But from a spectator's point of view the course looks like a race down to South Africa, survival to Cape Horn and a race back up to the finish."
Yet, not all the skippers agreed on which leg would be the hardest.
"For sure Leg 3 will be hard as we head into the south, but three of our crew have been there before sailing alone on an IMOCA," said Paul Meilhat of Biotherm (FRA). "For us it is Leg 1 and 2 that will be the trickiest. We have done no training together for this race, the first time we sailed as a crew was a week ago, so we will be finding out how five of us work together on the boat."
The challenge of sailing with a full crew also delivered answers that might not have been expected. While the benefits of being able to share the physical load of managing the boat and keeping the pressure on are clear, those with solo experience highlighted the additional pressure that a full crew might bring.
"When you sail alone you're often not stressed as you can do things in your own time, but as a skipper you have an additional set of responsibilities to the crew, so I expect to feel more stressed at the start," said Meilhat.
Team Holcim PRB's (SUI) skipper Kevin Escoffier agreed.
"It is easier when you sail alone, but with four others you have to think about them," he said.
For Dutreux it is the mix of cultures and abilities that are on his mind ahead of the start.
"We have different cultures within the crew that include a lot of strengths and what we need to do is to manage this well to get the best for the team."
For spectators and followers of the event, the impressive performance of the IMOCAs is one of the big appeals in this race, but high speeds come with risk, something that Escoffier highlighted. Developing a boat that will out perform the rest of the fleet is all part of the competition and means that teams will always have their own secrets.
"But if it's a safety issue we will share information that might help," he said. "I would not want to win a leg knowing that a boat had broken because information was not shared."
Team Malizia's (GER) skipper Boris Herrmann agreed. "There's a good camaraderie in this class and I hope we can keep this up through the race."
Being first to announce their campaign and having a three year build up to the start with a new IMOCA designed specifically for fully crewed racing 11th Hour Racing Team has been the favourite, but Enright pointed out, any perceived advantage had to be seen in context.
"Three years relative to the amount of experience I see here with the sailors to my right is just a blip on my radar," he said.
The VO65 skippers were also on stage and will be the first to start on Sunday. For them Leg 1 of The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint will also take them from Alicante to Cabo Verde. They too were focussed on the challenge ahead.
"I think the responsibility is huge, especially when I consider the number of young sailors in the team but it's also a great place to be when you're racing against so many other good teams," said Ambersail 2 (AUT) skipper Rokas Milevičius.
For Antonio Fontes, a veteran of The Ocean Race 2017-18, and now the skipper of the Portuguese Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team (POR), the race provides a valuable opportunity to inspire the next generation. "This project has been working to develop Portuguese offshore sailing and this race helps the next generation to step forward and experience this style of racing for the first time."
For Gerwin Jansen, skipper of Austrian Ocean Racing Powered by Team Genova (AUT/ITA), the collaboration with the host city for the finish had been key to their programme.
"As part of their support we have a group of young sailors join us on the team and that has worked out very well."
When it comes to the biggest nationality represented in the VO65 fleet, the Dutch sailors lead the way.
"I'm super happy as I have six aboard," said Team JAJO (NED) skipper Jelmer van Beek who's Dutch crew tally includes race veteran Bouwe Bekking who has eight editions under his belt. "He will be a watch leader and it's great to have so much experience on board."
For Viva México (MEX) skipper Erik Brockmann there is a special reason: "Fifty years is long enough without having Mexico in this great race so we're really happy to be here on the start line representing Mexico."
Having won the In-Port Race last weekend Pablo Arrarte's Windwhisper Racing Team (POL) is in the spotlight.
"All the teams are very good and having that race as a training session was very good but we were fairly late to join and have been training every day that we can so hopefully it will come good."
In a week that has seen the weather forecasts dance around shifting models, the picture is becoming clearer for the start on Sunday. Currently the forecast is for south westerly breeze 8-12 knots for the start of the VO65s becoming NW for the IMOCA fleet.
After that, as both fleets head towards the Gibraltar Strait they are expected to run into up to 30-35 knots in the Alboran Sea on Monday, providing an early test.