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Mark Turner's views on IMOCA

Thoughts on the union with Keith Mills, going one design and going eco

Thursday November 15th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: French Guiana

No Vendee Globe is complete without Mark Turner, one of the masterminds behind Ellen MacArthur’s successful Kingfisher campaign in 2000, then with Nick Moloney on Skandia four years later and then behind Seb Josse’s BT in 2008.

Turner was in Les Sables d’Olonne last week for the start of the seventh singlehanded non-stop around the world race. “It is the first time I have been here in 16 years without the pressure of a boat leaving the dock! There is a boat that we built, but I am not feeling the pressure of that,” he says, referring to Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss, the former BT, now all-silver.

However he has other links with the present race – OC ran Sam Davies’ Figaro campaign in the day, while Initatives Coeur skipper Tanguy de LaMotte was once Ellen MacArthur’s shorecrew after finishing his naval architecture degree in Southampton and in particular worked in a similar capacity with Nick Moloney four years later.

“When Tanguy first got confirmation he was going to do this event, it was very nice of him, but the first people he rang were Ellen and myself, because we were there at the beginning of his dream,” says Turner, the beginnings of a tear forming in his eye.

Although his focus is currently elsewhere, running the Extreme Sailing Series and OC Sport’s cycling events such as the Haute Route (by coincidence increasingly popular with the sailing community with around 30 of our number expected to compete in next year’s event), Turner in the past has also been active in the IMOCA class. He attended Friday’s announcement about the new relationship between Sir Keith Mills’ new marketing company OCS and the class.

So is it too late to salvage IMOCA or has the rot set in too deep now? “I don’t know if it has or it hasn’t. I don’t think you can say it is too late or not. What you can definitely say it is what needed to happen 10 years ago. We tried at the time, but at that time the appetite for any kind of change wasn’t there within IMOCA and unfortunately we didn’t make hay when the sun shone. Keith – there is probably no one better than him in terms of vision, network, contacts, image, money to put into it, etc to make that happen. But 10 years ago was the moment - 2004-2008 should have been when the class was investing in the future instead of profiting from the present. It is a shame, but it is a natural, human and you have got a class association that is run by its existing members, not those that need for four year's time. It has never been capable of making hard decisions for the future.”

But will it now? The big struggle says Turner is getting teams to commit to events, but to achieve this would require a fundamental structural change to the class. The MOD70s has attempted to do this, with teams buying licenses to compete or buying into the circuit, but even this isn’t an absolute guarantee a team will compete as we saw, most dramatically, when Veolia Environnement pulled the plug on their campaign with Roland Jourdain.

“You need something like that - a way that when a boat engages in the circuit it has to go to events, otherwise you are just back in the same thing each time,” says Turner.

He is in a good position to know. In addition to running IMOCA 60 teams, OC was instrumental in setting up the Barcelona World Race and still holds the rights for The Transat, the pro end of the former OSTAR, solo west across the North Atlantic. Sadly the plug was pulled on this year’s event, supposedly due to a conflict with the IMOCA’s classes Europa Tour, which in turn was poorly attended and came close to being canned at one point.

“If I put on my organiser’s hat, the biggest problem now is that I can take a lot of risk - that you have to take to keep an event going - but can anyone guarantee to me that boats are going to come?”

There also needs to be a change in mindset. At present Turner says there is the belief that race organisers make huge profits out of staging events. In the past IMOCA, when it had a bigger richer fleet and held more power, believed they should be leveraging rights from event organisers to get their fleet to compete (“I got that ball rolling and then become a victim of it!” quips Turner)

“I have been on both sides of it and it couldn’t be further from the truth - trying to raise funding for events is way harder than raising it for a boat: You have less to sell, you don’t have a motion, you don’t have the passion, you don’t have the boat, you don’t have a big branding vehicle, you don’t have the same thing to sell. Even in the Vendee Globe context, where there is perhaps 60 million Euros of sponsorship in the projects focussed on the Vendee Globe, the event is running on 9 million and that is quite a favourable equation. At most events the ratio is way smaller for the organiser. Yet the requirements of the teams - as they have got more professional and they have got better brands - they want more and that is fair enough. But the model [for event organisers] doesn’t stack up very well right now.”

Turner completely agrees with Mills’ vision for IMOCA announced in a preliminary way on Friday, in particular encouraging more international competition and taking the class to new markets such as China. Only now it will be harder with less global brands involved in the class.

“Eight years ago we knew that and that was the time to try and make it a more international product," Turner continues. "Unfortunately at that time the Vendee Globe organisation didn’t give a monkeys about that and hasn’t done until this event. And most of the teams don’t care about it. It is a vicious circle and you have to find which point to make a break in that circle. It is not an easy challenge, but if anyone can do it genuinely Keith can with perseverance, good ideas and funding.”

As mentioned in Monday’s article, this could result in a ‘two tier’ IMOCA divided between teams representing international brands and those backed by French companies only with interested in marketing to domestic France. However Turner doesn’t believe there is enough space for this scenario and there would never be enough teams to do both. “That is why you have to got to take everyone with you or it is not going to happen.”

So how do you get a company like Akena Verandas or PRB to take part in an event to China, when that market is of no interest to them commercially? “That is clearly is THE challenge, but it is not all impossible. PRB had no interest in Spain and yet was the first team to commit to the first Barcelona World Race. I came here, explained the race and they understood the vision, realised that they didn’t want just to have a Vendee every fourth year and it was of genuine interest for them to develop it, even though PRB doesn’t have much interest in Spain. So some are like that – not just about self interest, they are looking at a bigger picture, you just need enough of those.”

Does the class need to go one design to survive? “I think, like most people, over time your opinion shifts one way or the other. I think that is what is happening for a lot of people. If pressurised to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I would say absolutely ‘yes' and pure one design. Other than for a technology-focussed company like Safran - and there are not many of those and you have to take them as a case apart as clearly a one design would be a disaster for them - in today’s environment I don’t understand how you can justify to a sponsor an extra whatever it is, 0.5-1 million Euros per year, to develop a boat to go 0.1 knot faster. It is not a luxury that a part of the sport that depends purely on commercial sponsorship can afford.”

However Turner ultimately agrees with IMOCA President Luc Talbourdet’s position that a hybrid solution is possibly the best where large parts of future IMOCA 60s go one design, such as the mast and keel. Turner suggests going one further and having one design sails as well. But then why not go the whole way? “One of the problems with going the whole way is that it is bloody hard to manage without the resources of a Volvo-type set up. If you try to go full one design at this size of boat it is very tough to manage that. The MODs have done it bravely and it is very good; the end result is fantastic - every boat has finished every race this year, which hasn’t happened in any IMOCA or ORMA race in the last 12 years.”

We attempt the counter-arguement that at present all the existing MOD70s need new foils, however Turner says that the end result is still far cheaper than separate designs and the development class.

He adds: “You don’t want to destroy the existing fleet. There is no point just wiping the boats out and starting again, that isn’t sensible, so there is probably a middle route where you try to take out the big cost items so that people can tinker, but it doesn’t really make a difference to winning or losing. If you took out sails, mast, keel and rigging – you can play around with the layout, the look of the boat, etc. It is not a bad solution and maybe it is the only solution, but something should happen because the continual upward cost is not healthy for anyone. So one design, or elements of it, is important. I think managing the cost is important. You can’t just [solely] aim to grow the return.”

Another suggestion has been that IMOCA 60s should also go 100% eco and for events like the Vendee Globe should carry no fossil fuels, just as Javier Sanso’s Acciona is with her huge array of solar panels, backed-up by hydro- and wind generators.

“It is ridiculous that we are here today and that is the only boat like that,” maintains Turner. “It was discussed five or six years ago in IMOCA when for all the wrong reasons someone blocked it and people blocked Mike Golding trying an electric engine on his boat - that was completely ridiculous because someone thought he was trying to get one up on everyone else which wasn’t the case. They should all be like Acciona today. Whether it works or not, the fact is if everyone was doing it, people’s solutions, empiral improvement etc, would have meant it would be really sorted.”

Turner adds that while sailing has all the hallmarks of being a clean, environmentally-friendly, sustainable sport, dive a little deeper and “it is pretty damned dirty. If sailing doesn’t do some good things that position will die as other sports and industries move on. There is no reason why in the 2016 Vendee Globe there should be any boats with fossil fuels on board. It would be a fascinating new challenge and it would fit sponsorship-wise and make the positioning of IMOCA would be very strong.”

But why stop there? It is the building of boats with their carbon fibre and manufactured core and resin construction, that is perhaps the less environmentally friendly aspect of any race boat. Maybe in the future we’ll see race boats constructed using hemp and natural resin or the like. Has anyone researched this?


Latest Comments

  • rmb 16/11/2012 - 00:00

    yes, Bilous team has been working for the last 5 years on Biocomposites. There are no resins or fibers on the market today that come even close to that of carbon/foam much less carbon nomex, and they are heavier to boot. Still we can only keep looking and developing. Look at

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