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Ocean racing’s future in safe hands as Transat Jacques Vabre begins

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01 November 2013 | IMOCA,Analysis

Ocean racing’s future in safe hands as Transat Jacques Vabre begins

The 11th Transat Jacques Vabre, a double handed transatlantic race from France to Brazil, begins on Sunday, with ten Open 60 monohulls leading the fleet as ocean racing’s new commercial era begins in earnest.

Following the traditional route boats took to transport coffee between South America and Europe, the biennial event was first sailed in 1993 when 13 entries took the start. It was jointly conceived by the city of Le Havre, the starting point for the race again this time round, and the Jacques Vabre coffee brand.

The 2013 race will finish in the Brazilian coastal city of Itajai, a previous stopover point for the Volvo Ocean Race. It will be the longest edition yet, at 5,450 miles - a quarter of the way round the world.

In a format change for this year's edition, Sirius Evénements, the company managing the race, will use staggered starts across the four classes - the race features a variety of monohull and multihull designs - to try and ensure a close finish in Brazil. The Class 40 and IMOCA Open 60 boats get underway on Sunday with the IMOCA's predicted to spend around 20 days on the water, but the Multi 50 class will only begin two days later and the MOD70s three days after that.

Eagerly anticipated as one of the standout races on the professional sailing calendar, the Transat Jacques Vabre is starting at a time when there is a new vitality surrounding ocean sailing.

Late last year, British entrepreneur Sir Keith Mills, the owner of the Hugo Boss-backed Alex Thomson Racing Open 60 team for a decade, acquired the commercial rights to the International Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA), the organiser of the Ocean Racing World Championship of which the Transat Jacques Vabre forms a part.

Through a Swiss-based start-up, Open Sports Management, Mills is now plotting the commercial future of a sport he believes is ripe for development. The initial target is to internationalise a section of the sport historically dominated by French sailors and, perhaps more significantly, French sponsors.

"The strategy is to introduce new events, to complement the existing events. IMOCA has a pretty good circuit of events already, but the sport is dominated by the French and while that's terrific it makes it difficult commercially for international companies," Mills told SportsPro earlier this year.

Open Sports Management, run by Peter Bayer in Lausanne, plans to introduce new events to add to the likes of the Transat Jacques Vabre and the quadrennial Vendée Globe, the solo round-the-world race which captures the romance of ocean racing like no other.

"By the time we get to the next Vendée Globe there will be more international teams," Mills promises, looking ahead to 2016.

"There will be technology and content coming out of a race like the Vendée Globe that will be rich and diverse. And on the way to the Vendée Globe we'll create some unique commercial properties, starting with the world championship."

There appears to be a mood for change, even amongst the French sailing community who have held a tight grip on the sport for so long. Jean Le Cam, the French co-skipper of the PRB boat, is one of the most experienced sailors in this year's Transat Jacques Vabre; this will be his seventh participation. He believes the race is a vital component of the new IMOCA class, under Open Sport Management's stewardship.

"For the IMOCA to be a long-term class, we need solo races and double handed races," he says. "Hence the importance of the Transat Jacques Vabre, which opens the door for newcomers to the class."

For the longer term, Mills senses he is on to a winner: "I love the sport of sailing," he says, "but basically I'm an entrepreneur. I'm doing this a, because I love the sport, and b, because I think it's going to be profitable.

"This is not a philanthropic gesture. I'm doing this because I think it's commercially viable and I'm prepared to invest money over the next three or four years to build it into something that is a profitable business. Like most of the businesses I invest in, I expect it to make money."

As the Transat Jacques Vabre gets underway, ocean racing, it seems, has decided to wake up and smell the coffee.

The full interview with Sir Keith Mills on the future of the Open 60 class can be found in the November edition of SportsPro. To subscribe, and to buy the 2013 Sailing Black Book, click here.

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