Sponsor the toughest sailing race in the world? Rather not

The last week and a half before the start of the Ocean Race follows a set pattern. Every day, the sailing ships sail training races of a few hours in and around the port of Alicante, usually with guests on board. There is time for maintenance on the boats. Then Saturday night drinks with the whole team – the sailors, family members, management and backers. It’s a moment to reflect on the adventure that begins this Sunday morning in front of an estimated crowd of around 75,000 spectators: a six-month round-the-world race.

In the last days before the start, the excitement among the participants is always palpable, says former sailor Gideon Messink. Already six times he has taken part in the quadrennial event, which started in 1973 as the Whitbread Race and until recently was called the Volvo Ocean Race, three times as a sailor and three times as a team director. The crossing of the Indian Ocean in particular is awe-inspiring, says Messink. “Then you as a team are alone for weeks without help from planes, ships or helicopters.”

According to experts, participation in the race can easily cost around 15 million euros

Even now, Messink is there again. He is the manager and initiator of ‘Team JAJO’, the only Dutch boat that starts on Sunday. Nevertheless, the tension is now less than before, according to Messink. Because it is not a race around the world for the Dutch team. Team JAJO – named after the main sponsor, the construction company Janssen de Jong – is taking part in a stripped-down variant of the Ocean Race, a new class that only offers three ‘sprint stages’ near Europe.

Born of necessity

It is not a choice of luxury. In April, Messink was still convinced that the Dutch team would sail a full-fledged Ocean Race: almost 60,000 kilometers spread over seven stages, including Cape Town (South Africa) and Itajaí (Brazil). The pre-registration has been completed. The boat, which has already sailed two Ocean Races under the name Team Brunel, needed only a little tinkering and the campaign was supported by sailor Carolijn Brouwer, winner of the last Volvo Ocean Race (2018) with Chinese Dongfeng. “For the thirteenth time (is) a Dutch team at the start of the world’s most prestigious sailing competition around the world,” the press release said.

Also read: a profile of Carolijn Brouwerwinner of the last Ocean Race in 2018

But less than half a year later, the optimism was gone. Sailing Holland, the foundation behind the Dutch initiative, announced that they would not participate. The reason: it had not been possible to collect enough money from sponsors to “set up a full-fledged campaign”. Other teams seemed to have similar problems. Therefore, a last-minute solution was devised to reduce costs and still get up and running. They would participate, but only in the short stages. “It’s five times cheaper,” says Messink. “It is more or less solved that way. But of course I think it’s a shame, it’s called the Ocean Race for a reason.”

Dried food

The question is why it is so difficult to find sponsors. At first glance, the Ocean Race is very ‘sponsor generic’ and has a long Dutch tradition. The sailing race is global – and is about sustainability, wind, innovation, perseverance, adventure. Men and women fight each other, and the elements survive on dried food and three hours of sleep a day. Everything you want to be associated with as a Dutch multinational.

All true. But Ocean Race is also expensive. Sailors and staff must be paid, the entry fee paid, the boat maintained and equipment transported around the world. Exact budgets are a secret, but according to experts, a full campaign could easily cost around 15 million euros. Add a few million to that and you can get a proper cycling team to compete in every major competition for a year. And they are televised almost every day, Ocean Race is not.

In addition, much has changed since the previous edition, where two Dutch boats participated (Team Brunel and Team AkzoNobel). The pandemic, of course, which has already postponed the start of the Ocean Race once. The danger of arrivals becoming unavailable due to possible new lockdowns has made potential sponsors cautious, says marketing expert and sailing expert Marc-Antony Taminiau. The death of the experienced British sailor John Fisher during the previous Ocean Race – he went overboard in the South Sea – could also scare companies away, believes Taminiau.

What also doesn’t help is that Ocean Race now has two categories. The traditional ‘VO65 class’ of sailboats designed for the 2014 Ocean Race, all of which are more or less the same. And a new category of sailboats with foils – a kind of wings that make the boats float above the water. This IMOCA class, which is particularly popular in France, allows a lot of freedom to experiment with the design. It is these sailing ships that will sail the entire Ocean Race.

Messink does not regret not betting on the IMOCA class, he says. He likes the principle that the best sailors win, not the best boat. At the same time, he also sees that the ships with foils has the future. Messink hopes that some sort of IMOCA unit class will be chosen in subsequent editions. And that the Dutch multinationals have once again succeeded in warming up for the event.

This Ocean Race now caters to mature young talents such as Jelmer van Beek, the 28-year-old skipper of the Dutch boat. Messink: “I hope that these talents will soon be allowed to travel the world again.”

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