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VOR: Credibility gap grows

GUANGZHOU, CHN – Vestas 11th Hour Racing won’t be sailing in Leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Hong Kong to Auckland, New Zealand. Vestas’ 65-foot sloop is on a ship bound for Auckland for repairs because the hole punched in the hull in a fatal collision with a fishing boat two weeks ago couldn’t be fixed locally.

Again, you won’t read that in any news releases.

In fact, Volvo has just posted a story saying that the boats are heading down the river back to Hong Kong for the Wednesday start of Leg 6, and, yet again, no mention of Vestas.

Sailing Illustrated's Tom Ehman was first to publicly break the foregoing Vestas news on his popular live video podcast "Tuesdays with TFE" last Tuesday. In the meantime, radio silence continues from both the team and organizers.

Indeed, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, and the VOR itself, seem to have reached a crisis in credibility.

What is going on? Who is trying to hide what, and from whom?

There are far more questions, both about the collision and the aftermath, than there are answers. And that’s not a good thing for an event that has struggled to get and keep teams, and seems eager to protect commercial interests at the expense of the truth – and our sport.

Heck, the VOR held a skippers news conference with questions coming only from the moderator. And for the first time in memory, one of the teams was not even represented – yep, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, which seems to have vanished.

That is not correct and certainly not acceptable.

Is the Vestas crew in some kind of legal trouble? And what about organizers? Do they feel any regret in sending the fleet sailing into Hong Kong in the dark through crowded waters, all for the commercial benefits of visiting that port for the first time? And, hey, great that Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag sailed into its home port in first place. But the VOR has yet to adequately explain why they didn't ask the other Chinese team, Dongfeng, who at the time were behind Vestas, to divert to assist – keeping them going to what no doubt was going to be a warm welcome with sponsors and supporters gathered in Hong Kong. VOR did divert the next boat, the Netherlands-based AkzoNobel, to assist Vestas – not that much was needed by the time Akzo got there.

You might have noticed that we haven't mentioned Leg 5, the dog-and-pony show in which the rest of the fleet raced the "treacherous" 100 nautical miles or so up the river to Guangzhou. It’s called a “transitional leg” and each team that participated scored one point.

Great. Participation trophies for all.

That, in the United States, is called Little League. For our friends around the world, that means small-time.

Then we learn, a week after the finish, that the eventual race winner Scallywag received an an email from VOR Race Control that they were heading for a reef, which prompted them to significantly alter their course and avoid it. Outside assistance contrary to the racing rules? No, said the VOR International Jury which, of course, is paid by Volvo.

It’s getting harder and harder to take this race seriously. With each edition, it’s more like a bunch of hired guns paid to sail moving billboards around the world, one stop at a time.

You can go to the VOR website and read all about beach cleanups and visits with school kids and plastic particles in the water, but nothing about what is going on with Vestas, other than it was going to miss the silly Hong Kong/Guangzhou in-port races and the 100-mile Leg 5.

Look, we’re all for sustainability and the health of the world’s oceans, and we've long since stopped using single-use water bottles. We've even helped convince a major yacht club to stop using plastic straws in their drinks. But we’re also all about honesty and transparency.

At SI we've tried really hard to get behind this race with good and extensive coverage. We've been cheering for Americans Charlie Enright, Mark Towill and their Vestas 11th Hour Racing team at every opportunity. But the credibility of the organizers, and now one of its teams, only goes from bad to worse. Give credit to AkzoNobel when they were having their personnel problems prior to the start of Leg 1. At least they were reasonably publicly forthright about it.

We've been holding back saying, but it is now more clear than ever. Proper sailing organizations – yacht clubs, classes, etc. – should organize and manage yacht races. Not corporate sponsors.

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