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Taking offshore off shore – Phil Sharp’s Vendée goal

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23 July 2015 | IMOCA,Feature

Taking offshore off shore – Phil Sharp’s Vendée goal

The Channel Island of Jersey has built a reputation for itself as an offshore banking haven. Now, plans are afoot to transform it into an offshore sailing hub.

By James Emmett

British entrepreneur and former London 2012 deputy chairman Sir Keith Mills founded the new Ocean Masters World Championship in 2014 to breathe new life into International Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA) sailing. The class, founded in its first iteration in 1991, comprises offshore racing IMOCA 60 monohulls of 18.28 metres.

Associated with some of the most fearsome offshore sailing events in history – double and single-handed transatlantic and round-the-world races that last for months – the class has benefited in recent years from Mills’ investment and his vision. In the Ocean Masters World Championship, IMOCA now has a new brand, new events, and a clearer narrative structure: four or five events across a two-year series, at the end of which a champion is crowned. The new format has been designed to attract new competitors, new sponsors, new investors and new fans, and to diversify a strand of sailing that had come to be dominated by France and the French.

The second two-year cycle in the new era begins this August with the Rolex Fastnet race, a double-hander from Plymouth, to Fastnet Rock, the most southerly point of Ireland, and back to Cowes.  November sees the Transat Jacques Varbre, a double-handed race across the Atlantic following the traditional coffee route between Le Havre in France and Itajaí in Brazil; a new event scheduled to start in December,  the Transat B to B, a single-handed transatlantic voyage from Plymouth in the UK to New York or Newport in the US; another new event at the end of May next year that will see the fleet head back across the Atlantic to Les Sables d’Olonne in the Vendée in  France; and then the brutal quadrennial round-the-world race that is the Vendée Globe, scheduled to start from Les Sables d’Olonne on 12th November 2016 and finish three months or so later in the same port.

Although it is now the climactic event of the Ocean Masters World Championship, the Vendée Globe is much like the Monaco Grand Prix in that it runs, to a certain extent, to its own commercial beat. The French seem to like their grand sporting occasions to be as taxing as possible; the Vendée Globe is part of French sporting folklore, sitting alongside those other two great endurance events, the Tour de France and the Le Mans 24 Hours. 20 boats started the last edition of the fabled race in 2012/13. 11 finished.

Hoping to embark on his first Vendée Globe in the next edition – and indeed to set sail at the opening Ocean Masters World Championship race later this year – is Phil Sharp, a young Briton inspired by the Millsification of the series, and a man whose plan is exactly the sort of thing that Sir Keith himself would encourage.

Already one of Britain’s most successful offshore sailors at 34 years old, Sharp, who trained with the Artemis Offshore Academy, won the 2006 edition of the quadrennial single-handed transatlantic Route du Rhum race in a class 40 monohull. In 2005, shortly after graduating from Imperial College in London, he competed in the Mini Transat, a singlehanded race from France to Brazil in 21-foot boats. After three weeks and 4,500 miles, he finished in fourth place overall, the second-best British result in the 30-year history of the race. In 2011, he finished the Solitaire du Figaro in his first attempt at the multi-stage race, becoming the highest-finishing Briton in the process.

Jersey’s Phil Sharp is not only plotting victory in the Vendée Globe but also wants to be the first man to sail around the world non-stop with zero emissions.

Having based himself in Lorient, the Mecca of offshore sailing on the west coast of France, for the majority of his career, Sharp has a new challenge in his sights, and a new base back on the Channel Island of Jersey where he was born.

Sharp has set up a management structure – Phil Sharp Racing – to frame and guide his offshore sailing efforts. The objectives of the team are simple, he says: to be the first British team to win the Vendée Globe, and, secondly, to be the first boat to circumnavigate the globe non-stop without emissions.

“If I’ve got the right platform underneath me, I can definitely go out there and win the Vendée Globe,” the Jerseyman says. “It is basically the most challenging sporting event in the world today. It’s about getting the best, most reliable boat. Let’s not forget that to finish first, first you have to finish.”

Sharp has set himself an ambitious six-year plan – one that he’s calling ‘The Vendée Globe Energy Challenge’. With the timeframe already tight, he plans to buy a second-hand boat for the 2016 edition of the race, refit it, then work on the design and construction of a bespoke vessel for the 2020 edition of the Vendée Globe.

“We don’t have a boat confirmed yet but there’s a couple of options we’re looking at,” he explains. “It’s not like we have a huge array to choose from because there’s an enormous amount of interest for the Vendée Globe and a lot of the boats have already been confirmed. But I think we can safely say that there are going to be two or three teams, or skippers, current boat owners, that aren’t going to get to the start of the Vendée Globe. And we’ve definitely got an option with one of those. We hope to confirm that by the end of the year, if not before.”

The price for a second-hand, Vendée Globe-ready boat is anywhere between UK£1 million and UK£2.5 million, with a new boat costing around UK£3.5 million. Depending on the amount of research and development a team wishes to undertake – and the IMOCA 60 is an evolution class – annual budgets range from UK£1.5 million to UK£2 million. Sharp explains that he has funding in place to secure the purchase of a boat for 2016, and a team in place around him to drum up the requisite support from sponsors and suppliers that should fi ll out the rest of his budget.

Pierre Horsefall, a former Jersey politician and current chairman of the Jersey Opera House who was instrumental in bringing a stopover of the Clipper Round the World sailing race to Jersey in the early 2000s, sits on the Phil Sharp Racing advisory board. So too do Will Carnegie, an experienced offshore sailor who managed a team in the BT Global Challenge sailing race, and a number of executives from across Jersey’s extraordinarily active financial landscape.

“To go out and do something like this takes a lot of time to organise,” says Sharp. “Four years is the time between Vendée Globes and it’s not a long time. It’s very much a race against the clock. Unfortunately until you have the sponsorship revenue established, it’s very difficult to get miles in on the water. And it requires a lot of planning and set-up time. 

“Ideally we want to kick things off for the Transat Jacques Vabre in November,” he continues. “This is the only evolution class in offshore sailing, now the Volvo’s gone one-design. So it’s stolen the limelight in terms of the technical and performance advantages on the water, which makes it a very exciting class.

An ocean-ready IMOCA 60, the boat used in the Vendée Globe, can cost up to UK£3.5 million.

“The foil technology is something that’s becoming very prominent. People are looking to increase the power of boats with foils. They’re not going to physically lift the boat out of the water, but they will significantly increase the righting moment of the boat itself. It’s early days with that and it could be that they take quite a lot of time to get right.

“For a team like us – a new team looking to get established in the class – it’s quite a high risk to start putting completely new foils on the boat which are unproven and untested. It will be a case of being brave, waiting for a bit to see how the new foils perform with the bigger teams, and meanwhile in the background be doing research and development on them, and then when we’ve got the budget and we’re ready to do a new boat project with a new foil package where we can hopefully get a competitive advantage.”

There is an element of technological research and development, of course, that Sharp is already undertaking with gusto. A week before competing in the Mini Transat in 2005, her encountered problems with the generator on his boat. “I didn’t have enough to buy a new generator, but I did have enough money to buy another solar panel,” he recounts. “So I decided to go on solar energy alone. It actually worked extremely well. I basically had a continuous, reliable capture of energy during the day and it was an invigorating feeling to be just collecting free green energy. You weren’t lumbering all your energy around as weight on the racecourse with you.

“It was in 2012 that I began to focus heavily on demonstrating pioneering renewable technologies and the advantages of those, and the fact that we can explicitly link performance to renewables as well, which is something that no one else has yet done. We only have to look around at the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, the Clipper fleet: they all rely on diesel technology for power generation, and frankly I think this technology belongs in the 20th century. We really need to adapt to do something much more ecologically efficient and something that is hopefully going to help with our energy independence as well.”

For his Vendée Globe Energy Challenge project, Sharp – who has a master’s in mechanical engineering himself – has established technical partnerships with the energy futures lab at Imperial College, Southampton University, and the National Composites Centre.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea about the technology and we’re in the process of putting together technical supplier partnerships for that now,” he explains. “We’re going to be using thin-fi lm solar technology. It’s very light and very good in low-light conditions as well. We spend a lot of time in the Southern Ocean, a lot of time with overcast skies. Some of the new technology works really well in lowlight conditions.

“We’ll have hydro generators as a back-up, and also wind energy, so we’ve got three sources of energy that we can harvest, and that will give us an opportunity to avoid the intermittency issues of renewable energy. The plan is to get the most competitive second-hand boat we can find, and then take off the diesel system and put our renewable system on board. That will be in the form of hydrogen storage and fuel-cell technology. That’s the bulk of what sits underneath the deck.” 

Jersey shore

“Jersey is a very strong offshore finance centre but they really recognise the need to diversify their economy,” explains Phil Sharp of the Channel Island. “They are very interested in creating some technical industry over here. What technology, exactly, remains to be seen.

“For instance, the States of Jersey has now got the right to develop a lot of the sites around the coast of Jersey for renewable energy – for tidal stream turbines – and that’s something they really want to push in the coming years. That could attract a lot of industry to the island. So using this sailing project to showcase the fact that Jersey is interested in that space and has expertise in that area is important.

“This is also a great B2B platform for Jersey globally, for external relations and for attracting new businesses to the island, by taking an advanced platform that endorses the best of what Jersey is about: it’s an offshore centre but it’s also poking its nose into some new, interesting areas and renewable energy is one of those.

Sharp hopes that sailing success can help to diversify the economy of his home island, Jersey.

"We’re interested in global people with local links. We’re not going to confirm a headline sponsor that is exclusively Jersey. It’s going to be Jerseylinked, and if they’ve got a Jersey HQ then that will definitely be beneficial for us. It’s a very well-connected place so a lot can evolve out of it.

“We’re looking to sell naming rights and boat naming rights for a headline sponsor. According to Kantar, the average returns in media value for the fleet are five to one. But it’s all in the activation. It’s safe to say that if you do a good media campaign, and you get a reasonably good result, ten to one is quite common.

“But sailing is a lot more than that. It’s about delivering unique hospitality on a mobile, global platform, and we want ours to be an innovation platform, and for technical sponsors or for large blue-chip companies with technical interests, it’s really more of a product demonstration. So if these guys can actually use some of their technology on the boat, it not only gives them a great marketing platform, but it gives them an R&D platform as well. The big thing is for them to be able to say that we chose to rely on their technology from any part of the globe and in some of the most hostile places on the planet.”   

This feature appears in the August 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine as part of a report on the business of sailing. Subscribe to the magazine today here.


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