RNZYS Salutes Whitbread 50th Anniversary

Fifty years from the first fully-crewed round the world race, the modern descendants of those early pioneers will blast across oceans at extraordinary speeds, aided by space-age technology and electronics, sailed by highly trained professional athletes and backed by global sponsors with armies of public relations experts telling their stories.
The 2023 Ocean Globe Race is grand prix sailing of the highest order – far removed from the enthusiastic amateur adventure-seekers, who set off from Portsmouth in 1973 armed with sextants to plot their way around the planet in the Whitbread Round the World.

Now, however, a new race will revive memories of where it all began. And the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron – which has played a significant role in most of the subsequent 13 iterations of the race – will host the entrants during their Auckland stopover.

The Ocean Globe Race is described as “an eight-month adventure around the world for ordinary sailors on normal yachts. Racing oceangoing GRP production yachts designed before 1988, there will be no computers, no satellites, no GPS and no high-tech materials. Sextants, team spirit and raw determination alone in the great traditions of ocean racing are allowed on this truly human endeavour.”

The brainchild of Australian adventurer Don McIntyre, who finished 2nd in his class in the 1990 BOC Single-handed Round the World Race, the idea is to go back “to that first great Whitbread Race and sail like it’s 1973”.

At present, 14 yachts ranging in size from 51ft to 74ft are entered, representing Australia (two), France (five), Finland (two), South Africa, Spain, Italy, USA and UK with a potential 15th entry still to come.

Several of the yachts competed in early Whitbread races, including L’esprit d’equipe, which won the 1985 edition. Maiden, the Bruce Farr design, which competed in the 1989 race with the first all-female crew led by Tracy Edwards, will return for the Ocean Globe Race – once again with an all-female crew.

The race will take competitors on four legs starting and finishing in Southampton with stopovers in Cape Town, Auckland and Punta del Este. The shortest leg is 5430nm and the longest, from New Zealand to Uruguay via Cape Horn, is 8370nm.

The Auckland stopover will be the longest with the first yachts expected to arrive about December 14. Yachts will tie up in front of ‘Restaurant Row’ at Wynyard Quarter, where spectators can view them. The fleet will depart on Sunday, January 14. It is expected that between 300 to 400 families will travel to Auckland to join competitors for the Christmas festivities.

Following a recent visit to Auckland by one of the race organisers, the RNZYS has agreed to host the fleet and undertake the race management for the finish and re-start.

“It is exciting for us as a club to be supporting a race like this,” says General Manager Sarah Wiblin. “Given the ‘everyman’ nature of the event, it is a privilege to be hosting the fleet and what it represents to our club community.”

Competitors and their supporters will be given guest membership of the RNZYS for the duration of the stopover. “We will be inviting race crews to utilise our facilities, hopefully sharing some stories and participating in our activities,” says Wiblin.On Wednesday December 20, a special Whitbread-themed Rum Race will be staged and it is hoped that some of the Ocean Globe Race visitors will join members’ yachts for the occasion. On Saturday December 23, the RNZYS will also host a welcome party for the fleet.

Over the Christmas and New Year period, the club will close as usual, but will reopen on the weekend of January 6 and “go full noise” in supporting the racers through to the re-start on January 14.

“Highlights in that week will include a Whitbread reunion lunch on Friday January 12, which will lead into a special Ocean Globe Rum Race in the afternoon. We will invite previous Whitbread competitors, who will attend the lunch, to join members on their boats for that race.

“That evening, we will also host the official farewell party for the fleet before they head to Cape Horn, which will be a very special occasion,” says Wiblin. “That Friday is going to be a really big day. We are hoping that some Whitbread veterans from Europe and elsewhere will make the trip to join the festivities.” Auckland is the only venue where a major Whitbread reunion will be held.

Saturday will be left for the competitors to make last-minute preparations for the long Southern Ocean passage to come. “On the Sunday morning, the RNZYS will host a large breakfast open to members, race crews and their supporters, before heading out on the water to give them a great iconic send-off in true Squadron fashion.” In association with the NZ Sailing Trust, Steinlager 2 and Lion New Zealand, will join the farewell fleet for the re-start.

New Zealand and the RNZYS have a strong connection with the various iterations of the round the world race. Sir Peter Blake and Grant Dalton both carried the RNZYS burgee when they won the race with IOR maxis Steinlager 2 and New Zealand Endeavour respectively in 1989-90 and 1993-94.

Ross Field and Mike Sanderson both subsequently led campaigns to victory, Field with Yamaha (Whitbread 60) in 1993-94 and Sanderson with ABN Amro One in 2005-06, while other campaigns were led by Kiwi skippers Digby Taylor, Chris Dickson, Brad Butterworth and Kevin Shoebridge. Between 1973 and the 2017-18 edition, 355 on-board crew positions were occupied by New Zealanders across multiple entries.

The original 1973 race stopped in Sydney and bypassed New Zealand, but the Whitbread organisers were not happy with the Australian reception. They felt the city largely ignored the round the world racers in favour of the traditional Sydney-Hobart race.

In negotiations with the RNZYS, Auckland became the stopover for the next and most of the subsequent races. It became a crew favourite over the years and a major maintenance stop, enjoying the support and expertise of the local marine industry.
The Ocean Globe Race organisers are already in discussions with industry representatives about haul-outs and maintenance for the yachts during the stopover, while the RNZYS is mobilising some of its own partnerships and relationships, like Accor Hotels, to facilitate crew members’ time in New Zealand. Many will take the opportunity to explore New Zealand beyond Auckland, while their families visit.

This article originally appeared in Breeze Magazine 1 July 2023. Read the full edition online here.