The Ocean Race | A Colourful History – Sail+Leisure
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The Ocean Race | A Colourful History

by Ingrid Hale

As more boats enter the 2023 edition of The Ocean Race, it seems a good time to look back at how it all started. Like so many great adventure stories, this one started in a pub, with a conversation between the Royal Naval Sailing Association and the head of the Whitbread Brewery.  Within a year or so, 17 crews were on the start line off Portsmouth, UK, for the first Whitbread Round the World Race in September 1973. From that was born one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

Through the decades, the race moved from one for adventure seekers to that of professional sailing campaigns, headed by some of the best sailors in the world.

And now we enter a new era as the event continues to evolve. Two classes will compete in the 2022-23 edition of the race with the addition of the high-tech, foiling IMOCA 60 class adding a design and technical element. The one-design VO65 fleet will race on its third lap of the planet in 2022, with an emphasis on competition, youth and crew diversity.



The second edition of the Whitbread Round the World Race cemented the race’s place as a fixture and pillar event in the sport of sailing. Dutchman Conny van Rietschoten would claim the race on corrected time in Flyer, a Sparksman and Stephens design that can still be seen sailing today. Clare Francis became the first woman to skipper a boat in the race and Sir Peter Blake, making his second Whitbread appearance as one of the crew on board Heath’s Condor, was forced to make a spectacular man overboard rescue in the Southern Ocean. 15 boats would start the race in Portsmouth and all 15 completed the four-leg, 27,000 nautical mile course.


Conny van Rietschoten returned to the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1981/82, determined not to just defend his title but to win both line honours on every leg, and the overall race on handicap. Impressively, with his Flyer II, he was able to accomplish just that. He also had some young and impressive young talent on board to help him on his quest, including Grant Dalton, who would go on to become an icon of the race in his own right, while Sir Peter Blake skippered his own campaign for the first time.


Lionel Péan would skipper L’esprit d’équipe to victory over 14 other teams, marking the first time a French team would win the race. But this race is perhaps best remembered for when Drum lost her keel and capsized during training in the Fastnet Race, with Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon on board. Other famous names were involved in this race, with Sir Peter Blake back for a fourth time with Lion New Zealand and this is when a spirited and determined Tracy Edwards would make her debut before launching her celebrated Maiden campaign for the following race.

Read more on Skip Novak, onboard Drum in this eventful race.


The 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race was a true classic, ending in a clean sweep of all six legs by Peter Blake and the crew of Steinlager 2. Behind Blake, Grant Dalton’s Fisher & Paykel NZ and Pierre Fehlmann’s Merit completed the top three, while Tracy Edwards and all-female boat Maiden created one of the race’s most enduring stories. Maiden won two of six legs in her class, leading to Edwards becoming the first woman to be named Yachtsman of the Year.

To see the extended version click here ?


By the 1993-94 edition, the Whitbread Round the World Race had already transformed from an adventure imbued with Corinthian spirit to a professional sport where food, bedding and clothing were being optimised for performance not comfort. Among those leading the charge towards professionalism was Grant Dalton and his crew aboard the winning maxi yacht New Zealand Endeavour. This edition was also the first race to feature the new Whitbread 60 class (with 10 boats entered). This caused memorable friction between Dalton and fellow Kiwis Chris Dickson, skipper of Tokio (which dismasted whilst leading Leg 5) and Ross Field, the class winner with Yamaha. The crew of US Women’s Challenge all but mutinied after Leg 1. But Dawn Riley (watch leader from Maiden in the previous race) was brought in as skipper and the boat renamed Heineken from Leg 3 onwards.


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