Image: The Ocean Race 2022-23 - 18 May 2023. Speed Runs in Newport. 11th Hour Racing Team.© Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race
Four IMOCA teams will compete in the Newport In Port Race on Saturday before heading off across the Atlantic as The Ocean Race leaves the Americas and returns to Europe.
With just over one month before the Grand Finale finish in Genova, Italy, there is still no certainty at the top of the leaderboard, with three teams within one point of the lead heading in Sunday's leg 5 start.
Kevin Escoffier's Team Holcim-PRB holds the lead over 11th Hour Racing Team and Team Malizia by the narrowest of margins. His team is recovering from a dismasting leg 4 and has used all of its energy and resource to be on the starting line in Newport, with a lead intact, after retiring from the previous leg.
“If we are still here in Newport leading The Ocean Race, it is due to the technical and logistics team who have done such great work," Escoffier said during a press conference on Friday at Sail Newport. "It's a small miracle to be able to be here. The boat is great, the (replacement) mast has the same performance standard we were looking for. It’s nice to have the boat back here, in a good shape as well.”
Escoffier has changed up his crew again, bringing on board Charles Caudrelier, who the winning skipper he sailed to victory with in the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Just one point in arrears is Charlie Enright, the skipper of 11th Hour Racing Team, who salvaged a challenging first half of his around the world campaign with a win into his hometown in Newport last week. It was a victory that vaults the team right back into contention on the leaderboard.
“It was an amazing leg for us obviously," Enright acknowledged. "We are the 11th Hour Racing Team and in some ways we were in the 11th Hour, from a competive standpoint, so there was no time like the present to get our first victory. The finish itself was almost like it was scripted, like a fairy tale - hundreds of boats, thousands of people. It was really amazing and personally it was a dream come true.”
Enright too is adding to his crew, with Charlie Dalin joining for the transatlantic leg. Dalin is a two-time IMOCA world champion and will certainly add to the performance profile on board the 11th Hour Racing Team boat. "His track record speaks for itself as one of the - if not the - most successful offshore sailors in recent years,” Enright said.
Team Malizia is equal on points with 11th Hour Racing Team, also just one click behind the leaders on Team Holcim-PRB. Skipper Boris Herrmann returns after sitting out leg 4, while Yann Eliès replaces Nico Lunven.
“Leg 5 is an exciting one. It is an iconic, ocean racing leg, and there is excitement right up to the finish.... Currently, things couldn’t go any better for our team and for the race as a whole," Herrmann said. "We have everything to race for...
"We are quite confident with our boat and with the team and we are just trying to keep progressing step by step. We certainly hope to progress even further, learn more during this leg and make it as hard as possible for all the other four teams here to be on top of the leaderboard.”
Holding position just a small step behind the leading trio is Paul Meilhat's Biotherm. Even for him, the overall race lead remains in reach.
"Yes, it is still possible to win," Meilhat insisted. "The boat is fast, we have a good crew and this race is not finished yet. We have done maybe 80% of the race in terms of miles, but for the points and racing part we are barely halfway there. At the start in Alicante we said we wanted to be in a position where the last two legs would hold possibility. We are very close to this."
The next stage of the race across the Atlantic from Newport to Aarhus, Denmark is scored as a double-points leg, giving it strategical significance. A winning performance here will go a long way to determining the final results.
Before the leg start on Sunday comes Saturday's In Port Race. The standings in the In Port Race Series act as a tie-breaker on the overall race leaderboard. With the points so close, the In Port series is becoming important.
The weather forecast isn't promising - winds gusting over 30 knots and heavy rain. But if there are safe racing conditions at start time (2:10pm local time / 1810 UTC), the racing will take place.
The fifth IMOCA team, GUYOT environnement - Team Europe, is being shipped back to Europe from Halifax, Canada. Skipper Benjamin Dutreux joined his colleagues on stage to give an update:
“I want to thank all the teams - everybody here can understand what it is like to manage a project like this one, and how important it is to have the support of your fellow competitors," he said. "We are all trying to do our best to join the fleet in Europe.
"At the moment we don’t know exactly what will be the plan, we are working on it. The boat is now on the ship and will go to Europe and we are working with the support of all the other teams and everyone else involved in the race to come back. We don’t want to retire from the race, we want to finish the story - that is the most important for us.”