Although they do their best to avoid each other, orca in our waters have been given a helping hand from a round-the-world race boat, Suzanne McFadden reports. 

Whales and dolphins have historically been on the receiving end of unwelcome close encounters with round-the-world sailors. 

Sir Peter Blake’s Whitbread yacht Lion New Zealand struck a whale on its way into Auckland in 1985, destroying its rudder. The injury to “Winifred” the whale was never logged. In the 2011-12 race, the Kiwi boat Camper “skimmed” across a whale in the North Atlantic, with helmsman Chuny Bermudez avoiding a high-speed collision which “could have been the equivalent of a runaway freight train colliding with a truck”.

Collisions between yachts and UFOs – unidentified floating objects – are a rising concern at sea.

But in a reversal of fortune, some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable marine mammals are receiving the generous attention of a boat in the Volvo Ocean Race.

It’s all part of Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s mission to leave a lasting legacy beyond the famous round-the-world race. And its noble objective dovetails neatly with this Volvo Ocean Race’s strong environmental message – to improve the health of the world’s oceans and reduce its own footprint on the globe.

In all 12 ports the race stops in, the Vestas 11th Hour Racing team make a US$10,000 grant to a local environmental organisation they believe can make a difference to ocean health.

In Auckland, they’ve chosen the Orca Research Trust, the not-for-profit organisation run by celebrated marine biologist Dr Ingrid Visser to protect the fewer than 200 orca that live in New Zealand waters.

The Vestas 11th Hour Racing team has had a face-to-face meeting with whales, sailing by a fin whale feeding frenzy off the Solomon Islands on leg four. 

The American-Danish yacht also had its own terrifying collision, with tragic consequences, in January. Its hull was holed in a night-time crash with a fishing boat in the final 30 miles of the leg into Hong Kong. One fisherman died.

The damaged boat was then scratched from two legs of the race, shipped to New Zealand and given a new bow section at the Yachting Developments boatyard in Auckland. The crew will re-join the fleet when it heads for Itajai, Brazil, next weekend.

Irish-born sailor Damian Foxall, who has sailed in 10 round-the-world races, knows just how majestic, but potentially dangerous, a close encounter with a marine mammal can be.

“We are very aware that an ocean race like the Volvo can have an effect on the marine mammal population,” he says. “We’ve asked the onboard reporters on each boat to report any mammal sightings around the world, which will build up a dataset of observations, and should be useful to the scientific community as well.”

Damian Foxall at sea. Photo: James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race

Foxall made his debut in the Volvo race under New Zealand skipper Kevin Shoebridge on Tyco in the 2001-02 edition. But this time, he’s swapped a full-time spot on the boat to be Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s sustainability manager.

After sailing in the first leg of this race (the leg that Vestas 11th Hour Racing coincidentally won), Foxall admits to feeling a pang of envy every time the boat crosses the start-line headed to the next port.

“But then I met Ingrid [Visser] the other day, and she was so emotional about the opportunity to work with us, it balances it all out,” he says.

It was Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s Kiwi sailor, Tony Mutter, who came up with the suggestion of giving the grant to the Orca Research Trust, after he watched a documentary on Visser’s lifelong work with orca.

Visser says her fascination with orca has led her to “better understand how connected we all are to the ocean. If we make small changes in our own lives, we can have a marked effect on the health of the ocean and all the creatures that live in it – not to mention us, who use and enjoy it,” she says.

The team’s generosity is made possible through their sponsorship from 11th Hour Racing, an American-based programme, from the Schmidt Family Foundation, working to make change to marine health.

The team are also tracking their carbon footprint around the globe, calculating air and sea miles, freight, recycling, and what they dump in landfills. Halfway around the world they are at 400 tonnes – which costs $4000 to offset. They will put that money into replanting mangroves and seagrass in Rhode Island at the end of the race.

Foxall says Vestas 11th Hour Racing also asked their suppliers to look at their own sustainable practices. As a result, Musto, one of the world’s leading marine clothing brands, made a change to the way they packaged their gear. By putting one more fold in the garment and reducing the gauge of the plastic, they reduced their plastic footprint by 70 percent.

The Volvo Ocean Race’s sustainability programme is also making strides ahead with their objectives of reducing the footprint, maximising impact and leaving a legacy. At each stopover, they only take on suppliers who don’t use plastic straws, and who provide drinking water to refill bottles.

Since the race began, 166,600 single-use plastic water bottles have been avoided.

“It is a huge undertaking, but they’ve had some huge wins. In Hong Kong, they diverted 7.2 tonnes of material from the landfill,” Foxall says.

An education programme, using the race to teach ocean literacy, has been taken up in 35 countries by more than 40,000 students.

This week, the New Zealand Government signed up to the United Nations Environment campaign, “Clean Seas”, which the race is promoting as it circumnavigates the globe. New Zealand is the 42nd nation to back the five-year campaign to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.

All of the teams will pitch in to help clean up rubbish off Takapuna Beach before they leave port on Sunday.

Vestas 11th Hour Racing isn’t the only boat in the Volvo fleet carrying a strong sustainability message. Turn the Tide on Plastic, skippered by legendary yachtswoman Dee Caffari, is collecting samples of seawater for data on salinity, dissolved carbon dioxide, algae and microplastic levels as they sail through the world’s oceans.

“We’ve gone beyond the boundaries of what a sporting event traditionally does, and we’re using this platform to bring across a much more important message,” says Foxall, who worked as the recreation education manager at the Canadian Wildlife Federation before taking on this role.

“Sustainability is no longer just a corporate responsibility with a box ticked. It’s become integral to the race – to the point where World Sailing has become the first sporting body in the world to meet an ISO sustainability standard. In our team, sustainability isn’t a compromise. It’s a strength. It supports our teamwork at all levels.

“And it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to do more than just win a boat race.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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