2018-06-28 / Front Page

Next Run of Volvo Hangs in the Balance

By Rob Duca

Unlike 2015, when the Newport stopover for the Volvo Ocean Race was blessed with 10 days of sunshine, cool breezes and blue skies, this year’s event, held May 8-20, faced the challenge of rainy days and cloudy cover. But even though Mother Nature refused to cooperate, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people visited the city, resulting in an economic impact of approximately $50 million.

The exact numbers won’t be crunched until mid-July, and only then will it be known if the stopover made a profit, broke even or lost money for Sail Newport, its principal host. That will likely determine if there will be a push to host another stopover in three years. The race is also changing ownership, with Atlantic Ocean Racing Spain taking over in the fall, although Volvo will remain as a sponsor. That could mean significant changes.

“There are rumors that three to five stopovers could be taken away,” said Brad Read, executive director of Sail Newport. “The tea leaves are too scattered right now. We’ll know more after this year’s race ends. They have a lot of decisions to make.”

The eight-month odyssey began in Spain last October and the seven competing One Design Volvo Ocean 65 yachts traveled 45,000 nautical miles, across six continents and four oceans, by the time they reached the finish line in The Hague on June 24. Along the way, there were 11 stopovers. Dongfeng was crowned the winners, while Vestas 11th Hour Racing, with Newport’s Charlie Enright as skipper and Nick Dana aboard, finished fifth.

Mayor Harry Winthrop said he would welcome back the race. “It’s a $50 million impact on our local economy, and that’s something I don’t want to just walk away from,” he said.

Winthrop believes there is a cumulative effect for the city to hosting an event of the magnitude of the VOR. “It has a significant influence on how businesses are run and managed and who wants to come here and invest in the city,” he said.

Whatever happens, the stopover was considered a success by those who spent years organizing it.

“We had perfect weather in 2015, which showcased the fact that we could get more than 100,000 people to come to the race village,” Read said. “Despite iffy weather this time, we still had over 100,000 come to watch a sailboat race. I’m incredibly proud of our population. They weren’t afraid of the rain or the weather and they came out in droves.”

In a way, said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport, the challenges faced by local organizers mirrored those of the sailors. “The racers have to deal with whatever Mother Nature gives them, and in a similar way our shore team had to adapt to the weather,” he said.

“I was very impressed with how people handled the challenges given to them. This is what New Englanders do; when we’re challenged with bad weather, it brings out the best in us.

“Our sponsors were happy, the racers had a great experience here, and the attendance and various functions were successful. While it wasn’t the picture-perfect experience we hoped it would be, in the end, if our sponsors, guests and attendees were happy, then we’re happy.”

Read praised the collaborative effort that made the stopover a success, especially the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which oversaw public safety and the logistics at Fort Adams State Park. “They were amazing, all the way up to the director,” he said. “And the local business community, led by the Chamber of Commerce and Discover Newport… The public got involved, we had a wonderful experience in the race village and our sustainability program was second to none.”

On the final day, as the yachts departed on the next leg for Cardiff, Wales, the fog finally lifted and the racers were bid farewell under a sun-splashed sky. Read said he was dazzled by the scene as he surveyed the many recreational boats in the harbor that came out to watch, even though the visibility was extremely limited until the unexpected change in weather.

“I could not believe how many boats had ventured out… and then they were treated to this amazing spectacle when the fog cleared and Newport showcased itself in the best possible way,” he said. “There were many great moments, but that is the one that stood out.”

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