Preparing for the Olympic Offshore Sailing Marathon

As sailors come to grips with the new Olympic discipline for Paris 2024 they seek answers on how best to prepare and contend.

Loick Peyron and Amélie Grassi
Loick Peyron and Amélie Grassi, of France, explore the coed ­challenges of the new mixed doublehanded Olympic discipline.Christophe Launay/DPPI

The moon has set, and now it’s really dark. My partner and I have been racing for 46 hours straight. We’re beating against the fabled Mistral wind, toward the coast of France and the final turning mark off Camargue. I’m incredibly tired after two days of relentless ocean racing, with only two of us on board our cramped craft. Competitors from six other countries are in sight. We’ve been dueling with the Australians right next to us for the past six hours. I’m trying to determine how much the current is going to set us and keep thinking, “We really have to nail the layline to the turning mark. Two more tacks would be devastating. Overstanding would open the door to the Brits and Japanese to our west.

But I am so tired. Only five more hours to go.

I’m trying to keep a light grip on the tiller extension as I feather against the increasing gusts. The jib is too tight now. This Mistral is stronger as we sail closer to the coast. Time to put a reef in the mainsail, which means time to wake my teammate. She’s exhausted after steering all last night, but she wants that gold medal just as much as I do. It’s within our capability. If we can only concentrate.

This is not some far-flung fantasy. This is the 2024 Olympic regatta, which will include for the first time an offshore, mixed-­gender endurance event. This is an entirely new sailing ­discipline for most of us.

The 30-foot keelboats for this discipline will be provided one‑designs, so the racing is guaranteed to be close. The course on the Gulf du Lyon is going to be tactically challenging because weather in August can be anything from a 35-knot Mistral to hours of drifting. The course chosen will have a race length of two to three days. No one can stay awake for that amount of time and perform at their best. Who can manage their sleep? What coed team can utilize their combined skills to maximum effect? Who will crash and burn because they get too tired or push too hard?

Do you think you have the right stuff to make a run at an Olympic sailing marathon? Let’s explore the attributes of a gold medalist.

First, you will need to be a fast sailor. The fleet will be bow‑to‑bow for hundreds of miles, because all the boats are the same, and all the teams will be good. Being a slightly better driver, or being able to tune your boat a little faster could pay huge dividends. Getting a slight lead by being fast allows you to sail using more conservative tactics.

Your tactics and strategy, however, will be extremely ­challenging because the wind in this part of the Mediterranean is dynamic. There will probably be strong wind, sometimes very strong; but there will also likely be periods of light air, and periods of thermal wind, with unpredictable transitions between—and lots of local effects. The winning Olympians will need to have the ability to handle small-scale variations and big-picture tactics that play out over many hours. This is a much different skill set than today’s closed-course Olympians require, and also different from longer ocean races.

Besides being fast and good tacticians, winning sailors will need to be able to manage their sleep and energy for up to three days. This is more difficult than one can imagine. Today’s inshore racers have optimized their performances for a three- to five-hour ­competition period each day. Typical crewed ocean-race teams set up a watch system that allows each sailor a four-hour off-watch shift, when they can sleep, eat and maintain the boat. But what about this new Olympic event? There are only two sailors, so how you collectively manage sleeping, eating and other necessities will be really interesting. If you go too hard at the beginning, you will be burned out later in the race. If you hold back too much, you could be too far behind for it to matter. About 30 percent of the race will be overnight, another Olympic first, so you better be good at ­racing in the dark.

If I’m recruiting sailors for the 2024 Olympic Mixed Offshore Race, I’m looking for a fast helm who will be good at setting up the boat, who is also an excellent offshore tactician and good at night, capable of performing at a high level with limited sleep. This is a pretty tall order, but this could include both current champions and sailors whom we don’t know today.

Who has all those attributes in the right combination? Or who could learn them in the next four years? There is a small group of current offshore racers who could quickly adapt to this new Olympic event, most of them French. They already possess the skills and personal attributes outlined above. If someone such as Charles Caudrelier or François Gabart chose to pursue this and found the right partner, they would be way ahead of the rest of the world. Are there any Americans in this category? Could sailors such as Ryan Breymaier or Charlie Enright or Mark Towill crack into this, with their offshore and short-handed experience? Or will it be top-level course racers who also happen to have ocean ­experience —Morgan Larson or Bora Gulari or Sally Barkow, for instance?

Is youth and feistiness more important than experience, or will the veterans have too much knowledge to be beat by a younger generation? Maybe some young woman whom we have never heard of will end up being incredibly good. Another Ellen MacArthur? It will be fascinating to see who comes to the fore.

Of course, this class is not singlehanded; it is one man and one woman. How will these two athletes and humans work together to create an effective team? This is one of the essential questions. In most double-handed events—the International 470, for ­example —the individual crews have different and highly specialized skills. In Marseilles 2024, both sailors will need to have the complete package: speed, tactics, boathandling and problem-solving. There will be times when they will be on deck by themselves. The two sailors will have to work together closely as well because they will be making important decisions, at times together, at times alone. This will require a higher level of trust not often seen in our sport, and will be one of the most interesting things about this new event.

I hope there are sailors out there who are motivated by this new opportunity. Do you have the skills and temperament to do this? Does this sound like a potentially rewarding journey to you? If so, how would you go about organizing a winning campaign?

Because this is a new class, nobody really knows the answer, but the fundamentals of preparation are similar to other races. Athletes will need to become experts in four key areas: boatspeed, tactics, boathandling and energy (sleep) management. You will also have to create a team that trusts each other and works together ­exceptionally well. Let’s look at these attributes one at a time.

First, speed. How do you become one of the fastest sailors in the world in this type of small keelboat? It helps if you already possess elite helming skills. But much of the speed will also come from tuning, sail trim, weight placement and stacking. Not only will you need to become a fast driver, you’ll need to learn the other aspects of boatspeed. Some of this will be generic, some will be specific to the class that’s eventually selected. Because this will not be known until about a year before the Games, there will essentially be two phases of speed development: initially focusing on broader speed skills, then focusing on boat-specific speed development in the final year.

The second key attribute is tactical experience. As with speed, an aspiring campaigner will start with a certain level of tactical skill and experience, and will have to learn the rest. How can this be done effectively? How would you teach offshore tactics to top dinghy ­sailors? How would offshore sailors hone their near-term tactics?

The third key skill is boathandling. In some ways this is the ­easiest to develop through methodical training and analysis. Again, there will two phases, initially developing more generic skills at maneuvers and sail changes, and focusing on the specifics of the chosen class in the last year.

Finally, the sailors will have to optimize their bodies and minds for a challenging endurance contest—maximum performance over a two- to three-day period. How do they go about doing this? Energy and sleep management will be one of the critical factors in the end, quite possibly decisive, if there are teams with similar skills.

In the end, the challenge is not unlike the rigors of a modern ­double-handed Olympic campaign in a skiff or a Nacra. You need to find the right partner, find the passion, find the resources, do the hard yards on the water, be smart with how you manage your campaign, and peak at the right time. The unique challenges of this new class will be to figure out a whole new discipline, mixing men and women in a one-design endurance contest over several days, racing day and night on a rough stretch of the Mediterranean.

What can our national authorities here in North America do to ­promote this discipline, and launch this new Olympic class program in the best way? In my view this project should also go way beyond the Olympics, which will inevitably involve only a small group. There is a lot of evidence all around the world that sailors are hungering for alternatives to the traditional inshore windward/leeward race.

Double-handed racing and offshore racing are both trending ­positively, here in North America and worldwide. Can the addition of an Olympic event featuring this discipline reinforce these trends and result in a short-handed blossoming? Imagine going down to the club, and instead of doing a couple of windward leeward races, you sail with your partner overnight to a different port? This type of adventure will appeal to a lot of sailors, current and future, young and old.

The skills needed to be successful at this are not widely held in North America today. Yes, we have some highly skilled offshore sailors but few short-handed experts, and most critically we don’t have a culture of excellence in this field. Compare this with France, where there is a strong culture of racing offshore and short-handed. Kids in France are more familiar with their offshore greats than Olympic sailors. They have established and developed infrastructure which supports this type of sailing, from established races starting at the local level and culminating in the Solitaire du Figaro, the unofficial world championship of singlehanded coastal racing. They have a pipeline of young sailors aspiring to be the next Gabart, the next Michel Desjoyeux. They have fleets of relevant boats, training academies, boatyards familiar with the complexities of offshore boats. For these reasons, France is a good model to aspire to, but in North America we are so far behind that we need to start with smaller steps—including creating some races and relevant boats, and expanding training opportunities. We have a long way to go to ­create the kind of culture needed to support this racing long term.

What should US Sailing and Sail Canada be doing, as well as ­individual clubs? They should be establishing structures that will allow the discipline to grow, both for aspiring Olympians and for the average sailor. For example, let’s start having some real races featuring one-design boats and mixed-gender teams. Yacht clubs can help with this. As we develop resources, we need to add coaching and training opportunities for those without boats. Why not have a mixed double-handed division of the Mac races, for example?

The 2020 Offshore Mixed World Championship will be held in Malta in October in L30 one-designs. World Sailing also announced that the L30 will be the boat for the next three Offshore World Championships. This could be the eventual Olympic boat, and in any case, will be similar to it. So that seems like a good boat to seek out—except there is only one in North America. There are other boats that would have similar sailing characteristics and would be useful in the interim. Existing races can be used, such as the Mac races, in addition to dedicated training camps.

Could we eventually create a true high-level Offshore Academy, like the ones in France? That will take time and money, but it’s a good target for the future. In the near term, we should work to provide some stability of events, focus on building opportunities to train and develop the nucleus of a national squad. Even this will require the help of many local clubs and foundations, a true national effort. This is a moonshot for offshore sailors, but will be a great opportunity to develop the team approach and catch up to the state of the art.

I think this injection of diversity will be good for our sport. The event will be fun to train for, fun to compete in, fun to watch —and will be highly inspirational for sailors and nonsailors alike.

Of all the sailing cultures, France is clearly at the top of this part of our sport. The French have by far the most developed offshore and short-handed facilities, boats and sailors. As North Americans, it’s hard to imagine how popular offshore sailing is in France, and how good the top French sailors are. These guys and a few gals are miles ahead of us in every category, and it will not be easy to catch up, even over many years. Britain has been working hard for some years and has made great progress. Now the Britons are doubling down. There are also excellent programs in other European ­countries, so the competition is going to be stiff. We need to get started yesterday if we are to have any shot at the podium.

It feels a little like 1996, when my brother and I were part of launching the skiff revolution. We felt strongly that skiffs were going to be great for sailors and sailing in the long run, and we wanted to promote that. I think this could be equally great for the grassroots sailing community, and also great for the top of the sport. This is an exciting opportunity to foster a different type of sailing, so we must make the most of it.