There came a moment where the closest humans to the 11th Hour Racing Team and the other sailors in the Ocean Race were aboard the International Space Station, orbiting 250 miles overhead.
This was at Nemo Point, deep in the south of the Pacific Ocean, the furthest spot from land on earth.
A few weeks earlier, in March, the crews had zigzagged from Cabo Verde, an island in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of Africa, to the continent’s southern point in Cape Town, South Africa. In May the racers sailed from Newport, R.I. to Denmark, slamming into breaking waves and colliding with a marine mammal while traveling over 25 knots.
For many sailors, those exploits would represent a lifetime on the water. But for Amory Ross and his team, that was just the past six months.
“Everyone arrives on one of these boats and one of these campaigns a different way, but I think the common denominator is intense passion for sailing, for the ocean and for extreme adventure,” Ross said.
The Ocean Race is a 50-year-old competition that sees the world’s top sailors and adventure-seekers set out on a 32,000-nautical-mile trek across the globe. The route changes from year to year but the qualities it takes to withstand six months of offshore sailing and the challenges that come with it are evergreen.
“Without an interest in those components and those unique qualities of this event, it doesn't really matter how good of a sailor you are, you're not going to last. You have to have the interest in getting lost and pushing yourself and finding your limits and going beyond them,” Ross said.
Ross first discovered his passion for sailing on Nantucket. Growing up in New Jersey, his first taste of an island came as a child visiting his aunts and uncles on Martha’s Vineyard.
But around the age of 8, Ross’ family began renting on Nantucket each summer and here he quickly developed a love for sailing the same way hundreds of children on the island had before him: through Nantucket Community Sailing.
“I jumped into the small boats out in Polpis with the Nantucket Community Sailing program, did a couple of years at Jetties with Community Sailing, and fell in love with sailing. Just the power of the wind and the freedom of being on your own, it was so much fun. And then it was always something I couldn't have. I would go away to school and I’d think that all I really wanted to do was go sailing,” Ross said.
In later years Ross began visiting Newport, the mecca for anyone wanting to make sailing more than just a hobby. After graduating from Hobart and William Smith colleges, where he won two national championships on the sailing team, Ross said he threw out his degree in economics and public policy and decided he wanted to go sailing for the rest of his life. He has competed in the past four Ocean Races as a media crew member, capturing the sights and sounds of the unique sporting event through the lens of his camera.
The Ocean Race is part of sailing’s Big Three, which also includes the Olympics and America’s Cup. Unlike the other two competitions where teams place a premium on a sailor’s technical ability in one specific aspect of sailing, The Ocean Race requires a much wider range of skills. When you spend nearly six straight months on the water, developing camaraderie with the other four crew members on board is just as important as the trim of the sail.
“The thing with offshore sailing is it’s also about chemistry. You have to bring different skill sets. Someone has to be able to fix a broken bone. Someone has to be able to fix a broken boat, broken engine, broken water-maker,” Ross said.
“There are all these diverse sets of skills that you need to round out a group. On top of that, everyone has to get along. Everyone has to be able to exist in this like space capsule for six months and that's a really difficult thing.”
While 11th Hour wanted to be competitive and cross the finish line ahead of the other four teams, equally important was a dedication to sustainability to ensure the race can be held for at least another 50 years.
Every aspect of 11th Hour’s boat Mālama, which means “to care for and protect” in Hawaiian, was built with sustainability in mind and includes a number of innovative approaches to boat-building.
Over 200 pounds of plant-based products were used in the non-structural components of the boat. 11th Hour worked with a company to convert a broken foil into carbon fiber tape to secure future components onboard.
“Everyone that does this race does it because they love the ocean, they love sailing, they love being out there and we really have to protect what we have. It's our playground, it's our race course, but it’s also something that we want to protect,” Ross said.
“Everybody these days, whether you’re a sailing team or an F1 team, sustainability is an easy target for feel-good factor and I think our team genuinely did things differently. It was more than just a greenwashing. It was really incredible the structure and the commitment to being sustainable in every single facet of the operation.”
When you’re traversing across the globe and sailing over 32,000 nautical miles in under six months, it’s assumed not everything will go as planned, but 11th Hour’s trek was particularly eventful.
In the middle of the fifth leg of the race, the boat was traveling about 30 knots when it collided with a marine mammal, throwing the crew forward and leaving Ross with a fractured shoulder blade.
About a month later, 11th Hour suffered another devastating setback when it was struck by another boat just minutes into the final leg of the race from The Hague to Genova.
11th Hour, which was ahead of the other four teams on the scoreboard at the time, was forced to drop out of the final leg. But after working around the clock for 72 hours, the boat was repaired and 11th Hour set out for Genova.
They were still able to reach their destination on time to participate in the final in-port race. A day before pulling into port in Genova, the team received word that it had been awarded enough points for leg seven following a protest hearing that they were crowned champions of the race.
“We really set out to not only succeed, but to do it in a different way and to prove that we could ultimately be competitive, while prioritizing sustainability and trying to improve the industry that we sort of call home,” Ross said.
“Winning is a special feeling. It means that in a lot of ways, you've done things better than anybody else, but I think for us in particular, more than anything it was just a sign that we're on the right track,” Ross said.
“We always talk about racing with purpose and for us, victory is the best way to do that and to show that we can be competitive, while at the same time being good stewards for the ocean and sustainability overall.”