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11th Hour Racing: Can offshore sailing restore ocean health?

How much of a positive change can sailing make to the cause of ocean protection? Using sponsorships of major events, the team at 11th Hour Racing is determined to find out

author icon By Ryan Swift | 4 August 2021

11th hour racing

The 11th Hour Racing Team is turning The Ocean Race towards ocean conservation

The eleventh hour is a phrase referring to the last chance for something important. 11th Hour Racing is a professional offshore racing team that uses sailing as a platform to encourage ocean health and recovery before it’s too late.

11th Hour Racing provides sponsorships and support to regatta events and NGOs that are committed to ocean health and sustainability. It was founded in 2010 after Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of The Schmidt Family Foundation, along with her husband Eric, started sailing.

The Schmidts focused their philanthropy on renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and human rights. After Wendy started sailing in 2007, she met the other co-founders of 11th Hour Racing, Rob MacMillan and Jeremy Pochman, and began a conversation about how sailing could help combat ocean plastics.

“They would go to sailing events and see all the single-use plastic water bottles that would be brought down to the docks. You have the regatta party and see the waste,” says Todd McGuire, managing director of 11th Hour Racing. McGuire left a Fortune 500 company to help found 11th Hour Racing at the behest of MacMillan. McGuire and McMillan grew up sailing together.

Todd-McGuire

Todd McGuire, managing director of 11th Hour Racing

From a relatively humble beginning focused on eliminating single-use plastics, 11th Hour Racing is developing a name in racing and regatta sponsorship built around sustainability and ocean conservation. In 2014-2015, 11th Hour Racing co-sponsored a yacht with Vestas, the wind turbine builder. In 2017-2018, The Ocean Race, one of the world’s most high-profile round-the-world races, saw the introduction of Ocean Race Summits as part of the stopover programme in each city. It was the one time that Hong Kong has hosted the Ocean Race.

Now, 11th Hour Racing is listed as co-premiere sponsor partner of the Ocean Race, alongside Volvo (former title sponsor). The race has become heavily focused on its sustainability aspects.

11th Hour Racing sponsors and supports NGOs and regattas that already have a strong sustainability angle, and McGuire reckons that this will be a key factor for sponsorship of any sporting event in future.

One of the biggest surprises for McGuire has been the resistance to changing to a sustainability focus in the yachting industry. “People think that if you run a sustainable event, it’s going to cost two times what a normal event would cost,” he says. “I think one of the interesting things we’re seeing in the past year (is that) your typical sponsors need that connection to sustainability. Banks, insurance companies, corporates – they don’t have a connection to what the consumer wants, which is supporting the environment. If your event can’t do that for them, they are more likely to support another that gives them that opportunity.”

We want our teams to win; we don’t want sustainability to be seen as a handicap to the team’s performance – Todd McGuire

For the racing side of 11th Hour, winning while being sustainable is key to its messaging. The first team sponsored by 11th Hour was a J24 team that went to the J24 Worlds competition in Sweden and won the event.

But the ambitions of 11th Hour Racing have grown far beyond single-use plastics over the past decade. “The budget and sponsorships have gotten bigger because we have seen so much success through sponsorships,” says McGuire. 11th Hour now focuses on raising awareness across a range of ocean conservation issues and champions clean technology in boating. Aside from sponsoring teams and regattas, there is a grant programme for non-profit organisations and an ambassador programme that recruits sailors to speak on behalf of the oceans.

In 2015, 11th Hour co-sponsored a team and sponsored a stopover in Rhode Island. The stopover included educational displays on ocean conservation and presentations by NGOs working on solutions to ocean ecology problems. 11th Hour also tried to get organisers to follow sustainability best practices, and they added an Ocean Race Summit to raise awareness.

The team visits the mockup of their Imoca 60 being built for the 2022 Ocean Race

“It’s a unique opportunity during a stopover, where you have influential people – media, government, sponsors. We decided this is a great opportunity to educate and raise awareness, to give scientists and the NGOs a platform to showcase their work.”

In the 2017-18 edition of the race, which included a stopover in Hong Kong, McGuire says that 11th Hour introduced the platform they developed at Rhode Island to more stopover cities. The Ocean Race even hired its own sustainability team, according to McGuire.

After Volvo sold the race in 2018 to Atlant, a racing syndicate and sports marketing company helmed by Richard Brisius, 11th Hour stepped up to become co-sponsors alongside Volvo. The sustainability and ocean health message has since become a fundamental part of the race. Stopovers in every city feature an Ocean Race Summit, and one of the big challenges facing the 11th Hour Team is to find a suitable ocean-based NGO in Shenzhen for the stopover in that city.

An organisation needs to come to us with a plan about how they are going to run their thing in a sustainable way. And that is what we support” – Todd McGuire

The Ocean Race is also using the boats to gather data on the oceans, turning sailors into citizen scientists. McGuire points out that the race takes sailors to remote places that are not generally visited by research vessels, where they can test for things like microplastics.

Along the way, 11th Hour Racing has been trying to make that the ocean conservation message of the Ocean Race doesn’t stop just with the end of each race, with more summits and more data presentations. In January 2020, Richard Brisius, the new co-owner of The Ocean Race, even made a presentation to the Davos attendees about the sustainability programme. A special Ocean Race Summit Europe was held on June 16, bringing together EU politicians to discuss issues related to governance of the oceans.

Is it working?

Unfortunately, sailing is still not a mass-market sport, limiting its power to influence large numbers of people toward ocean conservation.

The 11th Hour Racing team in action this year in France

The 11th Hour Racing team in action this year in France

A sports economist estimated that sailing ranked 44th in terms of global influence and viewership, lower than archery, Australian rules football and ski jumping. The leading global sport by far is football, followed by basketball and tennis. On June 2, 11th Hour Racing branched into tennis with the announcement of its support for the Hall of Fame Open, a tennis tournament in July in Rhode Island.

It is hard to measure attitude shifts, but McGuire says that after ten years of sponsorships and awareness building, there are demonstrable signs that the narrative is shifting. “Ten years ago, it was all about single-use plastics. And we’re seeing that all events are doing it now (cutting single-use plastics). Now we are talking about being climate positive (i.e., carbon-neutral).” He adds that during the last Ocean Race, Volvo announced the end of all single-use plastics in its organisation and that by 2023, 25% of plastics used in its cars would be from recycling.

“Awareness is not enough anymore; we need to show solutions now,” says McGuire.

The 11th Hour Racing boat is more than a place to put a banner. McGuire says that the team that has been assembled by the captain, Charlie Enright, is out to win, and that’s key for spreading the message. “We want our teams to win; we don’t want sustainability to be seen as a handicap to the team’s performance.”

In addition to the performance on the water, the 11th Hour team has also looked at issues related to boat building and the boat itself, which is made of carbon fibre, a relatively eco-unfriendly material. The team has already introduced more sustainable materials in the non-structural parts of the boat. The team is also putting together an information package for other teams to use in their operations.

11th Hour is still predominately focused on supporting NGOs and racing in the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe. But McGuire says that 11th Hour developed a grant programme for NGOs working on ocean conservation in stopover destinations. He lists Ocean Recovery Alliance in Hong Kong and an organisation trying to help the orca population in New Zealand. But so far, their presence in Asia is limited.

Given the relatively small size of 11th Hour, at just 13 people, it may be tough to expand overseas. But that doesn’t mean that McGuire has ruled out sponsoring regattas in Asia. The trick is the sustainability angle.

“We support organisations that already have lofty sustainability goals. Mark and Charlie (the CEO and skipper of the 11th Hour Racing team) had their team and how they were going to message sustainability. The Ocean Race had the same thing – they wanted summits, stopovers. An organisation needs to come to us with a plan about how they are going to run their thing in a sustainable way. And that is what we support.”

McGuire adds that a lot of proposals come to 11th Hour with the hope of getting sponsorship towards introducing sustainability into the event, which is not what the organisation does. The plan to be sustainable must be there already. “We want to see what their audacious goals are, and then we’ll support them. But it has gone past banning single-use plastics; it needs to be whole. Organisers need to look at their event operationally.”

McGuire says he hopes that 11th Hour won’t be needed in ten years and that humanity will be well on its way to achieving the goals already laid out for 2030. With luck, and a lot more eyeballs, it may happen.

www.11thhourracing.org