Crazy Canadian Kids
Canadian Ocean Racing Co-Founder Meghan Reilly tells the story of an audacious attempt by a group of young ex-Clipper Race crew to put together a Vendée Globe campaign.
We got a boat. An Open 60, to be exact. So all we had to do now was build a team, a fan base and the credibility and respect to mount a Vendee Globe campaign. How hard could it be?
Perhaps it was a residual high from our Clipper Round the World Race win just months earlier that made us think we could do it. Maybe it was that our skipper at the time was soon to be named Canadian Rolex Sailor of the Year. Or more likely it was that Millennial disease of unapologetic and unfounded optimism that warranted our shameless pursuit of such a lofty dream.
Whatever it was, we thought that a bunch of young Canadians could just show up to the IMOCA scene and be accepted. Oddly enough, we were, but not without a year of fighting to barely make it to the party at all.
At the beginning of 2015, John Curtis, the President of Wind Athletes Canada, presented us with the opportunity of a lifetime. The deal was simple: we could campaign the Open 60 O Canada, providing we fixed her up, delivered her safely from Vancouver to Toronto, and raised enough money by the end of the summer to race her. Sounds simple, but easier said than done.
We first saw our new boat at the end of February 2015. The Open 60 looked out of place in the quiet, unassuming marina 20 km outside of Vancouver. She had sat there untouched for years after being mothballed at the end a random, second-chance Trans-Pacific campaign. A 2008 Vendee Globe retiree she was in the wrong decade and the wrong side of the planet to be considered viable for another IMOCA campaign. But you know what it’s like when you’re young and don’t know any better - you’ll take what you can get.
Our objective was to play the strengths of our youth and try to strategically cover our weaknesses. The success of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world made us think we could shoot for a multi-million-dollar campaign. But what about those senior executives we would be hitting up for some hard cash? Would they respect our colloquial dialogue and casual ways, or get hung up on our youth and fail to take us seriously?
So we did what we knew best. We created an image. One that certainly portrayed a young team bootstrapping an IMOCA60 campaign, but also one that purposefully left out the quirks and pitfalls of a group of twenty-somethings trying to blindly run an international racing campaign.
We launched with a bang. We had a professional looking website that said just enough about a campaign that really wasn’t much at all. We also somehow snagged one of the best web handles out there — @oceanracers — and off we went doing what us kids know how to do best: social media.
Although unashamedly a young team, we were stacked with some serious talent. I came off the back of a career on Madison Avenue and between myself and our co-founder, Morgen Watson, we had over 100,000 nautical miles of sailing under our belts. We also managed to recruit Sandy Macpherson - a rising Mini sailor and Vendee Globe hopeful, along with Tristan Perry - a talented multi-media producer. Suddenly we had created one hell of a team and we were absolutely killing it on social media.
From micro-vlogging our refit process daily on Instagram to tweets and posts at sea, we were the most active non-racing, yacht racing team on social media and steadily we began to build a solid fan base for a team – a satisfying achievement given the sport of ocean racing didn’t really previously exist in Canada.
Despite this success the campaign was not without its challenges. We had to be careful not to frame ourselves to look like just a bunch of kids who were gifted a fast boat. We also had to convince our fellow Canadians that they should give us money to allow us to keep living the dream. This is when reality set in.
Despite sailing the boat around Canada on a two-month, 8,000 nm journey from Vancouver to Toronto via the Panama Canal and St. Lawrence River, we arrived to much less than the hero’s welcome we had been hoping for.
No one cared that we made it just in time for Canada Day and after the third day of open boat tours spent answering “No, this is not an America’s Cup boat,” we knew exactly how much we had our work cut out for us.
The potential sponsors we hoped for weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to fund a hypothetical and untested IMOCA60 team. Companies wouldn’t take our calls; CEOs wouldn’t accept our invitations to sail.
We had a deadline and a goal of $150,000 CAN by the end of the summer and each free sail and tour we gave eroded our youthful optimism and made the impossible dream seem more and more exactly that.
But we persevered and chipped away at this astronomical number in $100 donations at a time. We spent the last $12K in our account to register for the Transat Jacques Vabre, a race which we were pretty sure our participation in would make or break our campaign.
That’s right, we entered a race we couldn’t afford to do and without any justifiable confidence we could even make it to the start line.
However, by some miracle we were able to sell some charter spots on our delivery crew over to the start in Europe. We took three guys that we called “Executive Crew” across the Atlantic for $10K a pop - just enough we hoped for us to take part in the TJV and also the return Transat Saint Barths Race - our skipper’s opportunity to qualify for the 2016 Vendee Globe.
Well, the boat - like many other of the newer Open 60s in the 2015 TJV - didn’t make it past the Bay of Biscay and it was over just as soon as it began. Happily, we managed to get back on our worn-out horse and delivered her to St Barths ready for our skipper’s first solo race the following month. Turns out that didn’t go as planned either as keel troubles forced O Canada’s second race retirement in what was becoming a decidedly lackluster return to the IMOCA circuit.
We started 2016 with no skipper, a broken boat abandoned in the Azores and zero dollars in the back account. We were not done yet however!
Again, by some miracle we managed to convince more Executive Crew to fund O Canada’s trip back home where we planned to regroup and try to find a way to take part in the Vendee Globe prologue race from New York to Vendee. Everything went smoothly, right up until we hit a whale…
It began to seem that our only piece of good luck was getting the boat in the first place and each dollop of bad luck made us question if we inherited a cursed and hopeless boat. We tried our best to put that idea out of our heads and moved forward with as much residual optimism as we could we muster.
This year’s Vendee Globe may be beyond us but our dreams have not been crushed and we continue to sail on. We have had another summer of fundraising and events on Lake Ontario and continue to work towards our greater mission of building the sport of offshore racing in Canada.
We are eternally grateful to our fans and supporters to whom we owe everything. We thank sincerely all those who supported this bunch of crazy Canadian kids for a truly transformational two years as a team.
Our aim now to is to land the corporate sponsorship deal we need to compete in the Barcelona World Race 2018 and Vendee Globe in 2020. But even if that deal doesn’t happen and O Canada never races again, we know the spirit and the passion behind the Canadian Ocean Racing mission will live on.
Find out more about Canadian Ocean Racing at their official website HERE.