Vestas 11th Hour Racing's team director Mark Towill and skipper Charlie Enright take on challenges the way most people layer cold cuts; one on top of the other. The duo and their team are
- one of seven squads trying to win the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) a nine-month sailing slog, over 45,000 nautical miles, in all sorts of weather;
- doing so while being the most sustainable team in the race, and
- working to increase public awareness, concern and action on behalf of ocean health.
No problem, right?
Perhaps the main reason they have a chance to succeed on all three counts is the unique collaboration between sport (Towill and Enright), business (Vestas, the largest wind turbine maker in the world) and philanthropy (11th Hour Racing, an organization that promotes ocean health by partnering with elite sailing teams).
A lifelong interest in ocean health; a desire to compete in the pinnacle of open-ocean sailing racing
"I saw significant amounts of marine debris up close, growing up on the water in Hawai'i," he said in a recent interview.
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Towill attended Honolulu's Punahou High School, alma mater of Barack Obama. In his senior year, he met environmentally minded Rhode Island native Charlie Enright during the filming of the documentary “Morning Light,” produced by Roy Disney, in which young sailors competed in the Trans-Pac Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu.
The duo sailed for Brown's nationally ranked team in the mid-2000s; it was at the Providence, RI university that Towill and Enright hatched their dream of leading a team in the Volvo Ocean Race, the pinnacle of open-ocean racing. Making that dream a reality costs serious money — upwards of $20 million — but only a few years after Enright graduated in 2008, the business majors (Towill also majored in environmental science) set out to fund a boat for the 2014-15 race.
Surprisingly to many in the sailing world, a three-year effort to find a major sponsor bore fruit when a new Turkish medical equipment manufacturer Alvimedica signed on. Towill's and Enright's first trip around the world was peppered by a substantial amount of ocean waste.
Seeing waste and the effects of climate change during 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race
As one might expect, the waste occasionally slowed Team Alvimedica's progress. "It hindered our performance, big time. Sometimes, when the boat would slow down, we would send someone overboard to go underwater and take the stuff off," Enright offered. "Of course, it wasn't only our boat that had to deal with this problem; it affected everyone in the race."
They also observed the effects of climate change up close.
"One way we saw this was through 'ice gates,' which are established for safety reasons by race organizers to represent the northernmost and southernmost latitudes beyond which the boats cannot safely sail," Enright explained. "Because of climate change, icebergs are floating further south from the Arctic regions and further north from the Antarctic. That meant that, for example, the Cape Town to Melbourne leg's Antarctic ice gates were pushed further north for the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race than they would have been in prior years."
Even before Team Alvimedica's fifth-place finish in its maiden voyage that year, Towill and Enright began planning for the race’s 2017-18 edition. The pair had worked with a sustainability consultant to determine the environmental impact of their 2014-15 journey, establishing a baseline for the next go-round. More importantly, they made a commitment that improving ocean health and fighting climate change would be core values for the team, as well as prospective sponsors. Their goals were, of course, modest: Just win the 2017-18 VOR and be, as Towill put it, "the [event’s] most sustainable team.”
With that dual mission firmly in place, it is highly unlikely that the team director and skipper could have found a better title partner pairing than Vestas and 11th Hour Racing.
Vestas: Partnership is a perfect fit
To Magnus Bach, senior director of global marketing at Aarhus, Denmark-based Vestas — the world's largest wind turbine manufacturer — co-sponsoring Towill and Enright's team with 11th Hour Racing, a program of The Schmidt Family Foundation focused on ocean health, was a perfect storm of sorts: "We see ourselves as the 'above the water surface' sustainability partner with our focus on wind energy and climate solutions. Meanwhile, 11th Hour Racing brings its 'below the surface' expertise on ocean waste and ocean health."
Bach says the relationship between Vestas, Towill/Enright and 11th Hour Racing came about thanks to the matchmaking skills of VOR executives: "Having sponsored a team in the 2014-15 cycle, we knew the ropes a bit. Our goal in 2017-18 was to partner with a team that would make a serious, long-term commitment to sustainability and to the climate change fight; we were not interested in a one-off. Knowing this, our friends at the Volvo Ocean Race introduced us to Mark and Charlie in December 2016. From there, the relationship between us, the guys and 11th Hour Racing crystallized quickly."
The strategic and technical fit between Vestas and sailing could not be tighter and is a prime reason the company also serves as the Data Analytics Partner of the race itself. Bach noted that Vestas "is in the business of harvesting wind and so, of course, is sailing. And think about this: the aerodynamics of a hull is somewhat similar to that of a wind blade; in fact, many engineers have worked in both sailing and the wind business. Vestas also has the biggest climate library in the world — the amount of data in the wind business is staggering — which the sailors use to help with navigation."
Sponsoring the team and the race also provides Vestas with unmatched business opportunities.
"We are a business-to-business company — we sell wind turbines and service solutions mostly to utility companies around the world — so doing a big, consumer-facing sponsorship with, for instance, a soccer team like Manchester United or Liverpool does not make sense for us," Bach asserted. "The global nature of the race and the intimate nature of its stops provides us with powerful opportunities to entertain some of our existing partners along with new prospects, wherever they may be located. This makes the Volvo Ocean Race a stronger option for us than, say, the America's Cup, which takes place in far fewer locales."
11th Hour Racing: A sailing sponsor with an environmental purpose
When you think of a typical corporate sponsor of a sports team or event, what kind of company comes to mind? A car company? A beer brand, perhaps? No matter what category you chose, you know that companies spend substantial sums to put their products or services in front of their target audiences so they can sell more of those products or services.
11th Hour Racing is not a corporation, and it is not selling a product or service. Rather, the organization pays for the privilege of selling behavior change — positive environmental actions, primarily surrounding ocean health — to dual audiences: world-class sailing teams and, sometimes, the races in which they compete; and the millions of sailing fans worldwide who follow the teams and races.
How does 11th Hour Racing help close its "sale"? By acting as sustainability consultant as well as a marketing and communications agency of sorts for the teams it sponsors in the world's most widely followed sailing races.
The organization played this role for Land Rover BAR, the British entry in the 35th America's Cup held in 2017. And, with a history of support for Towill and Enright, it's not surprising that it is doing the same as part of the Vestas 11th Hour Racing team. And, if that's not enough, 11th Hour Racing is also providing sustainability consulting services to the 2017-18 VOR as Founding Principal Sustainability Partner and Race Partner.
Vestas 11th Hour Racing: A world-class collaboration
11th Hour Racing's collaboration with Towill, Enright and Vestas for the 2017-18 VOR resulted in a comprehensive and groundbreaking sustainability, communications and reporting plan that put the team on a path to make good on its “most sustainable team in the race” pledge — and more. Sustainability and communications initiatives include:
- Calculating Vestas 11th Hour Racing's carbon footprint by tracking all travel, accommodations, electricity usage, water consumption and waste. That footprint will be offset at race’s end.
- Outfitting each team member with a “sustainability kit” containing refillable water bottle, coffee mug, bamboo toothbrushes and much more. It also includes a personal water filter to ensure clean, safe drinking water.
- Eliminating the use of single-use plastics and straws
- Being ‘plastic negative’ by removing more trash from beach cleanups than they create during the race
- Using a desalinator for on-board water needs, saving an estimated 13,500 one-liter water bottles
- Achieving a 75 percent waste diversion rate
- Using water filtration units (by Bluewater, supplier of the team and now also VOR Official Water Provider, Race Sponsor and Sustainability Programme Partner) at the Race Villages for both team and hospitality use
- Wearing Karün sunglasses made from 100 percent recycled fishing nets; and using Aethic sunblock, produced with a unique formula that does not harm coral reefs
- Sourcing local, sustainable foods from the countries they visit
- Following a Meatless Monday diet
- Designing and operating Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s Exploration Zones at 10 of the 12 race stops. The Exploration Zone is a dedicated, immersive educational space where the public learns about renewable energy and ocean health through the prism of sailing’s most crucial elements — wind and water. From virtual reality goggles to interactive displays, the space drew thousands of people each day at the race's first three stops (Alicante, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and Cape Town, South Africa). Visitors can also charge their phone using a grinder similar to the ones on board the VO65, and make their own public pledge for a sustainable future.
- Raising awareness of the team’s vision of a cleaner, healthier environment at race stops and during the race via its website, social media channels and the #LeadingSustainability hashtag
- 11th Hour Racing is using the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) template to monitor the team's progress (or lack thereof) towards reaching its sustainability goals after each of the VOR's 12 legs. A final sustainability report will be issued after the race ends.
You play to win the race!
To paraphrase the famous 2002 rant of Herm Edwards, the preacher-like former head coach of the New York Jets (a woebegone U.S. football team, for those unfamiliar with U.S. sports), ESPN commentator, and soon-to-be head man at Arizona State University: "You play to win the Volvo Ocean Race!!”
Winning would be a great boost for the awareness and impact of Vestas 11th Hour Racing's sustainability leadership.
Towill and Enright are, of course, all in on winning both the VOR and sustainability races.
"Winning the race is of paramount importance and a massive challenge. Know that our team is up for it," Towill said. "Ocean health and climate change are also of paramount importance. That's why we set out to be the most sustainable team in the Volvo Ocean Race. Thanks to Vestas and 11th Hour Racing, we're on the way to achieving the environmental goals. As for the race, that's on us!"
On Christmas Eve, Vestas 11th Hour Racing concluded Leg 3 of the VOR — from Cape Town, South Africa to Melbourne, Australia — in third place. After Melbourne, the race proceeds to Hong Kong, Guangzhou (China), and back to Hong Kong. Then it’s on to Auckland (New Zealand), Itajaí (Brazil), Newport (Rhode Island, USA), Cardiff (Wales) and Gothenberg (Sweden), before finishing in The Hague (Netherlands) at the end of June.