Last week, during the Volvo Ocean Race presentation in Alicante, we had the opportunity to catch up with the skipper of the Abu Dhabi-backed entry and talk about the team and the round-the-world race:
VSail.info: At what stage is the preparation of your team right now?
Ian Walker: We just finished our first block of training. We launched the boat pretty much at the beginning of March, then we left England on the 10th of March and arrived in Cascais on the 15th. We have done two weeks of sailing and now have a ten-day work break. The sailors are off while the shore crew is going through the job list, checking everything over. It’s basically like the first service after having done a couple of thousand miles. What we have planned is to do two more blocks of training here in Cascais where we typically do three weeks on, followed by a week off or a maintenance week if you like. After that, we will sail over to America and then back to England for the Cowes Week and the Round Britain race.
VSail.info: Is your preparation going as expected? Are you following the schedule you had initially set up?
Ian Walker: Yes, we are absolutely bang on. We had scheduled to start in Cascais on the 15th of March and that was the day we arrived. I have to say though that the boat went into the water about a week late, largely because of all the bad weather in England in January and February. The sea trials took a lot less time than expected, so we sort of lost a week and then got it back during the sea trials. As a result, we currently are bang on where we scheduled to be.
VSail.info: How was the first offshore sail from England to Cascais?
Ian Walker: It was a really easy trip. It was basically light-air running the whole way. I don’t think we saw more than 15 knots. We had the spinnaker up or the engine on, the whole way.
VSail.info: Despite the short time you have spent on the boat so far, what is the initial impression you have of the VO65′s, when compared to the VO70′s?
Ian Walker: As I said, since we got here we have done an additional two weeks of sailing. We did a pretty windy offshore, about 350 miles, all of it over 24 knots. So, we have seen the boat under most conditions. I think that you can’t really compare it to a VO70. The design brief was very different, so it’s not a VO70. It has similar traits, similar deck layout but for sure it’s depowered relative to the VO70. The water ballast is quite interesting, the three water tank ballast is a feature we didn’t have in the VO70′s and that makes quite a big difference to performance. It’s quite fun getting to grips with that. The rig is good, the sails are good but there are, obviously, teething problems we need to straighten out, just like in any other new boat. This is quite a lengthy process, because in order to get anything changed we need to get at least half the teams to agree and then we have to get the Volvo Ocean Race committee to agree. So, it’s quite frustrating in a way that you just can’t make the boat your own, if you like. You just can’t do all the little things that make things more efficient towards how you want them. You have to go through a process with all the other teams. There is going to be a sort of frustrating period to get through but hopefully, we’ll get through all that and we’ll have a boat that works properly.
It’s definitely a lot stronger. You can feel it upwind in waves. The boat feels very strong and I have to say, you have to credit them for a boat that came out of the shed working pretty well. I think that Bouwe Bekking did just two days of sea trials and we did three when you would normally expect to do at least two weeks! I suppose that’s the benefit of being the third and fourth boats out of the shed, because a lot of those major teething problems have been fixed. Again, it’s definitely depowered, it’s much more tippy. They have done quite a few things to make them easier to sail, the steering is a lot more balanced, the headsails are much smaller. They are very tippy boat and I think we’ll see a lot more broaching, a lot more reefing and a lot more sail changes down range. So, it’s easier to sail in some regards, harder to sail in other regards. I’d say it’s a bit easier physically.
Is the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race his to lose? Photo copyright Ian Roman / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
VSail.info: Is it physically easier, despite the fact you have less crew than the VO70′s?
Ian Walker: I say it’s easier, mainly because you have non-overlapping jibs. You don’t have the big jib tack to do, you don’t have headsail peels with two jibs on the headstay to do, which are always the hardest peels. In addition, you have fewer sails and the sails are smaller, so the stack is a little bit lighter and moving sails around the boat is easier. When I did my first Volvo Ocean Race on a VO70, if I remember well we had 11 sails, three of which were big jibs or jib tops, whereas now we have seven sails. Without those last four sails, especially when they are big jibs in their bags, tacking is a lot easier. The stack is a lot smaller than it used to be. Having said that, they are still bloody heavy when they are wet and nobody enjoys moving them. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m just saying it’s different.
VSail.info: You just mentioned you would go through a “frustrating” period where you would be unable to make the boat “your own”. Isn’t that however the fundamental philosophy, the cornerstone of the strict one-design concept? Nobody will have their “own boat” since every single VO65 has to be identical to all the others.
Ian Walker: Absolutely, and I’m a big supporter of that. I think Volvo Ocean Race are quite right to be really strict on what you can change and I agree with that. The reason I used the word “frustrating” is that if it’s even a very small thing, such as a little rope loop to guide a rope through or to clip yourself onto, or to add some non skid by the galley. I mean, really non performance enhancing small things that just make your life easier. If it is your own boat, you just go ahead and do it. It could be really anything. It could be just making a bag to put something in. We are not allowed to do absolutely anything.
Everything is supplied by the organizers, even the food bags. If you want to make, let’s say, a bag to put your computer in, on deck, you have to ask for permission and then all the teams have to agree, so that everybody can make the same bag. What I’m saying is that it’s a process that has to be gone through. I think it’s a worthwhile process because that’s what guards the one-design nature of the boats and the VO65 is far more one-design than even a Laser. On a Laser you can put your own tiller extension, you can change the mainsheet rope, you can cut the ropes the length you want to or you can put your own compass on it. On the VO65′s you aren’t allowed to do anything of that, you can’t just cut off 2cm from the end of the mainsheet. It really is the most one-design boat ever, in my opinion, on a grand scale. That comes with a lot of advantages but, on the short term, while we are all getting used to the boat, there will be just a few frustrations.
VSail.info: Overall, despite the small temporary frustrations, are you in favor of the move to one-design boats? Do you think the event will benefit from that? Would have Abu Dhabi entered the race the same had the previous boats been kept in this edition as well?
Ian Walker: I think Abu Dhabi would have entered but the reality is that there wouldn’t have been a race. The budgets have come down dramatically and, more importantly, teams that historically wouldn’t have had any chance, this time have, certainly, a chance in putting a good performance in some parts of the race and, why not, doing well overall.
In my opinion, it will make it a better race, and more importantly, there IS going to be a race. I think that if they didn’t make the change there wouldn’t even be a race. I really don’t think we could have the teams we have now with the previous budgets required for the VO70′s in the time you need them in order to design and build a boat.
VSail.info: You say that budgets have come down “dramatically”. Can you quantify this? How much has the Abu Dhabi budget dropped in this edition compared to the previous one?
Ian Walker: Last time, we were one of the smaller-budget teams. Groupama had the biggest budget, followed by Telefónica and we were on a par with Camper, so one of the smaller budgets among the teams with new boats. Our budget this time is 25% less than the last race and we are operating for a longer period as well. Our budget is now spread over a longer time frame and in reality the savings are even grater than that.
VSail.info: Let’s move on to the sailing crew. With Chuny’s announcement, your racing crew is now complete. Has the VO65 changed in anything the crew selection process? Do you need sailors with different skills compared to the previous editions?
Ian Walker: I don’t think there are major differences and if there is one, it is that we need a higher percentage of helmsmen. You still need the same number of helmsmen as last time except that you only have eight people onboard instead of ten. Therefore, I think it’s harder to justify utilitarian sailors, like just a bowman, just a pitman or just a grinder. You need more helmsmen as a percentage of the team but I think we have a brought a similar nature of people. The people that were good at sailing the VO70 will be equally good at sailing the VO65. There is less of an emphasis on expert knowledge of people that could set up a VO70 or design sails. Maybe some of those skills are less relevant now.
The average age has come down as well and I think we have a relatively young team, compared to some teams in the past. For Abu Dhabi it has been quite nice since half of our team sailed with us in the last race, so we have some continuity. Some of the others are guys that I would have liked to hire last time but they had already signed for other teams. We also tried to get somebody from a different team in the last race. We have Chuny and Andrew “Animal” McLean from Camper, we have Neal McDonald from Telefonica or Phil Harmer from Groupama. We have a lot of discussions about the previous races, what they felt was good in their team and we are trying to learn from what went on before.
For the first time ever in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race, all boats will be strictly identical. Photo copyright Ian Roman / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
VSail.info: Did the fact you need a higher percentage of helmsmen make it harder to find the right crew?
Ian Walker: I think in particular, when you look at the Under-30′s there is lots of really good sailors. I received a lot of CV’s from bowmen and mastmen that were very good sailors but is was harder for them. I need an Under-30 that can steer and I can’t afford to have two Under-30′s that don’t steer the boat! That immediately limits the pool of people you can look at. It’s a bit of a challenge in the sport right now. When we were sailing the America’s Cup V5 boats or the VO70′s, there were people making a career being a mastman, pitman or bowman. If you now look at the America’s Cup boats, in essence you have helmsmen, trimmers and grinders. On the VO65 we need helmsmen and wherever possible the biggest and strongest guys. That is quite a challenge, because a lot of helmsmen are generally smaller because they might come from Olympic classes. There is fewer big, strong guys that have helmed in the highest level. That’s just a function of how people grow up through the sport.
VSail.info: You said that this time there is going to be a race. How would you rate your competition? Is this edition of the Volvo Ocean Race your to lose?
Ian Walker: I don’t know, I think it’s everybody’s to lose. The big difference this time is that since everybody has the same boat, everybody has a chance whereas I think, with hindsight, looking at previous races, a lot of teams had no chance before they even got going. The race is everybody’s to lose. Having said that, the fact is that it is our second race with the same sponsors, the same core core, manager and logistics. We have learned a lot from what’s gone before, so I very much expect to be at the front of the pack, to be one of the better teams. However, we don’t know yet what is going to win this race. We don’t know whether it’s going to be the team with the best navigator or the fittest team or the team with the best helmsman and trimmers. We actually don’t know what the decisive factor is. so we are trying to cover all those bases. Looking at previous races, it was, undoubtedly, about who could get the fastest package of masts, sails and sailors.
We still have a lot to learn about what a one-design race is going to look like. I don’t know what the speed difference might or might not be. If you look at other one-design classes, even Lasers, you see quite big differences between them. It’s amazing how that can happen when everybody has such similar equipment.
VSail.info: Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race, stated that each and every piece on the VO65′s will have at most one or two millimeters of difference on each boat. If that is so, where would any speed difference come from?
Ian Walker: I don’t believe there was anything more they could do to make identical boats, in terms of full-size female carbon moulding, in terms of weight-equalizing the rudders, daggerboards, masts or hulls. I really do believe the VO65 is much more one-design than a Laser but, as I say, you tend to always get speed differences. These will come from how people sail the boat, how they trim the sails, how they set the boats up. In most one-design classes you can still change the length of your forestay, adjust your rigging but here you cannot even do that. What you do is pull your sails in and point and shoot. It’s going to be very interesting to see what differences there are.
VSail.info: The race route is practically identical to last time. Does the fact the VO65 is slower than the VO70 make any difference? Will that imply any changes into your strategy?
Ian Walker: We will take more food [laughs]! We haven’t sailed on all points of sail but I would say the VO65 feels pretty good in the light air, so it’s not far off in light winds. It has less righting moment, so it will definitely be slower upwind and reaching, by a significant margin, I’d say. I think the VO65 could be quite quick off the wind, so I think we could still see some big mileages on the wider angles. I think the struggle will be in the tighter angles and in lighter winds maybe because the jibs are smaller. That will all unfold soon.
If the boats are a bit slower that might keep them closer together and make even better racing. However, it still is a fast boat, a grand-prix boat and everybody looking at it don’t really see any difference between this one and the VO70. Don’t forget either that the VO70 was a pretty radical machine that had a lot of problems that came with it in terms of breakages and risk for the crews. The VO65 is a step in the direction they want to go.
Will the VO65′s make the Volvo Ocean Race a closer race? Who wouldn’t love to see seven boats finishing a few minutes apart from each other after crossing the Pacific Ocean? Photo copyright Ian Roman / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
VSail.info: In what regards the breakages and the one-design rule what is the procedure if you, unfortunately, suffer from a breakage in the middle of the Pacific? What can you repair and fix onboard a VO65?
Ian Walker: I think that if we had to do something unorthodox in order to finish the leg because of a breakage, I think that would be fine in the eyes of the measurers. Let me give you an example. Normally, you have to fly the J1 from the J1 halyard, the J2 from the J2 halyard, etc. Let’s say we destroyed a lock or lost the halyard, I think we would be allowed to re-rig another halyard in its place, as a temporary repair.
VSail.info: Once you finish the leg and reach the stopover, will the “Shared Services” team take over and revert the boat to its original state?
Ian Walker: The work on the boat in the stopover is partly going to be done by shared services or the “boatyard”, as they call it, and partly by our team. Essentially, our own team is going to be responsible for it but, certainly, the parts we all have from common suppliers, such as the keel hydraulics, the Volvo engine or the Harken winches, will be serviced by the “boatyard”. The same technicians will treat all of the boats. There are other areas which we will do ourselves, internally, such as servicing the deck gear, cleaning, maybe even repainting the bulb or the finn. It’s a little bit of a mixture. Some will be done by VOR suppliers, under VOR’s management, and some by our won team.
The sails are a good example. Let’s say we rip a sail in half. That sail repair will be done by North Sails on behalf of the race organizers. At the same time, we will be responsible for giving the sailmakers the list of repairs they need to do, how to handle our own branding on the sails, repair the sail bags. There are elements of sailmaking and management we will need to do ourselves and elements that need to be done by organizers.
VSail.info: How much shore crew do you need then?
Ian Walker: We have six shore crew, in the true essence of the word. We have two boatbuilders, one of whom concentrates on the engineering, one rigger, a shore manager, a sailmaker and another young person that is in charge of the rib and helps all round. In the last race we had twelve. On top of that, we have a chef, a physio, a commercial team, a logistics person, an accountant, a person in charge of food and clothing, a PR and communications person and a general manager. Our total number is 24 people that will be travelling with the team, compared to close to 40 in the last race.
Don’t forget there is a big feat to VOR for shared services. Last time we had a guy whose job was to service the winches and deck gear and this time we don’t since the VOR employs one to do that job for all the teams. Last time we might have flown in a Cariboni engineer to do a day and a half of servicing of the keel hydraulics and then the same person would have gone and do one or two more teams or other teams might have flown in their own engineer. It is much more efficient now since there is an economy of scale.
The biggest saving, potentially, is in the spares you carry. Last time, every team had their own spare mast while now the organization has three spare masts.
VSail.info: What will happen if the breakages on the boats are more than the spares available? Has this been contemplated by the organiztion?
Ian Walker: It’s a risk and something the shore managers are discussing. If we get spares of everything for everybody they we might just as well buy them ourselves. The reality is that we are NOT going to break all the masts in the fleet and the worst-case scenario, in what regards masts, could be two boats hitting their rigs in an in-port race. Potentially, the worst scenario is two masts falling down in a collision. But even in the previous races, that would have been a big drama. It’s not that teams had their masts sitting their, on the ground. I think the plan they have now is to have one mast stationed in Europe, another one stationed at the Dubai airport and a third one in Auckland. We would be pretty unlucky to break three masts in the time frame of not being able to build a new one, especially given the fact, the design of the mast and rigging is more conservative than previously. Everything has been designed and built much more conservatively, so that doesn’t keep awake at night!
VSail.info: Is there anything that keeps you awake at night in what regards the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing?
Ian Walker: Right now, nothing keeps me awake at night. We have a very strong team, a very nice of people and it’s a pleasure to come to work. We have a very good shore team, the sponsors are right behind us and everybody believes in what we are trying to do. For the moment, everything is fine. Once racing starts, it all comes down to how well you do on the water. Everybody is happy when you win and nobody is happy when you don’t win.
If there is one thing that is always on my mind at the moment is to work out what is important and what isn’t, what is going to be the difference between the team that wins and the ones that don’t win!