It used to be said that by the time the yachts hit the start line of the first leg, the Volvo Ocean Race was already won or lost. Historically, the teams with the biggest budgets and best preparation would have the greatest shot at glory – and more often than not they would be the ones lifting the trophy nine months later.
But that’s all about to change. As the final countdown commences to the 2011-12 edition, it’s never been closer between the fleet of international teams who will take on the epic 39,000 nautical mile round-the-world marathon.
For the first time in many years, the Volvo Ocean Race is wide open, with six fully funded campaigns and no weak link. And that means that the crews themselves, the brave men who will take their boats where few dare to go, will become the deciding factor in the race to the finish.
“It used to be that the race had already been won three months before the start, but I think this race is different,” said Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad. The 44-year-old Norwegian knows better than most having been involved in the event for 18 years, racing in four editions, twice as skipper.
“The teams have similar boats, similar crew levels, similar budgets and they’ve had similar time to prepare. The human factor will become more important than ever before. Whoever manages to build an atmosphere of enjoyment on their team will be the quickest. They will be fast when the going is good and will be best equipped to deal with the dark days.”
The teams know it too. Frostad’s sentiments are echoed by CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand crewman Andy McLean. With such little difference between the teams, the decisions McLean makes in his role as co-navigator carry more importance than ever before.
“The fleet is going to be so tight,” the 32-year-old New Zealander said. “Even in the qualifying race the boats were so even in performance so navigation is going to play a bigger role than ever before. No team has an obvious advantage so getting a handle on the other boats during the first few days of the first leg is going to be quite tricky.”
In the past, major tactical decisions were made by just two sailors – the skipper and the navigator — on a team of 11 and the burden of responsibility was massive. Between them the pair were ultimately accountable for leading their teams into the depths of the world’s most treacherous oceans and out the other side.
It falls to the navigator to work out what cards a team has to play with and to the skipper to choose which cards to throw down. Make the right decision and you are a hero – make the wrong decision and you could be going home earlier than expected.
That’s partly why CAMPER have shunned the traditional team leadership structure, opting instead for a four-prong attack to decision making. Skipper Chris ‘Nico’ Nicholson is backed up by watch captain and co-skipper Stu Bannatyne as well as navigator Will Oxley and co-navigator McLean. CAMPER are hoping their forward-thinking approach will pay dividends.
“The four of us come together to make the key decisions,” McLean added. “We all come at them from different angles. Nico is much more about boat-on-boat stuff, keeping us going fast, whereas Will is all about the meteorology. I look after the boat performance and make sure we are sailing in the right mode. We come together as a group, it’s always a group decision, never just on the shoulders of one person.”
Fellow New Zealander Mike Sanderson knows a thing or two about fronting a team in the Volvo Ocean Race. After winning the race as a 22-year-old with Grant Dalton’s New Zealand Endeavour in 1993-94, Sanderson stormed to glory on ABN AMRO ONE winning six of the nine legs in the 2005-06 edition. Now 40, Sanderson is back leading the charge for Chinese entry Team Sanya – and says their success in this edition will be determined by the team as a whole.
“The race is won or lost by team efforts, not just by the decisions of one person. It’s very much a whole team effort. It’s not just about the guys on board either. On a monthly basis I remind the shore crew that every little job they do could possibly influence what happens in the race. Right across the board each team member has huge responsibilities and we all have total faith in one another.
“We have a structure in place so that you never win or lose just by being the skipper. If you’re a good leader it should never just come down to you. Good leaders are good at trusting their team, good at delegation. Only if you are a dictator are you solely responsible.”
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s navigator Jules Salter is one of the more experienced yachtsman in this year’s race with two Volvo Ocean Race campaigns under his belt. Each crew member, he says, is one cog in a bigger machine – and all need to interact and perform if a team is to taste success.
“It’s important the team members trust each other to do the right thing,” the 41-year-old Briton said. “I trust the watch captains and the drivers to get the most they can out of the boat and they trust me to pick the fastest route. It only needs one thing not to work and the whole thing goes down the drain.”
With the imminent November 5 start of the first offshore leg from Alicante, Spain, to Cape Town, South Africa, it seems that trust within each team, rather than preparation and money, could prove vital.
“When you’re in your sleeping bag you have to have 100 per cent trust in the guys on deck,” Frostad concludes. “You need to know that all their decisions will be smart because if they make a stupid mistake you go down with the boat.”