A fresh approach

Chris Museler gives the background to the United States’ latest foray into the Volvo Ocean Race

In one Volvo Ocean Race cycle teams have gone from being chockablock with the most seasoned ocean racing veterans to more than half the teams full of first-time roundthe- world sailors for the 2014/15 race. The reasons for this global change are many, and reaping the benefits of race CEO Knut Frostad’s management of this evolution are two young Americans and a Turkish medical equipment company. Charlie Enright and Mark Towill, the leaders of newly formed Team Alvimedica, are set to be poster boys for this new model of ocean racing where next-generation stars are identified early and shopped around to sponsors knocking at Frostad’s door wanting in on a race where new design builds are no longer a prerequisite for entry.

‘I saw a video in 2011 of their Transat project and how they had raised their own funds,’ says Frostad. ‘They already had a good media guy with Amory Ross and I thought, “This is what the future looks like.”’

So Frostad flew Enright and Towill over to the start of the last race in Alicante. He had been in discussions with Alvimedica for a year when he introduced the two Americans to Cem Bozkurt, the company’s CEO, at a Volvo function last autumn. They hit it off this winter and Bozkurt signed on to this and possibly also the next running of the event. ‘At the Alicante meeting they wanted to paint a clear picture of the amount of work involved and how much responsibility was on our shoulders,’ says Towill. ‘At the end of the day it’s us leading the charge.’

Towill says he and Enright put together their sponsorship package with seed money they had raised, hired graphic designers for their visualisations and funded their own travel. Volvo lent guidance, he says, in each aspect as well. ‘But before Alicante,’ says Towill, ‘it was still a dream.’

It has been reported that this team will be an all ‘under-30’ team and all American sailors. Enright says neither is true. When asked if they are looking for sailors who have done the race, he says, ‘That’d be great. We’re looking to surround ourselves with a great team that works well together. Being the youngest team will happen organically.’

He added that by the time you sail one or two races you’re usually no longer under 30. ‘Except maybe one individual,’ says Enright, probably referring to Rome Kirby whose stock is high after one Volvo Ocean Race and a winning America’s Cup campaign all by the age of 24.

Team Alvimedica is also carrying solid street cred on the management side with the signing of Bill Erkelens, a recommendation from veteran American Volvo team manager Kimo Worthington. Erkelens has run several large-scale sailing projects including Oracle’s 2000 America’s Cup bid and the build of Speedboat for Alex Jackson.

Enright, 29, and Towill, 25, weren’t quite plucked from obscurity. The two have built careers as professional sailors filling every role possible. Enright says the past 10 years for him have been about creating opportunities in the sport and ‘the next 10 are about capitalising on them’. And they are both well aware of their fortune in being tapped by Frostad. ‘It’s easier to sail around the world than find a sponsor,’ says Enright. ‘And if it was the last race [with the VO70] we’d be so far behind…’

Enright, a dinghy sailor from New England, and Towill, from Hawaii, leapfrogged their way into the offshore racing scene when they were selected for Roy Disney’s Morning Light motion picture project for the 2007 TransPac. Enright was still in his teens and it was a chance he labelled an ‘opportunity on steroids’. Since then the Volvo has been the pair’s only goal.

‘Being younger, it’s tough to get into a leadership position and bring your team along,’ says Enright who stepped into a sales job at North Sails right after college. Building his skills with privately owned raceboats moved him closer to his goal but he and Towill may be the first fruits of Oakcliff Sailing’s labours to create a pathway for professional sailors in the US.

Enright and Towill took the bull by the horns and helped to create the All-American Offshore Team, competing in the 2010 Bermuda Race on the 90-footer Genuine Risk and the 2011 Transat with the STP 65 Vanquish. Though neither are graduates of Oakcliff, they have received considerable financial and logistical support from Hunt Lawrence’s organisation. Boat owners the two raced with and family and friends also contributed to their campaigns and have helped fill in the pieces leading up to the Volvo Ocean Race deal.

Towill, a Brown University graduate like Enright, has had his head down since the Morning Light project, racing on the small keelboat circuit in between trips to his home in Kaneohe, winning a Melges 32 worlds along the way. He has also been part of the successful Team Aqua on the RC44 circuit. But creating opportunities over the past seven years wasn’t enough to break into the Volvo, says Enright, until Volvo’s own business development arm, bolstered by a one-design fleet of Volvo Ocean 65s, tapped them.

‘With the one-design concept we didn’t want to level the playing field, that sends the wrong message,’ says Knut Frostad. ‘Rather we want to open the race up and remove entry barriers.’ Removing those barriers, which included the need for full-time design and build experts in addition to the shore and sailing teams, has already borne fruit for the Volvo Ocean Race.

The next step for the event was to help interested sponsors find teams and Frostad has helped usher in this process through the business development arm of the race. Alvimedica, a company only six years old, saw a clear path to a worthy sponsorship agreement. ‘We can’t use classical marketing like advertising in newspapers or TV in our industry,’ says Bozkurt, whose company makes medical equipment specifically for use by cardiologists. From the beginning of Alvimedica he analysed the interests of their customers and golf, tennis and sailing were the top three. So he began to look for events in those realms to sponsor.

MAKING TEAMS HAPPEN

Many efforts have been made of late to make professional sailing a sustainable ‘mainstream’ sport, raising the profiles, and salaries, of the sailors, and garnering workable sponsorship relationships. Only the marquee events have had the bandwidth to experiment with these possibilities and for the Volvo Ocean Race Knut Frostad’s clear perspective on the evolution of professional sailing has lit a pathway to redefine the professional sailing model for offshore events. When I interviewed Frostad for a piece on Team Alvimedica my first question was a cynical one, asking why there are so many newbies in the race and was this all necessary? He came back quickly with a concise history lesson, which led to his innovative business solution for Volvo. ‘This [professional sailing] is not something that happened in the first [Whitbread] race,’ said Frostad. ‘In the 1980s and ’90s people who made teams happen were famous skippers: Dennis [Conner], Peter Blake, Grant Dalton. If they wanted to compete they had to raise the money themselves. When Peter Blake grew up his only option was to create what today is commercial sailing. The people who sailed for those teams then grew up in a different world. The new generation was always paid as professional sailors. Now, who is making the teams happen?’

That question, ‘Who is making the teams happen?’, was one that Frostad said has kept his and his predecessor’s stomachs unsettled each race cycle. He took the bold step in 2008 to have Volvo help find the backing for two teams. In 2011 there were three teams Volvo helped to usher into the race. ‘Now we find sponsors ourselves,’ said Frostad. ‘They are looking for a profile. This is a very good way. We [Volvo] are the only one who has the same objective as the sponsor.’

Sponsors of ocean racing teams are wondering what kind of risk they are taking. As the entity running the event, Volvo now says, ‘We’ll take care of you too.’ Frostad said the old model left a lot of uncertainty in the sponsor/team relationship. ‘Sailors would pitch to sponsors,’ he said, ‘and it’s not easy for a sponsor to tell who’s good and who’s not.’ Even though there are one-design boats and a heavy proportion of new Volvo Ocean Race sailors this race, Frostad sees this as an ‘opening of doors’ and the way forward for the sport’s new heroes. Almost more importantly, the sponsors, including Alvimedica CEO Cem Bozkurt, see eye to eye with Frostad on the Volvo Ocean Race business model. ‘It’s not logical for a business to run after designing and building a boat, and finding a team,’ said Bozkurt. ‘We should be doing our own business.’

‘Single player sports don’t mean much to us,’ says Bozkurt who races a Farr 40 and IRC 30 for corporate teambuilding within the company. ‘This is nine months with nine guys. It’s a really big dream for everyone. Most of our doctors will be watching.’

Bozkurt asked Frostad to help find a sailing team. Alvimedica initially engaged former members of Team New Zealand. ‘But they didn’t fully appreciate the changes at Volvo and were insisting on the old model,’ says Bozkurt. ‘So we thought, instead of experience, let’s back a team of youngsters.’

Beyond the exposure and hosting a series of symposiums for cardiologists at the stopovers, Bozkurt hopes to gain as a race byproduct an infusion of inspiration for the youth of Turkey. ‘Turkey is a young country,’ says Bozkurt, ‘and Charlie and Mark are courageous. They did not give up education due to sailing. Bright young people don’t have to give up on sailing to go to work, nor the other way around. They are good examples. If you arrange your business well, sailing helps with career development and is also a lifelong sport.’

The big question as we approach the race start is whether or not the raw talent of the youngest team in the race is enough to take a podium or will image and personal stories alone fulfil sponsors’ needs? ‘Are we favouring young kids and giving them something better than they warrant? Maybe… but the older sailors are still there and blocking positions,’ says Frostad. ‘In skiing young guys are spotted and kicked up all the time.’

Frostad used the Youth America’s Cup as an example of the potential in promoting younger sailors. ‘After four days of practice those teams looked as professional as the Cup teams. This tells you the young are really good talent we just don’t see.’ He says the old heroes will still be there but it’s hard to get engagement from 16-30 year-olds when the heroes are 50.

Worthington agrees. ‘Is there much depth? Maybe not,’ he says. ‘That’s a problem with less expensive campaigns. But it’s good to have new blood. You need a guy like Charlie. He had a dream, picked up the phone and made it happen.’

No team represents this transition in the Volvo Ocean Race better than Alvimedica and, though the team have yet to hit the water for training, their management style with a uniquely American approach has been road-tested in podium finishes by Paul Cayard, John Kostecki and Ken Read.

‘Charlie has asked a lot of questions,’ says Worthington, project manager for the past two Puma campaigns and race winner with Cayard and EF Language.

‘But there has to be a little cockiness and these guys are confident. You do what you think you want to do. You have to make the call and have enough confidence in yourself. If you rely too much on advisors then you can’t make the life or death calls. That’s the way it rolls.’

Striking similarities appear when overlaying Worthington’s successful campaign management approach with Enright and Towill’s. In his first Volvo campaigns he stopped asking questions when he thought he’d heard enough. ‘More important,’ says Worthington, ‘is letting the skipper just concentrate on racing the boat. Conflicts with crew, thinking about budget, flights, I set that up. Kenny just went sailing. I see that arrangement with Charlie and Mark.’

Towill has already shown the confidence Worthington admires. He has taken on the crew management role Worthington has filled for American Volvo teams for nearly two decades. ‘Other teams are announcing a few sailors at a time,’ says Towill. ‘We’re not doing that. The dynamic between our sailors will be an advantage to us.’

Towill says the training sessions this spring in Lisbon and summer in Newport, including two transatlantic passages, will involve 10 sailors per session: ‘It’s one thing to pick a team on paper, it’s another to go for a week and see how it handles. We want to let the sailing do the work.’

Frostad’s vision of the future will certainly be played out on the water over the coming months as a few of those place ‘blockers’ butt up against the Enrights of the fleet. Are the young guys intimidated by these heroes? ‘I don’t have any real heroes I look up to. I look at all of them and take the best from each. I look at all the pitfalls too. No one’s perfect.’

Click here for more information on the Volvo Ocean Race »


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