A whole new ball game

OC Sport chairman Mark Turner is excited to be returning to the Volvo Ocean Race… as he tells Andy Rice

Mark Turner and Bruno Dubois have been waiting a long time for this opportunity, the chance to compete once again in the Volvo Ocean Race. The Briton and the Frenchman both competed as sailors in the 1989/90 edition. Now they return to the race as co-managers of the Dongfeng Race Team. Turner has earned a reputation for running a tight ship. He is only interested in projects that can wash their face financially, with the enduring success of the Extreme Sailing Series the best example. Turner believes that the Volvo Ocean Race’s shift to one-design Volvo Ocean 65s now makes it a commercially attractive event for the first time in its long history.

‘I did the race as a sailor a very long time ago and it has always been a passion of mine as an event,’ says the executive chairman of OC Sport. ‘We have tried in a major way to put a Volvo campaign together in the last two cycles. But we found it too difficult to raise the money that you needed for the expensive boat development process that was involved. We were involved in pitching for some campaigns in the last Volvo, and the minimum was a €25-30 million-plus budget. Even then you knew that you weren’t the biggest spender. In the previous format that extra money always had a significant impact on your performance.’ This time, says Turner, the numbers stack up.

‘For this race I think you can run a project at €14-15 million, about half of what was required before. But more important is the removal of that risk of having a slow boat and your entire project being put in jeopardy because you just got it wrong in some of the design decisions. For an event that is fully commercial – it’s all about sponsors, there are no private owners here – that creates a greater level of certainty. You can still lose and come last by sailing worse, but taking away that design uncertainty is a very good thing for an event that is funded by sponsors who are looking fundamentally for solid commercial return. The technical aspects are not very high up their list of concerns.’

When asked what will be different about this Chinese campaign compared with the previous two that have entered the Volvo Ocean Race – Green Dragon in 2008/09 and Team Sanya in 2011/12 – Turner counters: ‘This is the first Chinese team, not the third. Neither [Green Dragon nor Team Sanya] were Chinese projects in any way. They have taken a gesture Chinese guy onboard – and nothing wrong with that. That was the right solution for the right time in the way that those campaigns came together. This is pretty different: we have a commercial brand, a Chinese brand, as a title partner, a training base and the boat is on its way to China right now. We’ll be based there for several months. Bruno [Dubois, the team director] has already started the selection trial process in China.’

Turner says the longterm objective of this project is very different from the other Chinese campaigns, and any other Volvo Ocean Race campaign for that matter. ‘In the race after this one we could imagine the majority of the crew being Chinese, and the one after that with a Chinese skipper and a fully Chinese project with no need for anyone like us to come and help. That’s probably pretty different from the objectives of the non-Chinese guys involved in the previous events, where they would have been fighting hard to maintain their positions – and fair enough.

‘But that’s not our approach, it’s not the approach that we took setting up Oman Sail, for example. It’s all about working in such a way that if we do a good job they won’t need us in the future. That is our mission. The most important thing, for us, is leaving a legacy that develops social racing inside China and creates more talent for the future, more potential sponsors and a media and public that are more interested. Sailing is still a very niche sport in China with very little visibility. Hopefully with this team we can make a positive impact.’

With such a strong focus on the Chinese aspect of the project, the lack of experience inevitably means performance will be compromised, so what would be a satisfactory result for the team? ‘Like all teams we are there to win, so there’s no point telling you anything else. The aim is absolutely to be on the podium as many times as we can and nothing short of that. But, yes, we do have a compromise or a constraint.

‘However, there are very few teams that actually have no barriers, no limits. In this case we are committed to having three or four Chinese onboard. That’s our aim. It’s our commitment. At the end of the day we need three or four competent people who are safe and able to contribute to the boat. Our aim is to compress 20-30 years’ experience into nine months. Of course there is a limit to what you can do in this timeframe, but our objective is to create some heroes inside China who motivate the next generation of Chinese sailors.’

With that in mind, Turner is not necessarily looking for the pro sailors with the most Volvo Ocean Race experience. ‘Our approach will be a little bit different. With absolute respect to the Kiwis – who are the best sailing nation in the world – it’s unlikely that we are going to put in a team of five or six Kiwis who are used to quite defined job descriptions, quite defined roles onboard, and then feel like the Chinese guys are underperforming.

article5pic1‘We are looking for more all-round sailors. By definition that means people from the shorthanded sailing world who will be able to do more than one job on the boat and perhaps be able to make up for someone who has less experience. We are going to have three or four guys with a lot less experience, that’s a fact. Above all it’s about us picking the right non-Chinese guys to embrace this challenge, the challenge being to get the most out of the Chinese guys in a practical and positive way. ‘There are a lot of good professional sailors out there, but many simply couldn’t do with the compromise that there would be in teaching, helping the Chinese guys to get up to a level that’s taken them 20 years to reach. It’s also about having the right Chinese-speaking guys involved around the team, helping us integrate them, helping them to be able to learn and teaching the teachers.

‘There are a lot of things to which we don’t yet know the answers. There are a lot of things we are learning. I pushed my team pretty hard to fast-forward the first selection trial in a very rushed manner, to be honest. It’s just because I know we are learning and not just finding people who have got sailing talent, but actually learning how to identify that talent in a different culture, in a different language, in a different country. Also the logistics, the visas and those sorts of challenges are all part of it. It’s not that straightforward.’ That said, Turner was encouraged by reports from Dubois after the initial trial of Chinese potential. ‘There are some really good determined guys, really interesting guys, it’s not a complete blank sheet of paper. Back in October there was the China Cup with 100 boats with 60-70 per cent of the crew being of Chinese nationality or Hong- Kong Chinese. There’s actually more sailing knowledge there than I think we expected.

‘But it’s all still quite fresh. We have some good applicants, great applicants. But it’s not going to be about us picking four guys right now and then going all the way through. We are aiming to get into March with about six to eight guys to go forward when we start sailing the boat back from Sanya.’

The journey from Sanya to Europe will be a critical period for the crew to gain much needed experience, but it will also cause significant wear and tear to the sails, which are strictly limited as part of the cost-saving measures brought into the race. ‘Ultimately your training sails become replacement sails if you end up damaging the race sails,’ says Turner. ‘There is a compromise in doing lots of miles but we have to embrace it.

‘Part of this project was to be in China with the boat, so no options about that. We may not have the boat sailing all the way back, but the plan is to do Sanya, Auckland and Brazil and then up to the States and right back across the Atlantic. So we’ll have done more ocean miles than any of the other teams. We need to do some of those miles to benefit the Chinese guys, we are doing it to push the boat, we will not be doing a delivery. Perhaps we’ll learn different things compared with a team going up and down off Lanzarote or across the North Atlantic. That will give us a different experience and perhaps an advantage.’

With the technical arms-race more or less removed from the Volvo Ocean Race, where does Turner see the chief battleground in this edition? ‘I am not sure if anyone knows the absolute answer to this. You still have to understand where the edge of the envelope is, in terms of how hard you push and what is going to break. Just because these boats are one-design doesn’t mean that they are not going to break. Of course they are going to break.

‘You still need to know where that limit is and, in some way, what’s going to break first or how much risk you are taking. Then it’s also about learning the best trim and set-up of the boat with only limited time to train alongside other boats. I don’t think there’s a simple straight answer on this one. In the past you could just focus on building the fastest boat and then, all other things being equal, you’d be better than the rest. But that’s not going to be the case this time. I think that makes this a whole new game, and a very exciting one.’

With the boatspeed margins reduced, perhaps we will see more risk-taking by navigators who have tended to make conservative decisions in recent races. ‘It is certainly more tempting to take a radical view,’ says Turner. ‘What have you got to lose if you are back down the fleet, for example? I think it will open up the race compared with before. But equally it is a mentality thing. There are different ways of sailing – some people always want to stay in the herd but others like to take those bigger risks. I think this format will favour more people taking bigger risks, but that remains to be seen.’

The level of risk-taking will be determined in part by the organisers’ decisions about the frequency of sked reports and black-out periods, he says. ‘I don’t know what they are going to do but, for sure, the schedules have a big impact on how people sail. I think people on the land don’t appreciate quite how transfixed the sailors can become by what’s going on. I hope the organisers leave some bigger windows and bigger shutdown periods just to encourage boats to go off and try different things.

‘This time you have got the same weather data, the same computer, the same software, which makes it harder for a computer-generated option to come up. It’s going to be much more about the feel, about the qualitative analysis of what’s going on, to lead you down a different path. Again, it affects the kind of sailors you want to have in your team.

‘Fundamentally you are in exactly the same boat with exactly the same weather data. You are going to have to be smarter to find a different way through the maze than perhaps you ever did before. It’s going to be interesting.’


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