I was interested to read that Knut Frostad was stepping down as CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race. Curious as to why I went online to read the official statement and then something hit me. Knut was only six years old when the first edition of the race, known then as the Whitbread Round the World Race, took place. Last week the Whitbread/Volvo celebrated 42 years since the first race back in 1973 and how things have changed. On the VOR website there is a photo of the very dashing crew of a boat called Second Life. I know that you are also smiling at their crew uniforms and probably can’t imagine why anyone would dress up so funny to go sailing, but the reason they all looked so happy is that they knew stacked safely below decks were dozens of cases of Whitbread beer. For the first few editions of the race all boats received as much beer as they wanted and the reason was simple; the beer was awful and the only way Whitbread could get people to drink it was to sponsor a race and give it away free.
It’s worth a look back to the origins of the race because it was the firm foundation that the first Whitbread was built upon that allowed the race to grow into one of the most recognized events on the global sporting calendar. In the early seventies in England sailing was all over the news. Francis Chichester had a few years earlier returned from his solo circumnavigation aboard Gypsy Moth followed a year later by Alex Rose aboard Lively Lady and then Robin Knox-Johnston won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race becoming the first person ever to sail solo, non-stop around the world. These were headline stories and the Brits being Brits were hankering for more. The Royal Navy Sailing Association (RNSA) was in the business of training sailors for the Royal Navy and they were intrigued by the idea of an around-the-world race.
At the time Rear-Admiral Otto Steiner was the flag officer in charge of ocean racing and he was tasked with the idea of putting together a committee and beyond that, to look for a sponsor to fund the first race. All of England’s top sailors lent their names and reputations as either committee members or advisors and pretty soon they had mapped out a course and some basic safety requirements. They soon found a sponsor in Whitbread and even managed to get HRH Prince Phillip as Patron. A total of 124 sailors took part in the first edition of the Whitbread which was won by the Mexican sailor Ramón Carlin aboard Sayula, a stock Swan 65. They beat 13 other entries including Second Life who came in seventh. It’s interesting to note that the skipper of Second life was a man by the name of Roddy Ainslie who has a fairly well known son by the name of Ben, well Sir Ben if you are English.
My first Whitbread was in 1981 aboard Alaska Eagle. We had taken Flier, the boat that won the previous race, spent a fortune to modify it and ended up with a slow boat with a high rating. The fleet dubbed it Alaska Beagle because the boat was such a dog. We did, however, have the luxury of private cabins and wine with dinner each night. On Sundays the cook would throw a roast in the oven and most nights we sat on deck drinking brandy or rum or some other kind of after-dinner digestif. I can only imagine what a modern day VOR racer would think about that. These days, when toothbrushes are routinely cut in half to save weight, the weight (say nothing of locker space) of twenty cases of beer and mixed drinks would send the crew chief into a fit of apoplexy.
So back to Knut. He has done a superb job of running the balancing act between keeping sponsors happy and managing costs to keep entries coming in. It hasn’t been easy but Knut managed by building a strong team and using his own personal charisma when he needed to. Let’s not forget that Knut led his own team in the 2001/02 race aboard Djuice Dragons so he could see things from the perspective of the competitors as well as sponsors. It’s too late now but there is a bit of advice I could have given him. In the ’80’s when I did my Whitbread’s the Race Director was a terrific gentleman by the name of Admiral Williams.
When each boat arrived at each stopover the Admiral would be there no matter the time of day or night. He was always splendidly turned out in jacket and tie and without fail he would take a body blow of celebratory champagne. I asked him once about his dry cleaning bill and he smiled and said, “I have one jacket for boat arrivals and another for cocktail parties. I never mixed them up because you could smell the arrivals jacket from across the room.” Sage advice indeed for any Race Director.