Evolution rather than revolution for the Volvo Ocean Race says Australia’s Chris Nicholson
Veteran Australian ocean racer Chris Nicholson is currently competing in his sixth Volvo Ocean Race as watch captain aboard the Dutch-flagged entry team AkzoNobel. He has just arrived in Cardiff, Wales after setting a stunning Volvo Ocean Race 24-hour distance record of 602.51 nautical miles on the race’s ninth leg – the nine-day transatlantic sprint from Newport, RI. This distance smashes the previous 24-hour record set by the Volvo Open 70 Ericsson in the 2008-09 edition and makes the team AkzoNobel crew the first team in the history of the race to sail more than 600 nm in a 24-hour period.
Nicholson made it to the United Kingdom just in time for the announcement in Cardiff yesterday that the ownership of the hallowed 45-year old around-the-world race will be passing from Volvo Trucks and Volvo Cars – owners for the last 20 years – over to Atlant Ocean Racing Spain, a management company owned by the race’s current leadership team Richard Brisius and Johan Salén, both from Sweden.
While this and the subsequent news that the next race is scheduled to start in 2021 are both encouraging steps towards a hopefully bright future for the race, there still remain more questions than answers. In particular, which boats the team at Atlant might be considering for the 2021-22 edition. It is no secret that a move to a monohull IMOCA-style foiling development class has gained a fair degree of momentum over recent months.
For his part however, Nicholson believes serious consideration should also be given to retaining the existing fleet of one-design Volvo Ocean 65s for another lap of the planet. Particularly, he says, given the super-close racing the fleet has been enjoying in the 2017-18 edition. “As long as I have been involved with this race, the racing has never been closer and more competitive than right now,” he said.
“You only have to look at the condition of sailors coming back to shore: they are more tired and worn out than ever before – even though the boats are a fair bit easier to sail. The sailors are working so much harder because the racing is neck-and-neck the whole way around the world.”
Nobody knows this better than Nicholson. Team AkzoNobel won Leg 5 from Hong Kong to Auckland by just a couple of minutes after weeks at sea and finished second in Cardiff by only a few hundred yards following 24-hours of boat-on-boat match racing across the Irish sea and into the Bristol Channel versus eventual winners Team Brunel. “When you look at what the VO65s offer it is a pretty compelling package that you would struggle to find in a new custom-designed development class,” Nicholson asserts.
“First up, when it comes to the levels of efficiency around the maintenance programme – a key factor on an eight-month round-the-world race – the VO65 scores very highly. “We arrived here in Cardiff at three in the morning. I go back to the hotel to sleep and come back for a meeting a two in the afternoon, to find the boat in the cradle, the mast on the ground and the shore crew beavering away at full pace on the overhaul work. If needs be, I’m confident we could turn this boat around and be ready to race in three days.”
“People have got to consider this sort of stuff when they look at the business cases for different future classes and then ask themselves whether it can actually happen in a cost-effective way?” When it comes to two other important factors – the boat’s durability and reliability – Nicholson says the VO65 scores well again.
“Aside from being competitive and keeping the crew safe, this is about having a boat your sponsor can be reasonably comfortable will make it to all the stopovers,” said Nicholson, who all too clearly remembers nursing the badly delaminated and close-to-sinking Camper VO70 though the Southern Ocean to Chile in the 2011-12 race.
Back then Nicholson was one of three skippers in the six-boat fleet to suspend racing due to damage. The Camper crew repaired the boat themselves and eventually arrived in Brazil under their own steam, while the other two retired and were loaded on cargo ships. This scenario was largely what prompted Volvo to bankroll the building of the current fleet of Volvo Ocean 65s for the 2015-16 race, with the design brief given to Farr Yacht Design effectively being to make the boats bulletproof.
Now, six of those boats are still going strong on their second lap of the world, with one new one built for team AkzoNobel. “In this edition we had one of the hardest Southern Ocean crossings I have ever experienced in the race and all the boats got through relatively unscathed,” Nicholson points out. “Right now, at the end of Leg 9 the boats have come out for the first time since the start of Leg 7 from Brazil – that’s 10 weeks and a lot of ocean miles ago. Pretty impressive.” The final piece of the Volvo Ocean Race jigsaw, Nicholson believes, is the thorny subject of the cost involved in putting a team in the race.
“Right now, it is possible for relatively low budget teams to compete because there are no really big budget campaigns,” he said. “A 65 campaign needs a 10 – 12 million Euro budget. For a new development design you are getting back towards the Volvo 70 numbers of 20 million plus.”
Despite his firm stance in favour of the existing one-design fleet Nicholson stresses that he is not opposed per se to the custom-building of ocean racing boats. “I’m not saying one is better than the other,” he said. “I would just like to see more open discussion centered around what we already have, i.e. the most accurate one design fleet that has ever been built and one that is providing the best racing and media content we have seen.
“I would love to go sail a new design of boat again. I loved my time when we were building and designing Camper for the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race and I loved racing a custom-built boat. But to go out and raise that kind of money today is a huge ask. “Back then, with the big teams we had, you couldn’t drive the level of efficiency that we see now,” Nicholson observed.
“I think we are really very efficient with the way we use these boats today. For instance, at several of the stopovers we don’t have to pull them out of the water at all because they can keep going with relatively minimal maintenance.
“That is not going to be the case with any new design that has a custom aspect to it – and that needs to be taken into consideration.”
Reflecting on the way the level of competitiveness has ramped up over the last two editions since the introduction of a one-design class, Nicholson had this to say: “In the last race you had two boats really that were super-competitive, simply because people didn’t know how to sail the boats as well yet. Now in this race, it’s four or arguably five teams at that level. If there is another race in these boats I’m certain there would be a whole lot more really competitive teams.
“Keeping the racing close is all upside,” Nicholson said. “For the fans, for the sponsors, for the race organisers, and for the profile of the race and the sport of ocean racing. But we have to make sure we keep the playing field level. “There are a couple of parties right now pushing for a new class of boat because they understand they can make an enormous jump simply by having the funding in place to be first out of the blocks with a new design. “I think we need to make provisions to stop prevent that being such a huge advantage – otherwise it will put off many of the lower funded teams.”
The final tenet of Nicholson’s philosophy around the future of the Volvo Ocean Race centers on the importance of maintaining the momentum generated behind initiative to include female sailors in all the teams. “It’s a subject close to my heart,” said Nicholson. “I believe this should driven at a World Sailing global level so that any of their yacht racing events should stipulate a certain percentage of the crew be made up of female sailors.
“In the Volvo Ocean Race, the truth is at this point that an all-male team would likely be more competitive than a mixed crew,” Nicholson admitted. “But we need to get our heads out of the bushes and realize that if this sport is going to get better and compete globally then we need more mixed crews and more all-female crews. The only way to do that is to train more women to sail like the men.
“At the moment we have created 14 or more women that here-and-now know how to go and race around the world at the level required. In time these women will be picked by natural selection, but for now we need to force it so that more women can gain the experience that gets them to that point. “That’s only going to happen if we have the right style of racing and the right size and type of boats to race in.”
Nicholson believes open and honest dialogue between the interested parties involved is vital to secure a solid long-term future for the race. But with a variety of key decisions to be made and sponsors to reassure it is worth them staying involved, he maintains those conversations cannot come too soon. “A lot of discussion needs to happen in a short period, because time is critical,” Nicholson said.
“Those discussions need to be all-encompassing in terms of: raising the money, the profile of the sport, the mixture and age of the crew line ups, the quality and reliability of the boat, the closeness of the racing. “There are so many aspects that are all potentially key to making a successful race, but when it comes to the class of boat to be raced I hope the approach will be steady evolution from where we are now – rather than a potentially risky revolution to some unknown and unproven brave new world.”