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Mike Sanderson on the present and future of the Volvo Ocean Race

by Richard Gladwell on 20 Apr 2012
One of the highlights - Sanya heads for the East Coast Bays mark - Volvo Ocean Race Auckland - Start March 18,2012 © Richard Gladwell www.photosport.co.nz

Mike Sanderson was the youngest ever skipper to win the Volvo Ocean Race when he skippered the Volvo 70 ABN Amro, otherwise known as Black Betty, to victory in the 2005/06 edition of the round the world classic.

He was honoured by the International Sailing Federation, the sports world body, with its Sailor of the Year trophy for his exploits.

Now two editions later, Sanderson is again skippering a Volvo Ocean Race entry, but this time at the other end of the fleet.

Team Sanya, formerly Telefonica Blue from the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race, is currently on her second 'ship trip', and has been plagued with bad luck since the opening night of the race, when she split her hull after striking a submerged object leaving the Mediterranean Sea.

While the pundits might shake their heads a little at the performance of Team Sanya, which is one of the few occasions on which a VOR70 has done a second race. Certainly Team Sanya have performed the best of the re-cycled boats. She was leading the race while sailing through the Southern Ocean and sailing at speed so over 25 knots. She was the fleet leader as the boats left the Waitemata Harbour, Auckland on the start of Leg 5. And although she finished tail-end Charlie coming into Auckland, Sanya was within sight of many of the other major players, and less than a length of the harbour behind the fifth placed finisher.

While others in the race are running with new boats and budgets they admit are a struggle for sponsors, the Sanderson led effort is bargain basement by comparision. A new rig and sails aboard a refitted hull - saving a pile dollars in build cost and design team, for what is not a substantially slower boat.

Race organisers and skippers for future races are struggling to effectively get costs down to the point where the race will grow beyond its current six entries.

We caught up with Mike Sanderson while he was in Auckland, after pulling out of Leg 5, and sought his views on a range of issues overhanging the future of the Volvo Ocean Race. (The first part of the audio covers the damage to Team Sanya, previously reported in Sail-World)

SW: What is your opinion of using previous generation boats in the Volvo Race? You have been in a situation where you have been in the lead twice so there is nothing a lot wrong with the speed but it seems that durability is an issue.

Mike:
It shouldn’t be an issue. We had the boat thoroughly scanned and tested when we bought it. The designer and the engineers and the boat builders and everything tell you that the thing isn’t deteriorating so it shouldn’t be an issue. On the first leg we hit something we are 100% sure that this is an anomical break in the rudder.

All those components were new so we can’t pin that on it as well. That crack in the bottom hard to know. Telefónica in the last race suffered from the rudders being too small and then in the Southern Ocean last time they broke a forestay so they really had to nurse the boat down south last time. With two (in-operable) rudders in the last race I am not sure they could really push the boat. When we broke in this last leg we certainly weren’t at the point where it was time to start slowing down but we were in full Volvo mode. We were averaging over 20 knots, boat felt great.

We were stacked down in the back where the aft sailors spend, you know the guys were in survival suits and we were in Southern Ocean mode. I don’t know. It feels that every time we start getting the thing going it has let us down. I can’t put my finger on that it. Certainly the shore crew did a wonderful job with the preparation of it. All the components that we built have been beautifully done. The bottom line is we haven’t done enough sailing and I think that's what we have to put it down to. We broke a rudder and we broke a keel system on ABM before the start. The time I won it we broke a rudder before we started. We broke bits of rigging before the start but we also did nine months of sailing not nine weeks. We have just got to put it down to not enough miles before the start.

SW: If you had to put your finger on one cause do you think these boats are under spec structurally?

Mike:
No I don’t personally. I know that is again the common belief at the moment but no I don’t think that they are under spec. We have breakages this time. You look at the breakages and it is all a bit odd. For sure Abu Dhabi’s bulkhead shouldn’t have popped out but I am sure they will find out why it did. I don’t think adding 20 or 50 kgs or 200 kgs to the rule probably wouldn’t have stopped that. I can’t put my finger on the damage that it had. The rigging failures, it is going to be hard not to pin that on the limited amount of sails which the teams have been pre-race. We have had a lot of rigs come down this time, probably for the last six Volvos, which is really odd. This is the first time that sailing pre-race has been limited. My gut feels sense is that has had the biggest impact.

SW: What are the cost cutting measures that are being mooted as to restrict that amount of pre-race sailing? Is that really a solution or is that a solution for the dollars creating a problem?

Mike:
Sailing pre-race this time was restricted. That rule has already been in place for this version of the race. In my opinion that has had an effect. I think it is a good rule because it has a pretty big impact on not only the cost but what it costs to win the race. People thought about the budgets and things for what you can do the race for but they really need to be talking about is what can you win the race for.

That's the critical number when you are going into the corporate world. Not just to be able to compete in it. If you are going to allow an Ericson and things like that into the race with maybe a significantly higher budget it is kind of an irrelevant number. Really the number which you wanted to do be talking about is what can you win the race for and restricting weight and restricting two boat testing has for sure reduced the number you can win the race for.

Let’s be honest before the start, apart from us who obviously in and out of the boat and short on time and stuff, no-one knew which of the other five boats where going to end up winning the race. The cost cutting measures that have been put in place have evened up the playing field dramatically and that's a big plus from a sponsors stand point. Somehow though we need to get the reliability back and we also need to keep the Volvo Ocean Race at the cutting edge of our sport because trickle down affect of what the Volvo and the America’s Cup do for the rest of yachting it’s just where stuff gets developed. The development of wings isn’t going to be a whole lot of use for your Farr 40 and stuff so we need to keep Volvo developing stuff that is going to trickle down.

SW: What can be done to reduce cost and obviously the implication of that is reduced cost and increase the number of boats that are entering the event?

Mike:
The boats are getting too expensive. We built the white ABN AMRO ONE boat at 30,000 and that was not a very complicated boat. It was just a nicely built Volvo 70. We have heard numbers up to 55,000 to build Abu Dhabi and the difference in the prices of those two boats is crazy. Personally we can look again at reducing trim numbers but if we do that we have also got to look seriously at some more Open60 style sailing systems, the old foil and jibs and maybe smaller downwind sails, if you look at the whole thing.

We need a simpler boat. A cheaper boat to build.

It’s not going to be any slower when it is 25 knots downwind but the price of the boats has got out of hand.

Currently we run three under 30 year olds in the crew and I think we could look at two under 25s and two under 30s. For me just to be under 30 is too old. Before the rule I am not sure that we didn’t have more under 30s in the race.

We had at least three under 30s on ABN AMRO ONE. We had one at 25 and one at 27. Like it has become a big deal. You are out looking for the best under 30s. It's the price that you pay for the good guys up as well. In 1996/97 I was a Watch Captain at 26 so somehow we need to try and bring that age back down. If I was going to put a Volvo dream team together, if they had no budget and no rule limitations your Volvo crew would average over 40 years old because experience is still the biggest player in this race.

SW: Do you think these boats are at the point where the crews can take more than the boat?

Mike:
No. I think the crew is right on the ragged limit of exposure. You certainly wouldn’t want these things to be going any faster than they are now. Some of the hits that you get, some water, when the boats are doing up in excess of 20 knots. Now we are reaching at high speeds it is one thing going downwind at high speeds, the waves are going the same, but now reaching at high speeds where the waves are going in the opposite direction the hits are just ridiculous. It is like you are being tackled and going along without knowing its coming.

SW: Are they worse than what you had on ABN AMRO ONE?

Mike:
No I don’t think so because there is a percentage of course you are only going a little bit faster. No. It should be raced in Volvo 70s and should we ever get to the day where there is ten of them in the Southern Ocean and you have got to really push the boats to the extreme that they were going to become too dangerous. Obviously Puma and Groupama had a pretty good tussle down there this time and the speeds were quite moderate because the guys knew that they had to get them there. I think there will be some really good lessons learned from this race.

I just wish we had been in it long enough to play the game. We would have been fast enough to the Horn because it is not down to the last 5%. It’s down to what sails you have got, how you manage it, how you manage your guys especially in that massive stuff. It is how much the guys can take, the job they do, how prepared your boat is, how set up you are for it and how you manage the whole situation. It is very easy in the Southern Ocean to do six hours at 20 plus knots and then break something and do the next day and a half at 14 or 15 knots because you have burnt everyone out and you have broken something major. The goal down there definitely has to be and try and find a sustainable pace for boat and human.



SW: What happens now with Team Sanya? Have they committed to a two race campaign?

Mike:
No. They are not committed. The goal was pretty clear. We needed to ignite the nation of China. We needed to ignite corporate China and just a little highlight was definitely that the candle was smouldering. Just little highlights like us leading out of Auckland, like us getting into the lead in leg two and like us leading in leg five. We definitely sparked an interest. We just need to hope that in the last bit of the race we can turn that smouldering flame into a decent flame that will get them going for next time.

I think we need to be able to have a platform where we can get more Chinese people involved in the race, be it on the boat and in the shore. The long term goal should be so that we have enough Chinese sailors that they could make up the majority of the crew. That has to be the goal. We need to keep that in mind with the limitation with pre-race sailing as well. We have got these emerging markets like China and the UAE. If start really limiting the amount of sailing that you can do well that only increases the importance of hire, you know Brad Jackson and Tony Mutter and Stu Bannatyne and all these other Kiwis are fully entrenched in the race.

SW: Did you think you were that far the other new boats starting where you were with a second generation boat as opposed on one of these third or even fourth generation boats?

Mike:
We were under no illusion, well I was certainly under no illusion and I was very clear with our sponsors that we weren’t going to win the race. I am well aware of what the ingredients are to have a good Volvo and that's all about preparation time. It’s about a fast group of sailors creating a fast boat. We didn’t have the preparation time and we didn’t get to develop our own boat so for me that was fundamental. What I told them that we could do and what I still believe we can do is have some moments of glory and have some moments which are exciting and which through a spanner in the works for the big boys and try and get our name up in lights a few times.

What I compared it to was in Formula One you don’t need to have the budget of Ferrari to get a return for a sponsor in Formula One. The lesser teams have lesser budgets and they suit a smaller return. I was very careful when we put this campaign together that we didn’t target the same budget number because we just didn’t have time to build a new boat. What we needed to do was come up with a number which could still offer return commercially. Our budget is less than half of most. To deliver on that we don’t have to win the race. Yes it would be nice to have some glory moments but the commercial race is still a very big part of this. Hopefully we can make them happy.

SW: Staying with that budget and the future of the race and all that sort of thing do you thing do you think there is a place there for a second division, if you like, where you have got to sail a used boat and you have got to have either a female crew or a youth crew or something like that and that would get your numbers up to ten or twelve on the fleet?

Mike:
Yes. A couple of things, the small oversight with the rules this time round with regards to how the boats were weighed with our own measurement trim, this time versus last time. Even if Telefónica was one of the lightest boats in the last race; if you picked us up on the dock versus Abu Dhabi for example, which is out of the same design office, we are probably 300 odd kilos heavier and that's a mistake that is an oversight between the older generation boats and the newer generation boat.

There is little things like that that is a real shame. To answer your question I think it is paramount that we were able to have teams in the race which are dipping their toe in the water so lesser budget but have an opportunity to go out there and do the race for less money. It is just a little bit of a shame that we are not having a better race than we are having because it would have been very good for the races future if our model had worked. It still can work and you could argue that it is working even with the race that we have had, which hasn’t been the luckiest and I don’t think anyone would disagree. It wouldn’t have taken much for it to be quite special from a returns stand point.

SW: What happens here and now for Team Sanya? The boat is being shipped out to Miami so what happens?

Mike:
The sailing team are off spending a couple of hours each day in the gym. They are having a lot of communication about what further developments we can do in the sail world, in the rig world and just the way we sail the boat. We are very conscious of keeping up. We feel that were getting more and more competitive as the race went on despite increasing our sailing hours and so we need to try and hang onto that as much as possible. We are in constant contact. It’s going to come around quickly. We will get off to Miami in a couple of weeks time and meet the boat off the ship and then we are back into it. It’s going to come around quickly and then we have got to really try and do something cool.

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