Listed as one of the oldest sailors in the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race, Puma skipper Ken Read impresses many with his boyish enthusiasm and approach to life.
Now on his third Volvo Ocean Race - he started in 2005/06 with Ericsson Racing, sailing the last four legs, plus two campaigns with Puma Ocean Racing, he is now battling up the final stages of Leg 5 and what should have been the toughest trans-oceanic leg of the race has been all of that, and has been a match race from Cape Horn to Itajai, Brazil.
That dog fight is but another chapter in what has been a memorable race for Read, who besides his Volvo exploits is a three-time America's Cup campaigner, and North Sails Vice President.
Kenny Read is often quoted as having said to his crew before the race that he wanted more of an adventure, than in the previous edition
To recap on the adventure so far. After getting away to a good start, Puma dropped her mast while lying second in the middle of the South Atlantic, and had to motor to the remote island of Tristan da Cuhna, before being plucked aboard a ship and rushed to South Africa, where they made the start of Leg 2 with two days to spare. The next two legs were a matter of getting the program back on track. Then the demons struck again, when a postponed start for leg 4, had the crews race an impromptu inshore race from Sanya to the statue of Buddha.
After leading the race, for the first leg, Puma fell into a hole in the wind on the return and was passed by the whole fleet. She started Leg 4, the following morning, almost 40 minutes in arrears, because of her misfortune in the Buddha race, and then watched the rest of the fleet sail away in a stronger breeze. That 40 minute margin panned out into a 280 mile deficit and some radical course options which paid off, allowing Puma to catch up the fleet and more, finishing second in Auckland
We caught up with Ken Read the day before the start of Leg 5 from Auckland to Brazil via Cape Horn.
SW: You have had a fairly interesting trip so far. How do you feel where you are up to now in terms of your placing today and your placing into Auckland?
Ken: I think we are getting up to where we expected to be. It wasn’t just a problem for our first leg it translates several legs into it because you just all of a sudden your ability to make your changes and figure out if you are fast or slow, make your tweaks, got delayed. It got delayed two or three legs and we really kind of felt like this last leg was the first time we were sailing the boat up to speed if you will. We are getting there. We expected to be there and our consistency looks pretty good on the scoreboard right now so we have just have to keep doing it.
SW: What was the gap that you had in Cape Town between when the boat arrived from Tristan da Cunha and you started the next leg?
Ken: Two days to the In-Port Race and then the leg start after that. We had no chance but to just survive it which means we just had to get a rig on the boat and get sails on the rig and make everything work as best as we could and then get going again. Then we were a solid second in that next leg and then we just made a mistake going through the Doldrums. Just little mistakes in this fleet and you end up paying for it in a big way. We have never been far from the lead but it would be nice to get over the hump and have a leg win here too.
SW: What was the morale onboard the team when you started into that second leg and what has really happened since then? Has it kept on going up and guys feeling like they are getting on the game?
Ken: Yes, especilaly on the last three days of the last leg. I have said it a few times now, we went up and we stepped up. We were going upwind and we went up to the near port tack layline from a couple of hundred miles away and set up next to Telefónica and beat them at their own game. Beat them at a boat speed contest to the corner of the island and then extended tactically. We were really pleased because Telefónica and Camper were one – two in the event at the time. We went and played with the big dogs and we got the better of them. I think that was a huge building block for the team, and you just keep building on these little things and hopefully at the end it's enough.
SW: How did you guys feel on that start in China when the race got delayed and then you had to make a tour up the coast and you guys were cleaning up on that and suddenly you came out and you were 39 minutes down the drain?
Ken: 39 minutes and 17 seconds. But who is counting?
I tell you that was one of the lowest points of my sailing career. When we finished that race and the next morning had to watch the fleet sail away and had to start 39 minutes afterwards. It was almost more than I was good for. I can say it now.
It was really like all the demons were lined up. Everything was lined up against us at that point. We were launched in that little race and just sailed great. It wasn’t fluky we just were sailing better than everybody that day and all of a sudden big old hole, park, everybody else gybes away and sails around you and the next thing you know they are on the horizon. It was incredible. It was incredible. It was a very low point, I think, in all of our sailing careers. Fortunately we could make the best of it a little bit later and head up to Japan and loop around the corner and get everybody back.
SW: What did you say to the guys that night?
Ken: I don’t have to just really say anything to anybody. Everybody understood. These are veterans. These guys don’t need a pep talk. Maybe I needed a pep talk more than they did that day.
That night was tough. Most of our families weren’t there. There was really nobody to lean on. My wife has always been great to lean on, and we just felt alone and really kind of let down. Like what did we do to deserve this?. But hey, that's a sign of a pretty good team to battle back and make something out of it, and by Taiwan we were up to fourth and then we took our little jaunt north. Yeah, it worked out alright.
Volvo Ocean Race - Leg 4 Day 4 high level view of fleet positions - as Puma heads north east semingly away from Auckland. - PredictWind.com
SW: What triggered the jaunt north? At one stage it looked like it would pay to go between Taiwan and China.
Ken: We considered it. We absolutely considered going up the straits there and that's notoriously a horrible place, and if you do, you're fully committed. You are so committed it’s unbelievable. At least where we went we could bail out if we didn’t think it was working but it was always our goal. It was always the game plan to get east and that was the best way to get east and we committed to it. We believe in Tom Addis’s analysis there - and sure enough it looked kind of weird. But if I had a nickel for every email I got from friends asking 'what the hell were you thinking?' then I would be a rich man.
SW: You just kept on going and going and you could see the other guys going and trying to have a flick south, and then going north and then think maybe the Puma guys have got it right. Groupama broke.
Ken: Ian Walker still owes our whole team a round of beers by the way. He hasn’t paid up that bet because I think he said something like - 'Kenny has lost his way, their GPS is broken' or something like that. And that's when I made the bet. 'I will bet you a round of beers for the entire team, that we beat you into Auckland.' And sure enough it came good.
SW: Then you had those incredible two days where you just piled along the back strait there and everyone else was going what do we do now? And you are doing almost 10 knots faster per hour than they were.
Ken: It is a strange game. The bizarre thing, and I think I blogged it near the end of the leg, is that we couldn’t have gone a different route from Telefónica to get to Auckland from Taiwan on. We just couldn’t. It was physically impossible. There was land in the way on both sides. Here we are 200 miles away and all of a sudden we crossed tacks about a mile ahead of them. It was just amazing.
SW: And when you got started getting round the front of the fleet. What did it feel like going down that back strait? You must see the numbers and see how much quicker you are going than the others. Did the mood change dramatically onboard?
Ken: There was a lot more smiles. It is an emotional rollercoaster out there and you have got to try and protect against the highs and ward off the lows. Like I said before this is a veteran team and they know how to do it but for sure it is a happier mood when you are putting miles on and it looks like it’s something you are doing is going to work. It certainly is a lot more fun to be on the boat.
SW: What happened after that? You got through that period and you look like you were in second and third and really holding it. What was the matter of doing then? Just hanging on to Auckland?
Ken: We had a chance. We were only 20 miles behind. Groupama by the way did a spectacular job getting out when they got out. They had the last possible avenue out of that corner, and then they just stepped into a little better weather the whole way here. We were only 20 miles behind them and then all of a sudden a few miles out of sked, a few miles out of shed, they got a little more wind and a little more wind and we really got unlucky there.
We easily could have finished a hundred miles ahead of the other two guys. We lost 60 miles in two nights just in random squalls that parked us up for hours, and so what New Caledonian to Groupama, it did completely different to us. That was a shame. That made it a lot closer than it needed to be. I think at the end of the day the result was probably the same but it could have been a lot better. We kind of got unlucky there to be honest with you. It could have been quite a bit better.
SW: How do you feel going about this one, Leg 5? Same sort of strategy? What do you think realistically is your points situation?
Ken: I don’t know. This leg is going to tell a lot because there is some bad weather out there right now. You have got to get there first of all, and so I think there is a lot of sailing to go. I am not going to say we are in it or out of it. For sure the cards are stacked up a little bit against us but we’re not sailing bad right now, and I think if you ask the rest of the fleet right now they would say 'those Puma guys are starting to get their act together and they could be a dangerous group'.
It’s just hopefully toward the end of the race we are not saying too little too late. We have got a lot of points left on the board and we have got to get through some tough weather and some tough situations, and you got to be smart. Let’s see how this whole things pans out.
SW: Do you feel Camper make a big deal about their lack of tight reaching speed? Do you feel anyone has got an advantage out there in terms of speed, that we have quite often seen in previous races?
Ken: Everybody seems to have their condition. Camper clearly has the best upwind boat, and last time I looked we have been sailing upwind pretty much the whole way around the world so far, so I don’t see the complaint. They have got a great upwind boat and if they are not winning upwind legs it is not because of that boat I will tell you that.
You have got to just try to improve. If you sit around and say ok we are slow in this or slow in that then you have given up. I think we have got a pretty good all-round boat. Groupama for sure on a tight reach has a little extra charge. Telefónica is a very good all-round boat. Abu Dhabi struggle a little bit reaching and beating. Camper is a really good upwind boat. So like I said we have gone upwind way more than we have done anything else in this race so far, so it should be an advantage to them.
SW: What do you see is the future of this race? Everyone talks about getting more boats in there and getting a women’s crew going and get youth crews going. Is that really possible or is this it?
Ken: It’s all possible if you just keep getting the budgets down. We worked hard with Knut to get the budgets down. We talked with Knut before this last race to help keep the budgets down, and sailing days and burn rates down, no two boat programs, and limit sails. And now we just have to take another big step forward. It’s too hard to raise this kind of money. Even though companies like Puma thought they got a great return on an investment they came back, Berg loves this, they are our two primary sponsors, they love it.
You still have got to get the budgets down. We should have eight or ten boats here and the reason we don’t is because of budgets. They are so high still. We meet with Volvo people quite often and let’s keep working at getting down to realistic numbers that more people can get into the game with, and other countries like you said. Teams, crazy teams coming out of the blue. We need boats. We need participation and six boats is a great fleet, but what we saw is that if one boat breaks all of a sudden a five boat fleet and it looks kind of scary. Four or five boat fleet would be a drag, so I think you need eight to ten just to make sure that if there is some problems then you can manage those problems and still look like you have a really good fleet.
SW: What are the key cost cutting things that could be done that aren’t being done now? Ken: Well there is certainly the boats themselves that are still very expensive. There are ways to make the boats less expensive for sure. Days sailing on the water, or burn rates we call it. Burn rate is a big one. I think trying to contain the cost of the boats or maybe even another boat, a different design, would be a huge step in trying to get two to three million dollars off the budget and then you can have the amount of pre race time and still have plenty of time on the water and that would be another big, big chunk of money so I think the goal is to get it around a $12/13 million dollar budget and most budgets are well north of that right now. If that can happen then I think you will see a lot more people participating.
SW: What about a one design hull? Ken: They are talking about it. Personally I think part of the allure of this race is the technology and the development. It’s something half the boats in the world are going to have furling systems, and there are systems all over boats, that we develop and then before you know it it trickles down out into the normal sailors, not just racers but sailors, and I just think it is part of the core fan we have is still really into the little tweaks and differences and little boat speed differences between the boats. And I am personally afraid it turns into another race if it is a one design boat personally. It’s funny you will talk to ten people here and you will get ten different opinions. It is not really for me to say. At the end of the day it’s for me to decide whether I could raise the money and want to participate, that's all.
SW: Are you going to go again? Ken: I would say there is very little chance of that. I have enjoyed this more than I ever could imagine. There are times where you definitely question your sanity, but I got a lot of other stuff I want to do in this world. I never thought I would go twice to be honest with you. If Puma hadn’t have wanted to come back I would never have come back. I got a lot of other stuff I want to do, business wise and career wise and spend time with my family. It’s tough. It’s tough on your family. It’s tough on everybody, doing this. I think this is the last time you are going to see Kenny Read in a Volvo race.
SW: How weird did it feel playing golf on Tristan da Cunha on Leg 1? Ken: It was the cow patties that threw us off!. I actually believe I have the course record on Tristan da Cunha. Of all places in the world it was hilarious. That's an experience that, as much of a drag as obviously the whole thing was. It was an experience . A boat race is a boat race. We have sailed a lot of boat races before in our life but we have never gone and lived on the most remote inhabited island on Earth for five days. And literally you eat what you kill type of thing, and the people couldn’t have been nicer, couldn’t have been more hospitable.
The whole experience was fascinating. I guess that is the right word, fascinating. Completely fascinating. I think it is something win, lose or draw in this race that every guy on our boat will remember for the rest of their lives. There has got to be something to be said for that.
I said before the race started that I wanted to live the adventure a little bit more than I did last time and I never thought I would go to those extremes. That was a little bit more of an adventure than I was planning on.