by Jeni Bone
In 2014, the 'Everest of Sailing', the Volvo Ocean Race will feature an all-female team for the first time since 2001-02 after SCA announced they would enter a women’s crew for the next edition in 2014-15.
Richard Brisius, CEO Atlant Ocean Racing AB and Kersti Strandqvist, SVP Corporate Communications SCA and SVP Corporate Sustainability SCA.
The team are the first to announce an entry for what will be the 12th edition of the race, starting from Alicante in the second half of 2014.
According to the marketing collateral, SCA is a 'global hygiene and forest company' – translated as toilet paper and personal care products.
The all-female challengers are the first team to confirm an order for the new 65-foot one-design boat, details of which were announced by race organisers in June.
The new high-performance boat is being built by a consortium of boatyards in the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and Italy and will make it significantly cheaper for teams to mount a competitive campaign. The Volvo Ocean Race will ensure a minimum of eight boats are built, with the goal of getting between eight and 10 teams on the start line for the 12th edition of the race. The first of the boats will be finished in mid-2013.
The new design puts less of a premium on physical strength, and means all-female teams should be competitive in the race, which is one of sailing’s Big Three events along with the America's Cup and the Olympics.
And while VOR CEO, Knut Frostad welcomes the all-female entry, saying he is pleased to see a women's team back in the race – 'The lack of women in the last few editions of the race has meant we haven't been representing half the population of the human race' – some pundits and previous competitors are sceptical.
Speaking at a media opportunity on the Auckland stopover of the VOR in March 2012, six times world champion, double Olympian and veteran of four VORs, including the most recent as skipper of Camper Team Emirates NZ, Chris Nicholson was pragmatic about the rarity of female crew.
'Women are not in the running,' explained Nicholson at the time. 'It’s nothing to do with whether women are competent sailors,' he continued, admitting there are probably women who would like to attempt the race and quite probably are up to it. 'But it’s purely a matter of assembling the best 11 sailors you can as crew. It’s heavy work and hard enough for men to handle.'
Nick Burridge squints away from the wall of white water onboard CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand during leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient, France. (Credit: Hamish Hooper/CAMPER ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race)
Under race rules, all-female teams will be able to race with two extra crewmembers.
But can they handle the conditions, on sea and onboard? While the materials that make up the 'bulldozers of the sea', as Grant Dalton of Team Emirates NZ described them, are the stuff of space shuttles and the technology is cutting-edge, life on board for crews could not be more primitive.
There are plenty of salty tales of sawn-off toothbrushes, some of them shared, to minimise weight. One race legend of the 1997-98 event involves the winning skipper berating his crew for the three pairs of sunglasses placed on the leeward side of the boat. Such is the emphasis on performance and high-tech equipment that shared bunks, desalinated water, rehydrated powder food and protein bars are the norm.
Crews are selected from world champions, Olympic champions and the most talented up and coming sailors, most of them with sail-making and other relevant trade expertise.
Richard Brisius will manage the team for Atlant Ocean Racing, which has two previous Volvo Ocean Race victories behind them with EF Language in 1998 and Ericsson Racing Team in 2009.
'SCA’s investment in an all-female crew is unique,' said Brisius. 'Competing for nine months in the world’s toughest offshore sailing race is a challenge that deserves respect. The new boat design lends itself to an all-female crew, and our aim is to create a strong team that will have the best possible platform to undertake the challenge.'
Brisius, himself veteran of six VORs, two as a competitor the rest in team management, as well as experience in the 1989/90 Whitbread, is convinced the return of women to the VOR will be a renaissance, a turning point, a boost to its appeal, and vital to safeguarding its future.
'It is the toughest race you can enter,' Brisius admits, speaking from his home town of Stockholm. As for the concept, Brisius says 'For many years, people have been asking where are the women competitors – it’s a natural question when there are so many talented women sailors. The idea is not new. The person behind the concept is not important. What is important is the implementation.
Formerly CEO of Ericsson Racing Team, Richard Brisius will manage SCA's all-female VOR entry.
'And for sure it’s a place for women,' he adds, referring to female sailors’ ability and hardiness.
'There are more women’s Olympic classes today than 20 years ago,' he says. 'They are probably more women racing today than 20 years ago. We have had no lack of interest.'
Since launching the concept of the SCA all-female entry Tuesday 21 August, Brisius says he has been inundated with potential competitors. 'Now we’re going to speak with the women who have expressed interest, from all over the world. They must be extremely motivated, experienced, love being on the ocean and able to work together as a strong team. That will give us the edge that is required out there.'
Strength of the muscle variety will also be mandatory. While Brisius asserts it’s a myth that you have to be 100kg to cope with the job, he acknowledges entrants will have to have strong muscle mass.
For EDITORIAL USE only, please credit: Gabriele Olivo/Telefonica Blue/Volvo Ocean Race Pepe Ribes is holding hard while Xabier Fernandez is trying to go to windward Telefonica Blue takes a battering in heavy storms, on leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Singapore to Qingdao, China The Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09 will be the 10th running of this ocean marathon. Starting from Alicante in Spain, on 4 October 2008, it will, for the first time, take in Cochin, India, Singapore and Qingdao, Chi
'Now, with the 65 class, sailors can be less typical. They will have to be strong and extremely competent, but while there was no chance with the 70 class, and the 65 is still a monster, it lends itself better to female sailors.'
The key ingredients for a successful VOR team, explains Brisius are 'the right people, the right partner, the right operations.'
'This is the recipe figured out over experience of many years. By the right partner I include a partner that has the right fit with the team, that shares the same values and have set goals and a clear commercial strategy with the entry.'
The SCA sponsorship is a great fit, says Brisius. SCA is a global company with more than 37,000 employees and whose products are skewed towards females, who make up 80% of SCA customers.
SCA is a global hygiene and forest company that develops and produces personal care products, tissue, publication papers and solid-wood products, with their products in 100 countries. SCA global brands include TENA and Tork. The company has approximately 37,000 employees and sales in 2011 amounted to SEK 106 billion (EUR 11.7 billion).
Winner of four Olympic medals, and four times World Champion, Alessandra Sensini (ITA) is one of the world’s high profile sailors.
For competitive reasons, SCA will not reveal the value of its sponsorship, but even those considered smaller sponsorships reach the multi-million mark.
'The research shows that sponsorship pays back three to five times in media coverage, then sales and brand awareness,' he adds.
Kersti Strandqvist, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications at SCA believes the VOR will increase awareness of the SCA brand around the globe 'and create stronger links to product brands such as TENA, Tork, Lotus, Tempo, Saba and Libero.'
'We also want to highlight how our products improve our consumers’ quality of life.'
As one racing sailor indelicately observed about the prospects of the all-female entry, not on the record: 'Nappies? They’ll need ‘em!'
Others have been more collegiate.
Rob Mundle, author, sailor and past-Commodore of Southport Yacht Club has been closely aligned to two Volvo races, one where there was an all-female crew. He says he can see no reason why women shouldn’t be up to the job.
'They’ve shown before that they can do it, so why not now? Mind you, these new boats will be very demanding to sail.'
Sailing editor and photographer, Richard Gladwell believes the female entry will enhance the VOR's appeal with the media and broader public.
'Firstly, it opens the game up to the other 50% of the population and some very good advertising and sponsorship opportunities. Secondly, solo women sailors have always got very good mileage for their sponsors – more so than the men in most cases. And any team that was doing a male entry would have to look long and hard at doing a women’s boat as well – as there are a lot of synergies and competitive advantage in running the two groups together. Plus, of course, once you have multiple women’s teams, you have a race within a race.'
Gladwell doesn’t see a downside to women racing. 'Even if a womens crew finished last on every leg by 10 days, they would still attract huge media attention, particularly ashore. You couldn't say that about a men’s team!'
Adrienne Cahalan - Rolex Sydney to Hobart 2010 press conference at Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, Sydney (AUS) - 23 Nov 2010
To ensure credibility, he continues, entries would need to secure an Olympic medalist or two, or a similar high profile racing sailor. 'Can you imagine what Anna Tunnicliffe would do for a the profile of a Women’s Volvo Ocean Race boat, let alone her racing contribution? There are some high profile, bankable names in womens' sailing, now - going into a Volvo Ocean Race is the next big step.'
With 20 Sydney to Hobart’s under her belt and three circumnavigations, Adrienne Cahalan – former VOR competitor and officially the fastest woman to sail around the world, in 58 days, 9 hours, 32 minutes, 45 seconds – welcomes the return of women to the VOR.
'It’s fantastic! Volvo crews produce fabulous sailors. We have reaped the benefit of women in the VOR and another injection of that will be great for us.'
There is no differentiation between the ambition and the attitude of men and women in ocean racing.
'It’s not gender-specific, the dream to race around the world. Offshore racing appeals to women the same as men for the excitement, the competitiveness, the skills needed. VOR is the peak of racing in our sport.'
Cahalan was the last woman to compete in the VOR, crewing with men onboard Brasil1 in 2005/6, from Rio to Portgual. 'When you get to that level, the standard is very high. Things like sea-sickness and whether you can handle the compact living have all been weeded out. What was hard for me, was the crew all speaking Portuguese.'
As for privation onboard, Cahalan deems it 'part of the job'.
'Sailors are very tidy. We all realise you don’t need much in the way of material things to survive. There’s a level of respect and privacy onboard.'
Cahalan, who has sailed with women and men, says there is no difference between the sexes in terms of enthusiasm, skill and lack of fear. And while competitive spirit, a love of long stretches at sea and camaraderie are also fundamentals, stamina and strength are the most important.
2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, Tamara Echegoyen would have to be an option for continuing Spain’s long involvement with the Volvo Ocean race
'A big boat is a big boat – 70, 65, 60. They are all hard to handle. It’s physically hard and it’s all strength related. Women are no different in terms of skills and ability, but in reality, you could compare a woman to a small man. These days, though, with technology and gear so light and so many improvements, ocean racing is more suited to women.'
Getting the best female team and the best performance out of them 'is a matter of reorganisation', a priority for team management.
Equality a prerequisite
'Richard Brisius is experienced at running teams,' Cahalan observes. 'They will have to make sure they have a proper budget and the freedom to run their program properly. Team management and the sponsor will have to trust the crew to make the right decisions.'
And it can’t be tokenism, she emphasises.
'They will have to treat the women the same, or they will get off on the wrong foot. We all know how much the men get paid, so as well as addressing the gender imbalance of the VOR, they have to make sure they pay properly if they want to attract the best women, all of whom are pro-sailors. They are not in it for the exposure or the novelty.'
Fortunately, there’s a massive talent pool out there for selectors to consider, but Cahalan warns team SCA to 'look beyond medals and names'.
'That’s not to say Olympians won’t be good for the team, but they need to select women with ocean miles and racing experience as the core of the team.'
An ideal skipper, according to Cahalan, would be Samantha Davies, with Miranda Merron a top pick for navigator. 'Then there’s Stacey Jackson, who has 15 or so years of experience. I did the Jules Verne with them in 1998 and can tell you, they would be a great basis for a team.'
Samantha Davies qualifying course - Vendée Globe 2012
For her part, Cahalan certainly feels the pull of the VOR, and while at 47, she still has plenty of years on the water ahead of her, two young daughters – ocean racing sailors of the future – are occupying her time for now.
'It’s not the right time for me,' she admits. 'But I would like to be involved in some capacity, as an adviser or in some role. This is a very exciting step and will promote the sport and the VOR to many more people around the world. It can only be good for women and ocean racing.'
That is the main objective, affirms Richard Brisius: to herald a 'new generation of women in sailing'.
'This is the start of something,' he says proudly. 'It will make the race more interesting to more people. I love this race and I love this sport. If ocean racing is to have a future, it must be inclusive and appeal to a broader range of people. If our entry can lead to a burst of interest, and more entries, I will be so happy.'
The selection process is due to begin, and Brisius hopes to start training after Christmas 2012. 'What the team will look like, I don’t know. It’s a blank sheet of paper for all of us.'
Women in the VOR
The last time an all-female team competed in the race was in 2001-02, when Lisa Charles (now Lisa McDonald) skippered Amer Sports Too. The first all-female team to compete were Maiden, skippered by Tracy Edwards, back in 1989-90.
The full list is as follows:
1989-90 Maiden/Tracy Edwards
1993-94 US Women’s Challenge/Nance Franck, later Heineken/Dawn Riley
1997-98 EF Education/Christine Guilou
2001-02 Amer Sports Too Lisa Charles (now McDonald)
More at www.volvooceanrace.com