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Ian Walker - Musto Ambassador on the Volvo Ocean Race, America's Cup

by Mark Jardine on 23 Jul 2017
Ian Walker Ian Roman / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
We speak to Musto ambassador Ian Walker about his Volvo Ocean Race win, why food and clothing are so important offshore, his views on the America's Cup, his new desk job, sailing for fun, and 20 years of the John Merricks Sailing Trust.

Mark Jardine: After three attempts at the Volvo Ocean Race, what was it like to finally win it?

Ian Walker: Funnily enough, it's a similar feeling to when you win an Olympic medal; a lot of it is just relief. You'd think it would be joy and ecstasy, and all of that. But it's just relief that it's over and everything you have done, the decisions and sacrifices, have all been vindicated, and you can stop worrying about whether you're doing the right thing or not. Maybe I'm just a born worrier!

For us, that moment was when we came into Lorient (France), way before the end of the race, when we had mathematically won. So I think it was relief and satisfaction, and the fact that you're sharing it with a good group of people makes it more worthwhile.

Mark: Do you think the move for the Volvo Ocean Race, going to one-design yachts, was a contributing factor to your win (relying more on sailing skill), and secondly, was this change good for the race itself?

Ian: I think one-design definitely played into my hands. In the two previous campaigns, one was never going to be successful as we were too late and had no money. Ironically we had a really good team then - the likes of Justin Slattery, Damian Foxall, Neal Mcdonald, Ian Moore – we had a great bunch of people. Had that race been one-design, we probably would have done well. In the second race we just made bad design decisions and never recovered from that - we were too slow - but again we had a good group of people. Not as harmonious a team as we had with Green Dragon though. So I think that one-design definitely helped; it prevented mistakes on the design side, shall we say, and basically gave a level playing field.

Whether it's good for the race... I think in the short term there was no choice; there wouldn't have been a race, they wouldn't have got six or seven boats on the water, and I doubt they would have done this time either. So I suspect without one-design the race would no longer exist.

Having said that, in the medium and longer term I don't think it is as successful. There hasn't been the appetite this time round, maybe because it was the same boats. I think it's unfortunate that the pace of development has been so fast – the advent of the foiling Open 60s made the Volvo 65s immediately look very outdated, they weren't as high performance as the Volvo 70s as it was.

I think there are a lot of purists who miss the design side. If you look at the America's Cup for instance, the most talked-about thing in the whole competition was the bikes. This was pretty much the only thing the eye could see that was different between the boats. That wouldn't have happened if the boats were one-design; people would have had nothing to talk about. So it's a difficult balance.

In the America's Cup people have always spent whatever budget they could raise; so they'd spend over a hundred million even if it's largely one-design, but in the Volvo Ocean Race I think it is a bit different; there aren't the private owners and it is hard to raise the money (even with one-design) and with an open rule I'm not sure the appetite is there for the race to exist, even though, deep down, that's what we'd all like to see.

Mark: Talking of the America's Cup, you sat on the fence before going out to Bermuda to take a look at the racing. You had concerns about the designs, the fact that you can't really tell if they're going upwind or downwind. What are your views having watched the racing live?

Ian: I was very open about my 'inner turmoil' of wanting to dislike the new format. Everything deep down as a sailor – who's done two America's Cups – I hated the fact that there weren't more people sailing the boat: they weren't winding winches, there weren't bowmen, there weren't spinnaker hoists and drops, no boat designers, and really no sail-making etc. I didn't like that, and I'm not sure it was good for the sport... but everything I watched I really enjoyed.

I loved watching it on TV, I was always wanting there to be more of it, and it was not just me; my wife and kids were watching it, and non-sailing friends. Although I hear the viewing figures were not that good, it seemed that everyone I spoke to was loving watching it. Then, having been to Bermuda, I thought they did a wonderful job. I thought the atmosphere was great in the Village, I thought the race course was a perfect venue. The only sad thing was that we needed a bit more wind for the finals. If you think it was only 7-10 knots of wind, it was still relatively exciting. I am not a fan of stadium racing generally but was a pretty big convert to the boats and that format for this event. One of the things that was really clever about those boats was the foiling tacks. Normally one of the problems is that as boats get faster and faster, they become punishingly slow to manoeuvre. These boats weren't. Yes you lost out, but it wasn't the end of the race. That's a real challenge: the boats need to be fast as I think we've proved the races need to be no longer than half an hour for television – even some of those races felt pretty long, when one boat was 500m ahead.

So I congratulated Russell (Coutts) when I saw him, and I thought there was a lot of good stuff. The TV was what made it: the graphics, the commentary, the insight. The only difficult thing I think was, on the TV, there just wasn't much to talk about. The commentators really were struggling to talk about anything, because the grinders weren't connected to anything you could see with the eye, and there were no sail changes. Even though there's a lot of team work and they are highly skilled sailors, you can't really see what they're doing.

Mark: Now it's most likely to be 'all change' for the America's Cup after Emirates Team New Zealand's win. If they choose to return to boats that you consider true sailing boats, do you think that's going to be positive if they take some of the aspects of the 35th America's Cup moving forwards?

Ian: The thing they need to take, whatever they do, is all the TV graphics. But first of all I think Larry Ellison may own all the intellectual property for that, and secondly, it's expensive to do. I don't know if that's viable or what deal would be done there, if any. I don't know where Team New Zealand are... I think the principal thing they wish for is a nationality rule, maybe that's the fundamental stumbling block - I suspect the Italians are more traditional than New Zealand when it comes to the boat.

I don't think the previous America's Cup style in Valencia was that exciting on TV. I think the final was very good, but a lot of the other races were all over at the first cross. I think they need to have faster boats, I think it needs to be more sailor-led and sailor-orientated, but how you do that is quite tricky. When the boats get really fast tactics become limited and you don't need traditional spinnakers downwind any more.

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