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Tip & Shaft: MAPRE's Fernandez keen to be in The Ocean Race

by Tip & Shaft 11 Jan 18:04 PST 12 January 2019
Volvo Ocean Race Leg 6 to Auckland, Day 2 on board MAPFRE, Xabi Fernandez setting up the seets of a sail. 08 February © Ugo Fonolla / Volvo Ocean Race

French sailing newsletter and website Tip & Shaft spoke with Xabi Fernandez, skipper of MAPFE in the last Volvo Ocean Race - he is keen to be in the next edition.

Xabi Fernandez sounds determined to be on the start line of The Ocean Race again leading a MAPFRE team. It would be his sixth racing circumnavigation, his successes to date including his two handed IMOCA debut with Iker Martinez on the 2010-11 Barcelona World Race. Now doubtless spurred on by having finished so close to victory on the last race – his first full race in the skipper’s role – Fernández, now 42 years old, is in the early stages of planning for The Ocean Race and is embracing the change to the IMOCA. Right now he is working again with Sir Ben Ainslie, as a member of INEOS Team UK.

Having had time to digest the Volvo Race and move on, how is life now? Was it easy to put the race to bed with no regrets? It has been OK, we did quite a bit of corporate sailing to finish off and then I did a bit of sailing and I joined Ineos Team UK working with them part time, doing all I can with them and trying to be at home as much as possible. I try to help on the technical stuff and work with Iain Jensen as much as possible with my experience in bigger boats. So I am just starting to find my feet there as well. It is flexible that means I will be involved until the nationality rule and be forced to be there full time, but right now the design team is working full on and it is not so busy. Right now I am in Portsmouth ten days a month.

How do you look back at the race?

I think it was a very good race for us. It was pretty painful afterwards to have got so close, to finish how we did. But the organisation and the feedback after the race was super-good for us and we are more than happy. I don’t think we have any specific regrets. We always say we changed nobody on the water or on the shore and we stayed close together. We knew the competition would be very hard and we look at the trouble we had on the Southern Ocean leg but I am sure we were lucky other times. I have tried hard to see all the good things we did, so we did a good preparation before the race. We sailed quite a lot but not too much, the experience on board was good to guide the training and we all enjoyed the race quite a lot. It is not worth dwelling on mistakes, if you did you would not do it. You are looking closely at The Ocean Race then, what do you think of it?

The next race is going to be completely different. It is like going back to the Volvo 70s so trying to raise a big budget, trying to be involved early enough to get the design going early. And I think on the sports side it will be different again. I am starting to think slowly about it, if we have the budget soon we’ll start thinking about people and making a good plan. That is always the key, you have to be perfectly prepared at the start, not 'overprepared' or having sailed too much. We know that the race is so long that you have to start in just the right place. We have been there before. When you do too much before the start, pretty soon you are just looking to get it done, to get it finished. It is so hard to keep the motivation the whole way.

So you expect to be on the start line?

We are working very hard towards that. MAPFRE are very happy with the last edition but we know it will be hard in terms of the negotiations, you need quite a lot of money this time, that is the hardest part of the race, always, finding the money and putting the budget together. But we are all working hard and are pretty sure we can do it, if everything goes OK we should be in the next race.

What do you consider to be a decent budget?

It is hard to know, there are so many ways to do it. But I think it should be over €25 million to do a good race, that is much more than the last team. That will of course be refined depending how much you want to train, what you want to do here and there.

And do you have a strategy in mind, your ideal programme? Would you – like others – try and get an IMOCA to train with before you build?

I think you need to have enough time to design and build a boat and have a good eight, nine or ten months to prepare and train with the boat. Sometimes you can overcomplicate things taking an old boat. The IMOCA class is developing so fast that having an old boat to train with may guide you in the wrong ways. I think here you have to design and build a machine you have trust in, and in the designers. One of the problems with these boats will be reliability, making sure they don’t break. There is a balance to be found in these boats, so having enough time and money to design a good boat, to not be in a rush, having enough time to train and to have time to do a couple of foil sets, and try them properly. I don’t think it is an idea to get crazy and go training with an old boat.

What’s you ideal combination of skills and people, this will be a different mix this time?

There are five people on board, so not many people. You need good drivers, as usual, who are very good trimmers, they need to be allrounders. It is very hard now to see the role for a specialist, proper navigator. I think that will be one of the downsides of this race. There will be no room for specialists and so the overall level will go down. I tell you now, though, that you cannot just have someone there who can run the navigation software, you need someone who really knows the weather and who will not put you in bad situations. We are not there yet with that mix. You would like to have the best drivers, the best trimmers, the best navigators, but we know you can’t. You have to find a balance.

Is IMOCA experience necessary?

I am pretty sure you will just need good sailors, not necessarily established good IMOCA sailors. It is my belief that very good sailors quickly become very good sailors in any boat, given time. Experience helps at the beginning, especially guiding you where to go with the design in the beginning for example, not to do mistakes which have been made before. But when you go you need the very best sailors possible. We had a very good example with Blair (Tuke). You see that with the new young sailors coming to the Volvo who very quickly show how good they are.

You were sceptical at first about the change, now are you getting excited?

I am excited. The changes are always scary in the way of how many boats will be on the start line, and how much money you will need, all these things. It is true that with the one design 65s we changed our minds along the way, we were not happy at the beginning because I, like others, think that development and these things are such a part of sailing and racing as well, it is not just sailing. But the truth is that we had super good racing, they were good on board and it was close and I don’t think we will see it that close again. Anyway it is happening and of course I am excited and I only hope we can have a good enough boat to be in the fight all the way. The only downside of this kind of race is that on Day 1 you can see (if you are slow) that you have a very, very long race ahead of you.

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