Knut Frostad, Volvo Ocean Race CEO, has scheduled a presentation on Saturday, May 16 to outline the future plans and strategy for the 2016-17 edition. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck sat down with Knut to see what he will be sharing…
What do you plan to reveal on Saturday?
We’ll speak about the route and the boats. We’ll speak about our communication plans for the future. We’ll speak about what we have learned from this race and some of the results we have achieved this race. We tried quite a few new things this race, so we had to get a bit of a feedback on how thing have worked. Anything from media to boats to crew numbers to women, men; it’s a lot of different things to talk about. In general, I’ll speak about how advanced we are in the plans for the next race. We are sort of deep into it, which is important that people know this in the sport of sailing, where continuity and sustainability is not very common, so you kind of have to push. It’s important for us to push that story, that we are there.
What have you been most pleased about in this edition?
On a very personal level, this is the first race in a long time that I wish I had been a competitor. I’m a big fan of fair sports. Sailing is always struggling with fairness. There’s a lot of sailing races around the world where you just have a faster boat, or a bigger boat or a better rating. You may just be the unlucky guy that has a less rich owner, and for me that is not really good sport.
That’s why I like the Olympic sailing, because it’s the fairest competition in our sport. And to me this is the fairest offshore race I’ve seen, as long as I can remember, and I like that. It’s pure racing, it’s pure decision making, it’s pure keeping the crew together down in the boat. There’s no discussion about choosing the wrong designer, or not having enough money in the preparation period.
The other aspect for me has been the integrity of the boats, which might have been a bit controversial because there is other offshore racing in the world which is very extreme and going the other way. I think that the Whitbread and the Volvo Ocean Race had its glory days in the ’80s and the ’90s, where all the boats were strong enough, and we would push the Whitbread 60s like crazy and we had a fantastic racing. We all loved it. And then it went completely off-track and boats hardly could finish the race.
I think for an offshore racing event, finishing is pretty crucial. I think you should finish. I think it’s important for this sport of sailing that offshore racing boats are capable of getting from A to B in any conditions, and not balancing on the knife edge that is so fine.
But breakages create a story too.
That is a very good point, but I think there is two kinds of breakages. It’s the breakages that take you out of the competition. And it’s the breakages that you can fix and work with and do things. During the last race, only two boats finished in Brazil without significant damage. There were five sponsors on the damaged boats that were not very happy. And it doesn’t bring our sport forward. Maybe it gets good story right there and then but, as an organizer I have to fix those problems, and I have to go and see those sponsors, and I have to work those issues. Long term, I know it’s important for us that the boats can finish the legs.
Is it more important to have a lot of entries, or fewer entries but that they are all very competitive?
This time it was self-regulating, because we built as many boats – seven – as we had time to build. And we were doing this amid very a very difficult economic period, so we got as far as I think we could possibly get. Looking forward we would love to have a couple more boats, but it is quite challenging in the race like we have today. If we wanted to go back and open the race from the whole scale from Corinthian sailors to professionals, we couldn’t do the race we’re doing today. We would have to have five week stopovers. We would have fewer stopovers… it would be a completely different format as the span between the boats would be significant.
We have tested a little bit on this, and the main drive for us is in how we need to have an audience that’s following the race. And then the question is, do you have a bigger audience because you have 14 teams instead of 8? We don’t think so. We think there is a number where it gets too big. What happens when it gets too big is that the audience stops following every team, and instead they follow just the lead teams. There are examples of this in other sports where people don’t care about the last teams. They’re not interested.
Today in the Volvo Ocean Race, every single team has fans everywhere. Everywhere. Like on Alvimedica, they have fans in Newport, but they have fans in China too. There are people all over that think they are a cool team, and every team has an attraction which isn’t based on their results. So what matters more is the team profile, that it has the nation behind it. That’s always a struggle in the commercial world to have nationalistic teams, but I think that’s very positive. It also helps for teams to have some kind of a profile. Are they young? Are they female? Are they French-Chinese? The team profile helps to bring more fans than the pure number of teams.
Is there interest to have a nationality requirement for teams?
Yes and no. We have discussed it a lot. There are some of the sponsors in the race that want to be quite nationalistic. Brunel wants to be Dutch and Dongfeng wants to be Chinese, but SCA wants to be international. They want to have girls from all over the world and they want to tell a story in each market. This allows SCA to use their American crew in America and use the Swedish crew in Sweden, so I don’t think we will have a nationality rule in the next race. I don’t think so.
What has been learned on engaging the race fans?
The onboard reporter has again had a huge impact. The onboard reporter has a much bigger impact than anything else we do. This is the third time we have done this, and I think this time we made a quantum leaping in quality. The state of pictures and the quality of the content they produce on board has been amazing.
Early in the race we had a strategy that broke some of the rules in how sailing is normally communicated, which worked very well for us with a non-sailing audience, but probably alienated some of the sailing audience who want more technical detail. That’s one of the lessons to apply for the next race in how we need to have two different platforms. We cannot try to speak to everyone through the same channel.
There’s more than 300,000 people active on the app but my guess is that two thirds are non-sailors who are very active people on it. If you put too much technical information on it, we see immediately that they stop using it and focus instead on just the videos. So right now there needs to be a balance but I think for the future it’s almost like you need to focus specifically on these two audiences. You need to have something extreme for the non-sailing audience and then you need to be more technical and detailed for the sailing audience.
What are the factors that result in a successful stopover?
When we select the cities, we don’t know what you’re going to have, but we know what’s going to drive the footfall, and normally all those things are linked together. For example, the commitment of the government is always key. If you don’t have the government behind – whether it’s the city of Newport or the Governor of Rhode Island, if you don’t have that, it’s a bad sign. If the mayor of the city doesn’t show up, then you know that you’re not important, and most likely whoever works on the stopover is going to struggle.
It’s not so much that the Governor is going to pull 6,000 people down there on the dock, but it starts there. In Auckland, the Prime Minister visited the race with us three times … the top person in the country. That gives indications that in New Zealand this is important, and they’re going to make it happen. Auckland is already now working on the next race stopover. They are so into it, and that shows. So when we arrive in 2018 they will have worked on it for three years.
While we certainly love to see huge crowds of people on the rail when the boats arrive, that’s not the only success factor though it’s a very good indicator. I mean if you look at the two – I would say the three most successful stop over’s so far in this race. That’s been Alicante – where we don’t have an arrival though – but Alicante, Brazil, and Auckland. And Brazil probably the biggest in footfall. At least the most packed on the arrivals. I would say that those three stop over’s are great with people on the race but there’s other things that makes them great. And this is kind of a consequence – you know – like it’s the way they would do their marketing. It’s how much effort they make into their planning. It’s when– how early they start working on it. You know?
So Auckland is confirmed?
Yes, Auckland is confirmed as well as Alicante and Cape Town. Then we have to go all the way back to Europe, where we have confirmed Lisbon, Cardiff and Gothenburg. So we’re still looking to confirm stops in North America, South America, China and whether we go to the Middle East.
Are you looking at options beyond Sanya in China?
Logistics for Sanya are tricky to get our equipment to the island, but Sanya is also a tricky venue as there is not the natural footfall there. The marina where we are based, which is a fantastic venue, is not in the city. It’s a significant distance away. We have stopped there now twice, and while we had a lot of guests there in this edition, we probably had a better turnout the first time.
What are the options in China?
There’s quite a few options, certainly more options now than we had three years ago as the infrastructure development of marinas is going the right way. When we went to Qingdao during the 2008-9 race, it was the only marina in the whole of China that could have our boats. Now you have Sanya, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong.
Is there any plans to modify the boats for the next edition?
There is an interest to do that. We have a plan for a refit of the boats in the autumn of 2016, in which we will carry out any changes. I will soon discuss this more in detail as we haven’t yet decided everything we want to do to them. We do have some principals that guides us, and we will stay very true to those principals, and that has to do primarily with costs. People can say what they want about the boats but the reality is that the cost matters a lot, and it matters a lot more to us than it does to the desires of the sailors or designers or boat builders.
Have any of the current teams fully committed for the next race?
Not fully committed. Some are close to that, but not fully committed. We haven’t opened the entry yet but we are working with all of them.
What would be an ideal fleet size?
Between seven and ten teams.
Would you limit the field to no more than ten teams?
It depends on the team. If the 11th team has a nationalistic profile that brings in a new country such as Italy or Russia, than that would matter. Or if the team has an otherwise unique profile, whether it is young or female or a mixed team, then it matters a lot. It matters a lot. But if the team is too similar to a team already committed, then it might be hard to expand the field.
Do you expect for any of the current boats to be for sale?
At this moment, none are for sale. Even for the teams that have leased them, they have a purchase option that goes for a few months. So we will know in a few months’ time on their status, but I am sure some of the boats will be available. It is unusual for all the teams and sponsors to continue, but that’s obviously our objective.
What is the plan for building new boats?
I will discuss this more on Saturday, but building more boats is the most regulating aspect to expand the field. For this edition we took all the financial risk to start the Volvo Ocean 65 production, but we will not continue that responsibility. It doesn’t have meaning for us to do that again the same way because we don’t need fourteen boats. Plus it’s much better for the race that we focus our energy and our risk on the race and not on building boats.
We have learned a lot about the boats and I think it will be a good model to continue, but it wasn’t easy to get it started. To do one design you need a rich uncle that underwrites it. And that’s the only way one design works. The RC44 class was underwritten in the beginning as was the AC45 class used in the AC World Series. Someone needs to pay for the design, the tooling, and to kick start production. Someone needs to take the risks, but the one design format does provide the opportunity to find that rich uncle. No one will fund a fleet of open-type boats, so that’s the massive benefit of the one design format.
Have you been surprised that despite the boat’s being one design, their complexity has led to speed differences within the fleet?
First, one of the biggest challenges that doesn’t get spoken about much is what it took to make these boats identical. What has been accomplished is unprecedented. We did a control measurement in Brazil of the tacking board angles, and they’re all inside one millimeter! You won’t find that on a Laser dinghy. No way. We spent money, time, and resources like no one has done before to make them identical. And because of that, no one talks about boat differences. You know we would be hammered if they found out that the keel was one degree different on a boat, or the mast wasn’t in the right place. We would be absolutely hammered, because it would kill the fleet.
As for the boats themselves, there are so many variables. Their tracking boards, keels, and water tanks, and all the sail combinations and how to use the outriggers. These have all resulted in speed differences. There’s lots of speed differences. In some conditions, the fleet is still struggling to keep up with Dongfeng in how they are able to sail lower downwind angles. No one can figure out, and they have been trying for seven months. Even when they are inside AIS range, and they’re looking at the date, they still can’t figure it out. There are other teams that have an edge in other conditions. It’s been much clearer for everyone when you have a one design fleet, because now they know it is not the boat that is better, but rather the crew.
by Knut Frostad