Industry » Features » Richard Mason on the Changes at Volvo Ocean Race

Richard Mason on the Changes at Volvo Ocean Race

VOR Richard Mason

Since the spectacular conclusion of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race in the Hague in June and the announcement of a change of ownership from the Volvo organization to sports management company Atlant Ocean Racing, not much has been heard from the race headquarters in Alicante, Spain.

So it was good to have chief operating officer Richard Mason give an update to the 450 delegates at the Yacht Racing Forum in Lorient, France earlier this week. Over the last 20 years Mason has raced the Volvo Ocean Race four times and been involved twice from onshore.

Here is our breakdown of what he had to say:

On the new name for the race

Yes, there is going to be a name change.

At the moment we have a holding name of the "Fully Crewed Around the World Race". This is just a holding name for the race until we get the new one out.

The most important thing to understand about the name is that it is no longer going to have a commercial name at the front of it. It will be a generic name, so it won’t be known as the Volvo Ocean Race – or any other corporate name race.

We can sell the naming rights to the race if we want to but at the moment we will be steering away from that.

On Volvo’s role going forward

Volvo are very much continuing with us – they are no long the owners, and they are no longer the title sponsors, but the same level of funding is coming through to the next edition of the race and they are already planning their activation as a senior partner – we don’t call them sponsors any more – in the race going forward.

So we have a very strong foundation financially to take the race forward. 

On the new owners

We have two new owners [Richard Brisius, Johan Salen and Jan Litborn] of Atlant Ocean Racing.

They are not particularly new faces in this sport but why are these two guys the right people to be owning the race today? Both Richard and Johan have sailed in the race and run teams in the race. They know what it takes to win the race. And they absolutely have a passion to drive the race into the future.

VOR Justin Chisholm1

On what’s changed after the change of ownership

When Volvo owned this race, we reported to a board and the race was run by representatives from the various companies within the Volvo Group that manufactured buses, cars, trucks, sold finance in Sweden and ran a global business.

These were the people who made up the board which oversaw the direction of the race.

We have had an amazing legacy with Volvo but it was a very different dynamic as to the decision making that ran the race [compared to] now when we have Richard and Johan and they make the decisions as the owners.

On the current challenges the race is facing

Our challenge at the moment as the fully crewed ocean race of the future is how to mold several things together. How do we take diversity, how do we take youth, how do we take the pointy end of technology and bring it back into the race,while trying to protect the close racing and trying to create opportunities for everyone all the way through?

It’s not an easy thing to be doing but we are doing our best to work our way through it.

On the decisions made leading to adopting the IMOCA 60

At the beginning of this last edition of the race all of our teams and the various sailors around the world were complaining that the one-design [Volvo Ocean 65] boats were heavy and they were slow.

[Incidentally] they now hold the [race] monohull record sport they are not slow, they are plenty fast enough, and plenty dangerous enough. But we were faced with a decision to make: What are we going to do with the future of the race?

Under Mark [Turner –ex-CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race] we commissioned most of the top naval architects in the world and we gave them a brief – a clean sheet of paper to design us the ultimate multihull for a fully-crewed round the world race, and design us the ultimate monohull.

We met with all the designers over a period of two days in Switzerland to find out what they had come up with.

The multihull option solved itself in one way in that to build a successful multihull you were talking about 13 or 14 million Euro – just to get the boat built.

So then we are back into monohull world. [In terms of what was proposed] we saw everything – an eighty-foot boat; a seventy-foot boat – and between all the five main design houses they all came back with a monohull that was a light displacement boat that was between 61 and 65 feet. To get to 65 feet they put a false bow on it, but it was all about a light displacement foiling boat.

So we narrowed it down and we chose Guillame Verdier to work with. We got to a point where his ultimate boat was 62 feet long and we challenged him totake the two feet away and try to fit it into the IMOCA rule. That’s how we came up with the Super 60 idea.

The original idea at that point was to build a fleet of one-design boats and run the next edition of the race. That was a 50 million Euro question and we were not really able to raise 50 million Euro to go out and build an entirely new fleet of boats.

But the smart move was to take that opportunity and all that knowledge and look for the chance to merge into the IMOCA world. What that means for us now is a fantastic opportunity for – and this is not going to be straightforward – to try and create some consistency across our disciplines of offshore sailing around the world.

Now it’s a pretty big ask to take a singlehanded boat form the Vendee Globe and ask it to do a fully-crewed race around the world – but we believe it can be done.

We have consulted a lot of the top sailors around the world, as well as the designers and the people who raise the money, and they believe in this as well.

We have got some hurdles to get through and we are working very hard with a good group of people to solve the issues that come top as best we can and have a successful event.

VOR Justin Chisholm2

On the decision to race the VO65s again

We are also going to stick with the 65s. Now the problem we have with that is that we got The Hague in the last edition of the race and had an unbelievable finish that came down to the last half an hour. Everyone though it was amazing. They were saying "we will never see this again in the sport of sailing" - and then we had to start talking about the future.

So we had all the top designers from the IMOCA class over to Holland to discuss this and then we had a meeting with all of our teams and our key stakeholders – and suddenly all the people who had been telling us we needed to make a change from the 65s suddenly said "No, stop, don’t change a thing, this was amazing". 

The 65s by the time they compete in the next race will be close to 10 years old –but they are still in great shape. We see a very key opportunity to bring in youth [and diversity] into that side of it. We are targeting the crew composition in that class to try to encourage the Olympic sailors into ocean racing. So we have put three age brackets into it: Under 26; under 30; (in the world of sailing we seem to think that under 30 is youth, but if you were playing soccer you are close to retirement). We also require three of the crew to be over 30 and in the "experienced" bracket. The idea of that is to have experienced offshore racers who are going to ensure that the racing level is very high and they can impart their knowledge of how to sail in the Southern Ocean.

They can take these Olympic campaigners who are amazing sailors and mold them, guide them and give them the skills they need to sail on the edge but safely in the Southern Ocean. That way the next generation can come through and that’s what it’s all about: creating the next legacy. We have got to find the next generation of Olympic sailors and get them into our side of the sport by creating opportunities for them.

People like the Pete Burling’s [and Blair Tuke’s] of this world, even though they have won the Olympics and the America’s Cup, were completely driven to compete in this event because of what it is, its legacy and what it stands for.

[This race] is all about the performance, commitment and the passion. We still have no prize money in this race although we have had suggestions from some ofthe new teams coming to the race saying why don’t we put a million bucks prize up?

Well number one we would have to find a million Euros, butnumber two from my perspective having been involved in the race for twenty years it would really take something away from the race if we were racing purely for prize money because it’s always been about the honour and prestige of sailing around the world. 

On sustainability

Sustainability-wise I think it would be fair to say that we spearheaded a bit of drive in the world of sailing and sponsorship and sports marketing with what we did in the last edition of the race, and we are certainly aiming to build on that as we take it forward.

Sailing is very uniquely positioned to not only use our communications platforms globally but also to actually do something [practical]. We go to corners of the world and observe things in corners of the world where other people just don’t go – unless they are fishing illegally.

Two of our boats in the last race carried scientific equipment that were sampling for microplastics on the way around the world. We will do that again although that will probably have to be constrained to the 65 class because it will be quite tricky to sample water on a 60 if you are flying.

On diversity in the race

I think our greatest achievement in the last race is that we actually stopped talking about women in the race. They were just there as members of the team.

We were fortunate with the crew numbers in the last edition of the race that we were able to come up with a rule which made sense and weighed things towards taking females [aboard].

We even had the pleasure of watching an all-male crew evolve into having to take female crew. We had female skippers, female navigators, female boat captains.

So we have put this whole diversity thing to bed for a while I think. Back in the days when I first started sailing with people like Adrienne Cahalan, we were all just out there as members of a team.

I feel like we have got ourselves back to a good place but we do have some challenges going forward. We debriefed all the female sailors in the race in the last edition. [We asked them] how did they feel on board, were they just given the shit jobs - the cooking, the sponging – and it wasn’t the case.

Some of the young driven girls were saying "oh I didn’t get to drive that much", but neither did I when I was 27 years old on one of these boats. You have to earn your keep on that [score].

So I think we solved the problem but it is something we have to protect going forward and in the IMOCA class that’s not going to be that easy. I asked all the girls in the race last time and asked them if we had to force a rule in would they be happy with that?

The comeback was "yes, we are happy for you to do that because we understand that if you don’t do it then there will be no females on those boats". And that’s where we have got to with the Notice of Race.

VOR Justin Chisholm3

On the next key steps

We have got a Notice of Race out – which is provisional – which is the conceptual side of where we want to take the race. We will try to finalise that Notice of Race at the Paris Boat Show on the eleventh of December. So there is a heap of work going on in the background at the moment.

We are taking input from all aspects [of the sailing community]. A lot of it is very constructive but it’s not all people saying: "you guys are doing a fantastic job". There are a lot of very good ideas coming in and there are a lot of things forcing us to change the way we are doing it. So we are trying to incorporate that into those documents [– the NOR and Sailing Instructions].

[By then] we will then have the CPA (the commercial participation agreement) – the agreement we have with the teams – available too so we will be open for entries at that point.

On the three key elements of the race

The Notice of Race for us defines what the race is all about and it’s about three key pillars for us:

As an organisation we are very much going back to running a yacht race around the world – and that is our key focus.

We want to focus very much on the Sustainability side of things and build our profile on that.

Finally we want to bring the sporting side of the race all the way back up to where it has been.

On the timing of the name change 

It’s probably been a bit confusing [from the outside] but the situation is that the deal has been done [but] we are known as the Volvo Ocean Race until such a day that we switch over to the new name. That will probably happen at the end of this month [October] or next month [November] – it's just working its way through the Spanish registration as we change companies.

On the prospect of a bright future for the race

In a nutshell, we have a heap of work to do but the future is very bright as we try to merge two worlds together and take a new form of the race that is going to enable us to bring design and innovation back in, and to protect the one-design and really create a platform for youth to come through.

Answering a question about possible changes to the course for the next race

I think from the last race getting back in the Southern Ocean was pretty key. It brought the race back to life – gave it its lifeblood back. When we look towards putting a racecourse together there are two things that go into it.

One is safety. I think we have to be rounding Cape Horn early in March – we can’t be leaving it until into April. And as we look at the areas we are going into we are seeing the weather systems around the world get much more powerful. So we have to be careful on the timing of the boats and where we are sending them.

We want to return the race to its DNA as much as possible and I can say this much –there were thirteen editions [stopovers] in the last race and we are sure as hell not doing that again. We would like to see a smaller number [of stopovers] and in the Notice of Race we have said all the main continents and up to 10 stopovers.

We have started the host city procurement process now, so we are talking to the potential host cities around the world and we will stitch a race course together based around that. 

We hope to have the racecourse announced by June next year.

VOR Justin Chisholm4

On the prospects for The Boatyard shared services facility

Obviously when we get back into a fleet of development boats we can’t be hauling all their sails and dagger boards out next door to one another. So I think at this stage for the Open 60s we will be going back to the old model where you look after your own teams.

We will be providing infrastructure to set up your own team base, and we will be looking to offer as many shared services as we can to the teams, but it will be team driven. So if they want a shared sail loft, or measurement area or some aspects of The Boatyard, we can provide them, but it will be at the teams’ request – we won’t be forcing it on them.

Then when it comes to the 65s we are looking at what is the most effective thing to do. Obviously, one of the greatest things with these boats was the way that they were maintained and how reliable they were in the last edition of the race.

It's hard to say now that yes there will definitely be a Boatyard but that’s a difficult thing to step away from and we need to look at the combinations and how that might work. That’s actually top of the agenda right now  – working out how that might work.

Answering a question of the length of the race

If you read the Notice of Race at the moment you will see it looks enormous, but we have set the maximum parameters to allow ourselves to do what we have to inside that.

We definitely want to get the number of stopovers down and the duration of the race down as well. If we can we want to be finishing the race in mid-June and not at the end of June.

We do have a few critical points: if you are going to go to the east coast of the US you can’t get in there before the first week of May because it’s frozen. That’s if we go up north and we saw what happened [if we go further south] to Miami – nobody’s really that interested.

So there's a couple of parameters there but the intention is to make it as short as possible. But the stopovers will become longer for the 60s to be repaired – there will be more damage for sure – and for little bit more crew [down]time.

Answering a question on which fleets will race for the overall prize

At the moment we have said that the main trophy is for the 60 class, and that we are going to run the 65s as a youth challenge. But we have had quite a lot of strong pushback on that. Not so much on the overall trophy but where we are placing what we are calling the Youth Challenge. So we are looking at ways we may be able to have something that is shared in common between the two. We are working on that with feedback on the preliminary Notice of Race from the IMOCA guys and everyone else.

Answering a question about the number of crew on the IMOCA 60

At the moment we are five plus one – so that’s four males, one female, and an OBR. Or, it’s four females, two males, and an OBR – a little bit cramped. It’s a really tricky one and it is where we are trying to merge the two worlds.

We have come from a world that is fully-crewed so for us in the back of our heads the crew is 10. We are trying to merge into a world where [the crew] is one. So we are trying to find a good middle road which makes sense on those boats.

We think we are there – we have done a lot of work on it and we have asked a lot of people, so that’s where we are sitting at the moment. 


This article first appeared on yacht – a website for fans of professional high-performance yacht racing. Yacht Racing Life is packed with the latest news, plus exclusive feature articles, interviews and profiles. 

* All images courtesy of Volvo Ocean Race

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