Industry » Interviews » Ian Walker on What it Takes to Win the Volvo Ocean Race

Ian Walker on What it Takes to Win the Volvo Ocean Race

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Two times Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker has a simple formula for the winning streak he has been on of late. Of course, the training counts but it’s all about the right food and, even more importantly, the right kit.

Fresh from his triumph as winner of this year’s Volvo Ocean Race, the 45 year old Abu Dhabi skipper revealed his trade secrets as one of the ambassadors and testers of Musto kit at the launch of their 2016 collection at Hayling Island Sailing Club.

‘Two very important areas to get right are food and clothing,’ said the Worcester born sailor. ‘If you don’t put the right fuel in the body it’s not going to perform and if you’re not the right temperature you’re not going to perform.’

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On the latter point, this is where Musto come in. The world leaders in sailing kit provided the HPX, MPX and LPX collections to four teams in the Volvo Ocean including Ian’s Abu Dhabi team and following the race, the company designers fine-tune and tweak according to their feedback. Ian says it’s vital that the kit is as lightweight, durable and ergonomic as possible.

‘I’ve been a professional sailor for 20 years, I know all the clothing brands and I’m friends with many of them,’ says Ian.  ‘What was pleasing for this race was how much interaction we had with the designers at Musto and how we were able to modify the clothing. There are long lead times on fabrics and everything is contingent on the sponsor and branding so it’s much harder in our environment than with a dinghy sailor who doesn’t care what colour his top is, he just wants something changed on it.

‘Musto are leading the way in terms of engineering excellence. The Volvo race has changed, we no longer spend week after week in the Southern Ocean, we spend a lot of time in really hot weather. It’s as important to protect yourself in the hot weather especially when you’re bald like me as it is to stay warm in the Southern Ocean. We’re not cold and wet because the quality of the clothing is so good now. We have it easy compared to teams in the past.

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‘The devil is in the detail. Sailors are broader, they want different cuts, and a bowman wants different protection to a helmsman. If you’re comfortable, you’re going to do a better job and sail faster. It’s a pleasurable experience. The most important garment is the Gore-Tex dry top and smock. I wouldn’t go offshore without it.’

Ian knows what he is talking about. A seasoned professional on the circuit for 20 years, he won silver at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000 and used his experience to coach Shirley Robertson and the Yngling team to gold at Athens in 2004. He also skippered the British bid for the America’s Cup 15 years ago.

Having garnered fifth place during two previous attempts in the Volvo Ocean race, he and his eight-strong team analysed their performance and made changes to their approach. ‘We knew in previous editions we had to have the fastest boat, a really good sail programme as well as good sailors and a strong team,’ he says. 

‘Most of our effort was put into modifying the boat, changing the mast and re-cutting sails. This time around, we couldn’t do any of that. It was one design, we got supplied the sails, supplied the boat, there was nothing else you could do apart from learning to use it and get our boat handling sorted.

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‘After our last attempt, we spent a lot of time analysing what we did well and what we did badly and if we got the chance to do the race again, what areas we would focus on. I started a document called ‘What is going to make us win?’ The temptation is to try and be brilliant at everything but I like to try and analyse what will make us win a race. We focused on better fitness training prior to the race, creating fitter stronger sailors than we had before.

‘I like Dave Brailsford, head of Sky’s cycling team and the GB team, whose mantra is one of marginal gains. You’re never going to get 10% better than other teams at one thing but maybe we can try and get a little bit better at everything.’

Training for the nine month race is arduous to say the least. Iain’s team did 18,000 miles in preparation and 42,000 miles during the 150 day race, which departed Alicante last October and ended in Gothenburg in June. ‘That’s good for Musto if we are testing the new product because that’s a lot of trying it out and taking it on and off.’

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This year, it was a case of third time lucky because everything went to plan. ‘We didn’t have to deviate from the training programme and we had no injuries or accidents,’ reveals Ian. ‘We had a good sponsor and I knew we were definitely going to be in the hunt. This was my second race with that team - I had sailed around the world with four of the guys. I was confident but not arrogant. We won the first leg and led the race all the way through but we had moments of self-doubt.

‘We had won the Artemis Challenge and the Round Britain race and broken the record just before, sailed back across the Atlantic, and we felt we knew the boat well and we were fitter and stronger than we had been. We struggled a bit in the second leg but we were consistent, our whole ethos was ‘Don’t make any big mistakes.’

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Ian admits to a pang of frustration at the way his team won the race, adding: ‘We sort of won it with a leg to spare but because of a technicality, if we had a penalty point we wouldn’t have won. So we didn’t have that eureka moment of overtaking a boat on the last furlong. It still felt great though, it was a relief and a long time coming. The prize-giving was pretty special, my parents and kids were there.’

Family time is top of his agenda now that he is back. Ian says: ‘I spent 50 days here in 18 months. The family come and see me wherever I am and we try not to go more than three or four weeks. The worst period was in China when I spent one day with them in four months. But I have taken the whole summer off to spend with my kids in this harbour. It’s feast or famine.’

Ian hopes that his most recent victory and the rising profile of sailors such as Ben Ainslie will help to make sailing more accessible to youngsters. ‘I am the trustee of a charity called the John Merricks Sailing Trust which was set up in memory of my partner (John died in 1997 in a car crash). That’s what we try and do, make it accessible to kids who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance. We have just done a project in the Docklands and kids also come to us via the sea scouts.

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‘Lots of sailing clubs have boats kids can use. I am also trying to get young Emiratis sailing in the UAE and connect back with the sea. I hope we inspire from the top. Getting sailing into the newspapers and hearing kids say: ‘I want to be like Ben Ainslie or go around the world like Ian Walker’, is the easy bit. The hard bit is having enough clubs, boats, coaching and teaching at the bottom of the pyramid.’

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