Twenty years ago I was part of it, now I’m just a spectator. Then, I crossed the ocean on a fast, sleek, and very wet boat nicknamed “The Russian Submarine.” Now, in an armchair next to a fireplace, I watch the 2008-2009 Volvo Ocean Race live on my laptop, looking on as a powerful racing yacht hits a 25-foot wall of water at speeds approaching 40 knots. We thought our ride was wet, but apparently we didn’t know what “wet” means. Then, it was spray rushing across the deck with the speed and power of a fire hydrant. Now, I feel miserable just watching these guys, strapped to the boat flying through the water, totally submerged at times. How could anyone survive this day in and day out?
Mercifully, even the toughest leg at sea eventually comes to an end. In sharp contrast to the fury the ocean unleashed on sailors throughout much of Leg 1, a bright, sunny morning greeted first-place Ericsson 4 at the finish line in Cape Town, South Africa, earlier this month. I had to wait another 31 hours until Team Russia, the boat I’ve been rooting for, sailed in to the harbor. Team Russia was sixth to finish; the only two boats it beat had been handicapped by damages.
I may have been more disappointed than the guys on the Russian team. After all, they had something to celebrate– a lot actually– a safe arrival after an extremely difficult leg of the most challenging sailboat race in the world. I guess I had hoped they would do much better– at least better than my team did two decades ago.
In 1989, back when the event was called the Whitbread Round the World Race, I led Fazisi, first-ever Soviet team to undertake the challenge. Much more than the names of the race and the country have changed in the last two decades. Fazisi was launched at the very beginning of Gorbachev’s tumultuous times, when my old country was plunging deeper and deeper into chaos. Our venture was full of struggle, drama, even tragedy. We surprised many by finishing the Leg 1 in sixth place. Unlike Team Russia, which is racing against seven other teams, Fazisi battled a 23-boat fleet.
Team Russia’s entry into the Volvo Ocean Race comes at a time when Russia has reemerged as a superpower, ambitious, full of national pride, and very rich. Russia is the largest country (in area) in the world and has huge oil reserves. The country has been hit by the global economic crisis, but it should fare better than most.
With this new, wealthy Russia launching a second entry into the world’s premiere ocean-racing event, I can’t help but notice the juxtaposition between the campaigns of Team Russia and Fazisi. Twenty years ago, the penniless Fazisi team represented a nation falling apart. Today’s Russian entry basks in money and employs the best talent in a legitimate effort to win the race. We were the underdogs; they seem to be closer to the level of their competition.
“It’s all relative,” say Michael Woods, director of Team Russia. “Yes, we are fully funded and ready to go. Still, our budget is less than half that of the Ericsson and Telefonica teams. Campaigning two boats each, they definitely have a competitive edge. So, in a way, we are still the underdogs.”
True, it’s never easy in the high-pressure environment ocean racing, and the Russian campaign will certainly see its fair share of pitfalls, both on the high seas and ashore. At least they don’t have to face the main hurdle that beset my challenge from the very beginning– lack of money.
For the 1989-1990 Whitbread, the average syndicate’s budget was about $5 million. Puny by today’s standards. Team Russia’s backer, Oleg Zherebtsov, has reportedly put well over $20 million into the project. Starting the Fazisi campaign, my financial aspirations were lower, way lower. Economic turmoil in the Soviet Union presented us with a real adventure. Prices in the country were low and kept falling, enabling us to launch our campaign for just a fraction of the others’ costs. Initially, I developed two budget numbers, a minimal and an optimal. The minimal was well below $1 million, just enough to built and outfit the boat, buy a few sails and basic deck hardware. The optimal budget counted on large corporate sponsorship and would included full sail inventory, an onboard navigational computer, and a spare mast on standby. I also wanted to establish some bonus pay for the crew, especially if they performed well in the race. We had heard about professional sailors in the West who earned astronomical fees. Wouldn’t it be great for our crew to become rich and famous after we won the race? My dream budget was $3 million.
I found initial sponsorship from Fazis SP, one of the Soviet Union’s first quasi-private enterprises born by Perestroika. Their sponsorship commitment included boat construction and management. All that could be paid for in cheap Russian rubles, but to outfit the yacht with hardware, rigging, and electronics, we needed hard currency. And to find a sponsor with hard-currency pockets, we had to look to the West.
Our first major sponsorship meeting took place at the British-Soviet Chamber of Commerce. I held high hopes for it, as it was our chance to reach British companies already familiar with the Whitbread and ocean racing in general. British Airways had sponsored offshore boats before, and British Oxygen Corporation was the title sponsor for a major singlehanded event. And then there was Richard Branson, the accomplished– and very rich– adventurer, balloonist, and sailor. Wouldn’t it be terrific to get him involved? Maybe he could even join our crew?
Walking into the elevator at the Chamber of Commerce, Fazis SP director Alexander Manenko asked, “Could you tell me roughly how much money we need?”
“I’ve prepared two detailed budgets,” I said, “The smaller one…”
“What’s the bigger one?” asked Manenko.
“Three million,” I said.
“That’s all? I’ll tell them five,” said Manenko as we left the elevator.
Toward the end of the meeting, after we had presented the benefits of our project and enjoyed a few coffees and brandies– customary for business gatherings in Moscow– one of our hosts asked the main question: “Gentlemen, would you tell us please the amount of sponsorship you are looking for?”
“$7 million,” said Manenko without hesitation.
“U.S. dollars, I reckon?” said the host.
Manenko took a few seconds to mentally calculate currency exchange. “Pounds sterling, of course,” he said.
We were dirt poor, but we were learning to think big. The most prominent figure among foreign businessmen in Russia at the time was Ted Turner, who had just opened the CNN Moscow bureau and was spending plenty of time in the Russian capital trying to jump-start the Goodwill Games, the grand scheme he conceived with Soviet sport officials as alternative to the Olympics. Because Turner had won the 1977 America’s Cup, he naturally made my short list of potential sponsors. With great difficulty I managed to receive an invitation to a lavish banquet where Big Ted was the guest of honor. True to Russian tradition, vodka flowed freely with toasts to international cooperation, the spirit of friendship and sportsmanship, and so on. It was well after midnight when I got my chance to speak to Turner. He was having trouble standing upright, lurching from side to side as if trying to keep his balance on a wildly gyrating deck. Grabbing an imaginary steering wheel with his hands, he spoke to my greatest delight.
“I’m very interested,” he said. “I’d like to sail a couple of legs on your boat.”
He handed me his business card and invited me to meet the next morning to discuss details. That night, as I rode the last subway train to my apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, I wasn’t really there at all. I was levitating somewhere close to heaven– or somewhere in the Southern Ocean, racing the boat of my dreams. I barely slept. The next morning abruptly brought me back down to earth. When I knocked on the door of Turner’s room in the Continental hotel, the tycoon answered it himself. He looked all business, freshly shaven and smartly dressed in a three-piece suit. But the look on his face indicated that he was suffering a torturous hangover. The excitement of the previous night was gone, and there was very little talk about boats and racing. Instead, he spoke of financial problems and losses associated with the Goodwill Games.
“At this point I cannot commit money to any project,” Turner concluded. “Sorry, and good luck.”
From that day on our campaign became an endless roller coaster ride with incredible ups and downs. We escaped the perils of civil war in Georgia with our unfinished boat riding in the belly of the world’s biggest transport airplane. Working around the clock at the boatyard in Hamble, England, the Fazisi crew performed a miracle, completing construction and launching the boat just a few days before the race began. We anticipated a glorious start with the wind in our sails. After all, we had landed a big-name sponsorship from Pepsi and were ready to show the world what we could do with such backing. On top of that, Skip Novak, a Whitbread veteran from the United States, joined our team.
When the magnificent yacht named Fazisi-PEPSI charged across the starting line with Soviet and American flags waving proudly, only a few insiders knew that the team was totally broke. Anticipating a backlash in America for its support of the Soviets, Pepsi’s corporate executives chose not to continue the sponsorship.
We never gave up. God knows how, but we were ultimately able to not only finish the race, but finish ahead of the majority of our more experienced and better funded competition.
I attended the start of the 2008-2009 Volvo Ocean Race in Alicante, Spain. For three days before the start, a heavy storm battered Alicante. Outside the breakwater, huge waves crashed with a thundering sound and the wind howled menacingly, bending tall palm trees halfway to the ground. An even more dangerous maelstrom is unfolding as global markets plummet. Just as the physical storm tore apart the biggest spinnaker on the Russian boat on the first night out and forced Telefonica Blue to stop in Gibraltar for repairs, the financial tempest could have more disasterous implications. Big League sailing survives on corporate advertising; if the global recession lasts, we could be witnessing the last great sailing event for years to come. As VOR communications director Markus Hutchinson put it, “I get a sense we are all kind of enjoying ourselves while Rome burns.”
All the more reason to enjoy it while it lasts. I watched the start aboard Oleg Zherebtsov’s Volvo 60 Nova. By the time we left the dock, the wind had diminished to 25 knots but steep seas outside remained seven feet and higher, making the ride bumpy and wet. But the spectacle was worth it. The awesome racing machines were flying in clouds of spray just yards in front of us, jostling for position. The gun fired, and the fleet of eight surged across the line with only inches separating one boat from another. Almost breathless, my heart pounding, I felt as if I was back aboard Fazisi.
I watched the fleet battle its way to the weather mark, round it, and speed back under huge spinnakers. One more time they flew by, sharp bows cutting waves into a myriad of sparkling diamonds, and soon disappeared beyond the horizon toward the distant finish in St. Petersburg, Russia, some 39,000 nautical miles and nine month away.
I was amazed when, on October 29, Ericsson 4 sailed 603 nautical miles in 24 hours, becoming the first monohull ever to break the 600-mile barrier. In 1989, Fazisi, one of the fastest boats in the fleet, scored the second longest one-day run by traveling 386 miles. At the time, it seemed like a great feat and some sailors believed it was close to the limit of how fast a monohull can sail. If it only took 20 years of technical advances to improve on our performance by more than fifty percent, is there any limit after all?
Team Russia has room for improvement after Leg 1, but the race is still young. The team will have many chances to prove itself. I will follow its progress with much anticipation, some nostalgia, and perhaps a hint of envy. Despite early disappointment, Team Russia is in a much better position to compete than Fazisi was. Even if the Russians don’t win the race, they might take a leg or two. I hope their journey will be less hectic than ours– just a fast, safe jaunt around the world. Best luck, guys!