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Isler is Cool Under Pressure

June 7, 2002

It took a lot of smooth talking on the part of Team News Corp head Ross Field to spring tactician Peter Isler from his duties with Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes America’s Cup campaign. Isler arrived in Gothenburg yesterday to prepare for the Volvo Ocean Race’s final leg. His job: get News Corp to the podium. I caught him at the nav station this morning getting a Leg 9 crash course from watch captain Matthew Humphries.

Sailing World: When you saw the three-way tie between News Corp, Tyco, and Amer Sports One after the leg from La Rochelle did you get the feeling it was only a matter of time before you’d get the call?

Peter Isler: Oh, yeah. Once the race was over I calculated the points and knew I’d be here. I’m so psyched for these guys. I’m emotionally invested in the team and know they’ve had a lot of bad luck, more than their fair share.

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SW: The trend lines that everyone’s talking about here in Gothenburg shows this team as simply average. What’s the real story?

PI: That’s just it–it’s the law of averages. It’s a good solid crew with a lot of experience, and tactically they’ve never been way out there, so it’s really just the law of averages. It’s just a couple of dice rolls that didn’t go the right way.

SW: They’ve had a lot of crew coming on and off the boat–yourself included–when you get back on, does it take a day or two to get back into sync with the program?

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PI: Yes, but the good thing is that I’ve already done thousands of miles on the boat. It won’t be a big transition for me. The challenge for anyone coming in is to make sure you don’t change the game onboard. Sometimes when I get on a PHRF boat for a night race or something, it seems the world stops and waits for me to say something. Everyone on this team contributes and one individual is not going to change all that. The key is to make sure that everyone is performing at their own top level and look at the new people as an augmentation. With a race like this, it’s good to bring in someone fresh every once in a while.

SW: But with this leg you’re sailing with fewer crew (10), and rotating some jobs. One little boathandling screw up could cost you the race, so how do you make sure that doesn’t happen?

PI: Luckily, there isn’t going to be any Southern Ocean-style spinnaker changes. Because we’re going light we will have people in slightly different positions, but after sailing around the world, everyone knows what’s going on in the key positions.

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SW: OK, let’s talk about your job: there’s as many as 40 different marks of the course spread across 250 miles, plus all the other stuff: current, rocks, sandbars, traffic separation zones; how do you balance boat-on-boat tactics with an ever-changing strategy?

PI: Leaving here, we have to have the big picture and predict what’s likely to happen right off the starting line. It looks as if there will be some parking lots and big opportunities to move. In general, this race can be broken down into several legs, and when there’s lots of legs, you have to think three turns ahead. That’s really the key–thinking ahead enough in your mind so you’re prepared for any sail changes or preparing the crew for special maneuvers and the tactics involved. The other side of that is to not clutter your brain with too much stuff.

SW: How about the start; how aggressive will everyone be?

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PI: My last experience with a Volvo start was in Sydney. It was a zoo with all the hype of the Hobart Race, the spectator fleet, and helicopters. I get the feeling it will be like that here, too. There’s so many distractions and it adds to the pressure and the lack of communication on deck. Also, the starting penalty for being early is much greater than a normal start. If they don’t let you go back to restart you have the 10-minute-plus penalty, so I don’t think you’ll see these guys pushing the line.

SW: So that said, is your hope to get off the line clean and not engage with the other guys?

PI: No, it’s a sailboat race so you have to go for it. Just like any other race, you don’t push yourself into a disaster situation, but at the same time you have to hit the line running. You have to go for the 80 percentile spot or better.

SW: How do you deal with the current right away?

PI: With the new moon, there will be quite a bit of flow for sure, and that will be a factor as well. The maneuvers take a while, and every jibe is costly. It looks as though we’ll be jibing out of here, so we have to carefully pick our lanes. In boat-to-boat racing you could win the start at the favored end and have another boat to leeward of you, but when you jibe, they can roll you. So winning the start is not necessarily winning the start when you’re in a confined space and have a forced jibe coming up.

SW: So are ready for 24 hours of full on, no-sleep racing?

PI: Oh yeah. The good thing about racing here is that it’s only dark for a few hours, so after the 4 to 6 a.m. dark period you get a second wind.

SW: How about the pressure of being brought in to ensure this team a podium finish?

PI: The pressure is good because I haven’t really been doing much racing lately…just match racing and training on America’s Cup boats, so I’ll look at this as a check in to see my own ability to deal with a high-pressure situation. Based on that theory, I’ll treat it as regular sailboat race and keep calm.

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