Volvo Ocean Race: The Aftermath

Sailing’s premier offshore race has some soul-searching to do as it takes steps to ensure its future.

Ken Read on PUMA

Ken Read on PUMA

PUMA Ocean Racing skipper Ken Read contemplates his next move on the racecourse, and the future of the Volvo Ocean Race.Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

Life during 39,000 miles of ocean sailing isn't easy. Yes, I wish we had won the Volvo Ocean Race, so everyone can stop tiptoeing around me when talking about our result. We had our bad breaks, and yes, I've done the math and know the outcome would've been different if our mast had stayed up on Leg 1. But that's sport, and that's why we do it. That's why we play the game. There are never guarantees, and I'm extremely proud of the team, the adventure, and the true grit we showed to get ourselves back into the fight and eventually onto the podium.

These big Volvo Ocean Race programs, including our own PUMA Ocean Racing, powered by BERG, are made of a million parts: sailors, family, shore team, build team, design team, engineers, operations, logistics, sponsors, guests. The list goes on and on. Managing the whole thing is not simple, and in many cases, we certainly learned as we went. The actual sailing, in a way, is the easy part no matter how hard it is.

The Volvo Ocean Race is a spectacular event—the best in sailing—and having been inside it for the past decade, I’ve seen firsthand how much of a viable commercial opportunity the race is for sponsors to peddle their wares and network their businesses around the globe. It’s a true adventure event where sailors push body and mind harder than imaginable. It showcases the cutting edge of offshore sailing to diehard sailors, and hooks complete strangers who—once they’re into it—become true fans.

If you could only look through our eyes at certain times, I guarantee you’d be amazed at what we saw. The media crewmembers try to get you to see it through their lenses, but there’s absolutely nothing like being there, to experience the true height of the waves, the whale breaching next to the boat, and the waterspouts twisting around. When do we allow fear to creep into our brains? Never. I don’t remember being scared, but I do remember quite a few times thinking about the insanity of the moment. The Southern Ocean gained a little more respect in all of our eyes—as if it needed more. The China Sea is and always will be a lousy stretch of water to race across.

Now that our adventure has gone full circle, people often ask me about the future of the race and the decision by its owners to go one-design for the next edition. As I’ve written before, at the outset I really didn’t embrace the one-design idea because development is what the Volvo Ocean Race has always been about. As it is with the America’s Cup, this race takes smart, creative people and forces them to think way outside the box—within the box. It’s no easy feat to create a boat that is blazing fast and capable of withstanding the brutality of an unpredictable ocean. The two demands are always at odds, but ultimately the fastest and most prepared boat usually wins. When there’s variety in the fleet, there are more surprises, and for the hard-core racing fans, the boats themselves can take on a personality of their own.

There’s no denying that an event such as the Volvo Ocean Race continues to face incredible pressure. The goal has to be to keep everyone’s attention from start to finish, which is especially difficult over nine months and so many miles. For better or worse, the race needs drama.

In the last edition, there was a lot of debate about whether the race lost or gained fan base when five of the six boats suffered breakages on a major leg, leaving only one boat to finish without actually stopping to repair along the way. I could make a case either way. On the one hand, when there’s a major emergency, a rabid fan will pay attention because they are genuinely concerned about the team. On the other hand, a new fan may follow along, intrigued by the suspense of boats breaking and limping to shore while others speed off to glory. Lord knows we got a lot of attention when our mast came down and we detoured to Tristan de Cunha.

But the event organizers don’t see it that way. They’re all about the numbers, the competitive participation, and the commercial support that comes along with it. When they have more boats on the racetrack, there’s a guaranteed “race” without fear of losing too many boats on a given leg.

So, here we go, to a one-design 65-footer. There’s no stopping this train. The Volvo Management Group, led by CEO Knut Frostad, believes in the one-design as its salvation because it will reduce the cost of entry and attract more entries. I hope they’re right, but as much as I want to see this race succeed, I strongly believe that event management must do more than simply lower the cost of a campaign. They have to start listening better to the concerns of competitors and sponsors—past and present. This has been a challenge because the event organization is too big and top-heavy. For example, during this past event, there were over twice the number of employees inside the management group than there were sailors in the event. And my experience in big companies is that good communication is often the first thing to break down.

They also can’t sit back on their laurels and hope that more teams will enter by simply making the race less expensive. There is a lot of competition for the best sailors, and sponsorship dollars are scarce. Event management makes it seem as though it is a “privilege” for teams to participate. It has to be the other way around. When a team, or potential team, signs on or simply shows interest, management must go out of their way to listen to their needs, keep them happy, keep them informed, and engage them for the long term.

As I write, I’m thinking about whether I’ve got another Volvo in my future—I certainly learned to “never say never.” I do desperately want the Volvo Ocean Race to survive and thrive like I know it can. I told our team nearly every day that our primary job was to sell sneakers and propellers for our sponsors, and of course, the best way to do that is to win. But at the end of the day, I admit that the sport and the event must win through attracting the best sailors and sponsors, and learning how to say “yes” more often.