SCA in the Fastnet
Back in August 2012 the Volvo Ocean Race announced it had received its first entry for the 2014-‘15 edition of the race around the world in the shape of an all-female crew backed by Swedish global hygiene and forest company SCA.
Since then Team SCA have not let the grass grow under their feet, and under the tutelage of team CEO Richard Brisius, the man responsible for the all-male two-boat Ericsson challenge for the 2008-‘09 Volvo Ocean Race, have made huge progress toward being ready when the race sets off from Alicante, Spain, in around 12 months time.
The challenge of identifying and recruiting 11 or more women with the potential to take on the Volvo Ocean Race is no easy task. The pool of experienced female ocean racers with recent experience is neither wide nor deep.
From the deluge of applications they received from female sailors, Brisius’ coaching team, which includes Volvo veterans Brad Jackson, Joao Signorini, and Aksel Magdhal, have so far chosen seven women who will make up the core of the race crew: from the UK, Sam Davies, Annie Lush and Abby Ehler; from Australia, Stacy Jackson, Liz Wardley and Sophie Ciszek; and from the Netherlands Carolijn Brouwer.
Earlier this year a mixed sex Team SCA crew made up of the race crew, aspiring trialists and members of the coaching team, competed in the Fastnet Race aboard their Volvo Open 70 training boat, the ex-PUMA Ocean Racing from the last race, and beat their male rivals from Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing into Plymouth.
At the end of September they took delivery of their race boat—the very first of the new breed of Volvo Ocean 65s to hit the water. After sea trials and testing on the Solent the girls sailed their new boat back to their training base in Lanzarote.
It’s easy to get distracted by the novelty factor of an all-female crew entering the male-dominated domain of the Volvo Ocean Race, but when I visited them in Lanzarote recently, it didn’t take me very long to get that preconception out of my head.
According to Brisius, Team SCA’s exacting selection process and comprehensive training program mirrors almost exactly what he put in place for the Ericsson campaign. “Back then of course we had to allocate time to developing the boats,” he told me. “This time the introduction of a one-design fleet means the focus is all the more on the sailors and their abilities.”
According to Team SCA bow Sophie Ciszek there is a collective acknowledgement within the squad that the sailors will need to know every aspect of the boat before they can class themselves as race ready.
“We are all learning and we all come from different sailing backgrounds,” Ciszek told me. “There is a lot of experience onboard, from Olympic sailing, match racing and offshore sailing. We are all learning together and feeding off the coaches.
“I think with the range of skills and experience we have and the sort of race that the Volvo Ocean Race is, you need as many people as possible to be able to back each other up.
“I almost think it is going make us stronger by the start of the race that we have all been learning together. I might be better at the bow, but somebody else will be better at something else so it’s about us all helping each other. We all realize that we have to know the whole boat and not just your area.
“The more we all know the whole boat, the better it will be for us.”
My tour of the Team SCA base, which is tucked away rather inconspicuously in a corner of the swanky Puerto Calero Marina, didn’t take long. Space was clearly at a premium and every square of inch had been efficiently utilized to house all of the typical elements of a professional sailing team setup: two tents for crew cafeteria and sail repairs, plus several containers housing technical workshops, admin offices, a physio room, and a soon to be completed navigation classroom.
The sailors live in apartments close by and start their days around 6:30 a.m. with a pre-breakfast group gym session, before arriving at the base to start their day for real.
“We normally get down to the base by 9:30 to start on our shore-based jobs like gear maintenance and getting the boat ready to go sailing,” Annie Lush told me. “We are normally off the dock by 10:30.”
Lush was a successful competitive rower at Cambridge University and represented Great Britain in women’s match racing at the London 2012 Olympics. Despite being heavily tipped for a medal she and her crewmates Lucy and Kate MacGregor had a tough regatta and didn’t make the podium.
“Sailing the Volvo boats is an amazing experience,” Lush told me. “The most remarkable thing is the speed. I remember leaving the UK to bring the 70 here and being amazed how quickly we cleared the Solent and were away from land–and actually back then we weren’t going particularly quickly. It makes me wonder now why I spent so long sailing slow boats.”
Interestingly, both for Lush and for Ciszek, it is the fact that they are part of a Volvo Ocean Race team, more than an all-female entry in the race, that matters most to them.
Ciszek, who had carved out an impressive reputation as a bowman on large race boats back in Australia before joining Team SCA as part of the first tranche of sailors, said she had been following the Volvo Ocean Race with her father since she was young and jumped at the chance to be a part of it.
“I kind of put the idea of joining a male team out of my head pretty early on because most people say it wouldn’t happen and suppose the reality is it probably wouldn’t happen,” she said.
”I guess I always had in my head that if there was going to be a chance for me to compete it was going to be if there was a female team.”
Lush confesses that being able to jump into a Volvo Ocean Race campaign had helped her get over her Olympic disappointment. Although her offshore pedigree is far from extensive, she nevertheless maintains that the Volvo Ocean Race has long been a dream ambition for her.
“Chances for a girl to become part of a men’s Volvo team are pretty much non-existent,” Lush said. “I actually think a mixed team, if it ever happened, would be something pretty special.”
Sailing on the new 65 later that day in around 25 knots of breeze I kept a keen lookout for any obvious differences between the SCA women and the all male crews of other Volvo boats I have had the chance to sail with previously. The differences were subtle; less bravado perhaps, an absence of the normal bawdy male humor, a touch more smiling and a little more eye contact between the crew.
Otherwise it was just the same as ever —me clinging on, not really knowing what I’m doing as we crash through the waves, surrounded by a bunch of people whose casual confidence made you believe they must have been born on the ocean.
“Are Team SCA the real deal yet?” I asked Ciszek after sailing.
“Not yet,” she replied with a knowing smile. “But we will be. We all started here however many months ago and we still have a year to go to the start of the race. We will work as hard and as long as it takes to be ready.
“The advantage we have is that it is all new and we are a whole bunch of women and we are probably going to do it a little bit differently to the guys. We are going to do some things slower because we don’t have as much power as the guys. But who knows, maybe we will work better as a team.”
Neither Lush nor Ciszek could be tempted into sharing their individual goals for the race and neither could be talked into commenting on the significance of being the only female crew in the race. Both said their main hope was to be competitive when they finally line up with the rest of the fleet.
“We are being provided with everything we could want and we have got such tremendous support that it would be a shame to go into the race and be way out the back door,” said Ciszek.
“I don’t have goals of winning because I think that is quite unrealistic,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen during the race and we don’t really know the other competition yet.
“I think it would just be really awesome to be amongst the Volvo Ocean Race fleet and feel competitive.”