Saturday, 20 June 2009

VOR: The Winning Template

Torben Grael. Image copyright Rick Tomlinson/Volvo Ocean Race.

by Riath Al-Samarrai

Torben Grael is reclined on a couch in the Ericsson pavilion, a big smile on his face. He has been repeating the same lines to journalists for over two hours now but he doesn't seem to mind. He is not always like this.

"It's not my favourite part of the job," he says. "It's important. But you have to repeat things maybe five or six times. You know, you can be focused, have things on your mind but you have to go and speak to media. It's a distraction.

"If I am not always in a good mood I apologise for that."

He is not being prickly, just answering a question on how he normally feels about dealing with the press. Today he is in a good mood, just like every day since the mathematics of the leaderboard confirmed he will be holding the Fighting Finish trophy in St Petersburg.

"I feel happy," he continues. "The pressure has gone."

He sits back in his chair, his smile fixed in place. "This is a nice time." He talks about maybe doing just one more Volvo Ocean Race ("I don't want to be like Magnus Olsson and do it every time!"), and is ambiguous about how this win ranks against his five Olympic medals, six world titles and Louis Vuitton Cup triumph ("all achievements are nice, but separate; hard to compare"). He also would like to fill the one notable gap on his incredible CV ("winning the America's Cup would be a fantastic thing"). But the most obvious point from the whole discussion is his calm, peaceful expression.

"I feel good," he repeats. "This has been a good campaign."

Torben is a complex character, difficult to read at times. The team's managing director Richard Brisius, a man who has had a hand in managing two winning projects, talks of "one of the most competitive people I know". And Marcelo Ferreira, his close friend and medal winning partner of nearly 25 years, laughed in Rio when discussing the Brazilian's occasional temper and demands for things to be done right. He also spoke about Torben's dedication to his family and his rarely publicised charity work, but all roads led back to his need for "perfection".

"You can always improve," Torben adds. "This is a good project. It is very satisfying when you take such a big project and it ends well; it makes things worthwhile. That is good, what I like."

The leaderboard makes nice reading for him, with Ericsson 4's five leg wins, two scoring gate wins and two inshore wins helping to make them unassailable.

The reasons why they are in that position are numerous.

To find the cause of Ericsson 4's glory you have to go into the minds, skills and tolerances of the culturally polarised crew; into the workshops and sail lofts; into the passport of Herve LeQuillec; into Joel Rewa-Morgan's gym; through the Ericsson balance sheets and the pile of broken parts collected in Lanzarote before the race began.

It can be neatly summed up by the heading "preparation".

"I think it is probably the most important part of a campaign," Torben says. "Look at Brasil 1 (who he skippered in the last race). We only started sailing two months before the race started. When we started we had never sailed in more than 35 knots: on the first night we had 46 knots. We learnt how to sail the boat during the competition, when we should have learnt about the boat, its limitations and strengths, and the crew before the race."

It's a common thought across the sport. Delta Lloyd skipper Roberto Bermudez thinks that "70%" of winning this race comes down to preparation. There are exceptions that make the rule less solid - Pirates of the Caribbean were last to be launched in 2005-06 yet finished second - but it is generally accepted wisdom that "preparation" is a small abbreviation for a massive topic. And on that score, Torben and his crew have a lot to be thankful for.

Solid finance is a luxury not every team has and Ericsson put more money on the table than any other sponsor and, crucially, they did it sooner. They had announced their two-boat entry in October 2006 (second-placed PUMA would not do the same until May the following year) and so were able to enlist Juan Kouyoumdjian, the designer of the last race's winner, and take first pick from the shore and sailing talent.

More than a year before the race started the team opened their base in Lanzarote and, having bought the all-conquering ABN AMRO ONE yacht and kept the Ericsson boat from the last campaign, started sailing, training and bonding in Autumn 2007. The yacht ultimately sailed by Ericsson 3 was launched in March 2008 (a month and a half before PUMA's il mostro) and Ericsson 4 followed in June, allowing the international crew to make recommendations for their final boat based on first-hand experience, while having an effective barometer of their performance in the new yachts in testing Atlantic conditions.

"We have probably done more yachting on the water than any other team," said Dave Endean, the boat captain. "We learnt a lot from the two boats that we have. Our testing programme in Lanzarote was pretty rigorous; we broke stuff and learnt what they could take and how they could go faster. We had a lot of wind and time and pushed our boats and sails through their paces."

But so did Joel Rewa-Morgan, the team's physiotherapist who spent a year honing the two boats' crews before the race. "We gave a goal to the guys to be between 10% and 12% body fat because we knew they'd be around that mark or less during the race," Rewa-Morgan explained in Rio. "There is no point spending a year training at 16% body fat when you are going to drop to less than 10% in the race. This way their bodies don't suffer wild fluctuations and they can sail harder for longer."

At that time when he was speaking, after leg five, he revealed his team members had each lost an average of two kilos in that stage. A straw poll of other teams indicated five to six kilos was the norm. It doubtless helped enable Torben to so far have the only unchanged crew in this most physically and mentally taxing of events.

The team's logistical operation was also vast. In India shore boss LeQuillec was comfortable while many other teams battled the new stopover environment and its unique challenges. He had found out all he needed to know about the place on four different reconnaissance visits. In context, Telefonica managed one and no one else had been to Cochin at all. "For me it is one of the basic rules of our job: logistics and good planning," LeQuillec said at the time. "It means you can survive and anticipate many of the issues...It all translates onto the water."

Of course, an enormous part of the ability to do that comes down to a level of money which some teams simply cannot contend with. That should not be understated, likewise the enhanced size of their shore operations. But if that set the bar high (Torben claims there was no absolute imperative from the sponsor to win, just a strong desire) Ericsson 4 have cleared it, proving to be more than adept at dealing with crises of their own in the process.

"I have this file on my computer called ‘issues' and there are about 14 big ones," said Brisius. "This race involves a lot of problem management."

They evacuated injured Tony Mutter on the first leg, but then broke the world 24-hour record and won the race into Cape Town. And they successfully defended themselves in a jury hearing in Singapore.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues on that list was John Kostecki. He was appointed skipper in November 2006, but the following August he resigned. Brisius, recalling the search for a replacement, said: "It was important to get a guy who the others respected, who is one of the best in the world. It was a very short list." Torben was appointed, inheriting a crew predominantly made up of New Zealanders. In fact, the only crew members he selected were Horacio Carabelli, Joao Signorini, Jules Salter and Guy Salter, the media crewmember.

Grael says: "It was not ideal. When somebody leaves it creates a lot of uncertainty for everybody. Not good. The first thing I wanted to do was to make as few changes as possible and get the group close together, thinking in the same direction. In the end it was a positive thing, taking skills from the different groups."

"By no means have we all got on all of the time," said Kiwi Stu Bannatyne. "It would be pretty ambitious to expect that."

"We always knew it would be difficult; everyone always says the Kiwi mafia are difficult to get on with," added Endean. "And the South American flavour is a little different to anything we are used to, so we knew it would be difficult, but we were professional. A mix in cultures and ways can be a positive thing because you take the good elements from each. We had a common goal and got on with it."

The net result was a brilliant sailing crew and superb navigation that achieved amazing results despite not having a resounding speed advantage over all rivals in a set condition or point of sail. In fact, six of the nine legs so far have been won by margins of less than 90 minutes. But where other team performances fluctuated, Ericsson 4 were consistent (18 top three spots at 22 scoring opportunities), and they rarely suffered bad damage or bad luck.

"The key to our achievements is a great team and great boats," Brisius said.

Where they possibly did lag, they managed to overcome the challenges.

"We struggled at times in terms of boat performance," Endean added. "We have had weak points. But because our sail programme was so well developed we still had three or four sail cards to play when we got to Boston so we could adapt to any problems, help ourselves go faster in certain areas where we were weaker."

The campaign's intention was, as Brisius said, to "leave no stone unturned, while not spending stupid money".

If they did leave one, it's hard to see where. And Torben's grin and lengthy interviews here in Sweden suggest he is pretty pleased about that.

Volvo Ocean Race

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