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Interview: Phil Harmer on the Volvo Ocean Race

Interview: Phil Harmer on the Volvo Ocean Race

Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

Australian offshore racer Phil Harmer knows a thing or two about the Volvo Ocean Race. He’s competed four times so far and in the last two editions he was on the winning crew. In this candid interview he shares his thoughts on the race that he has now loved, lived and breathed for more than a decade.  

SAIL RACING MAGAZINE: How would you describe what the Volvo Ocean Race means to you?

PHIL HARMER: Let me make one thing clear: I LOVE this race. It’s become a huge part of my life and my family’s lives. Signing on to compete means a lot to me every time and taking part gives you a unique feeling, right from the start day all the way through to the finish. 
Even between races I have great fun reliving experiences from previous editions with young or adult sailors, or perhaps just sitting at home telling my two young sons about it. During the last race my eldest son’s class at school in the UK got really into it. The teachers used the opportunity to follow us as we raced around the world and made it into an interactive learning experience, which I think is a fabulous idea.

SRM: The first time you took part was in the 2005-06 race when you were originally scheduled to sail with ABN AMRO 2 but ended up with Brunel. Tell us about that?

PH: Yes, I had originally been selected as part of the ABN AMRO 2 crew, after an extremely full-on selection process. However, for personal reasons, I made the decision to leave the team. It was a hard choice to make as I really didn’t want to leave because I knew I was giving up a huge opportunity. Happily though, when I visited the VOR stopover in Melbourne, Australia, I met up with the Brunel guys and they asked me to join them for the remainder of the race. I was very grateful for that chance to rejoin – it was my ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card and I grabbed it with both hands and didn’t let go.

Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

SRM: Take us back to that first race – what can you remember about your first VOR experience?

PH: I remember that setting off on the offshore legs was always amazing! The whole atmosphere at the docking out ceremony, saying goodbye to friends and family and then getting ourselves into race mode. It’s always a very busy day and pretty stressful for the sailors, but as soon as that last power boat or helicopter has disappeared it’s just the best feeling. 
In particular, I have a really clear memory of leaving New York at the start of the seventh leg to Portsmouth, UK. It was such a hectic day in New York with so much going on, but I remember the last person I spoke to before getting on the boat was my friend, Hans Horrevoets. I will never forget that moment as tragedy struck only eight days later and he was taken from us when he went overboard in the Atlantic from ABN AMRO 2.

SRM: Inevitably the Volvo Ocean Race has evolved significantly since your first time - what do you see as the most significant positive and negative changes?

PH: Yes, the race has changed in many ways. People and sponsors have ebbed and flowed, but the race is still going and that is the most important thing. One of the biggest changes has been to the race course, something I think the sailors and the race’s fans have both found challenging and frustrating at times. As sailors, we love the Southern Ocean and we miss the traditional course which took the fleet down there for a significant percentage of the race. 

However, we also recognise of course that the newer route which heads north after rounding the Cape of Good Hope is a necessary modification to help attract sponsorship dollars for the race and the competing teams. The cold hard truth is that without heading to up Asia, a lot of sponsors don’t get involved and potentially that could mean there is no race.

Another big change is that team budgets have been drastically reduced, which is great because it makes it a bit more of an even playing field and gives all the teams more of a chance to win, whereas in the editions prior to this we have generally seen the team with the highest budget win.

From a sailors’ point of view, the downside has been a drastic reduction in salaries and also a shortening of contracts of employment. It’s a bitter pill for anyone to swallow to get paid less every month as well as seeing your contract reduced from two years to around 13 or 14 months. Taking on a Volvo Ocean Race is a huge commitment from the sailors and their families and unfortunately this is no longer reflected in the salary.

I know this could just be seen as nitpicking over money, but the danger is that this situation could end up deterring some of the most experienced sailors from doing the race. That would be a real shame as they are essential to the longevity of the race. Without these veterans, people like me would not have been able to cut their teeth and end up doing four races!

One big positive change, I believe, is that the move to identical one-design boats has made the racing extremely close and exciting, which has been great - incredibly stressful and frustrating for the sailors at times, but nonetheless great!

Volvo Ocean Race

Volvo Ocean Race

SRM: Picking up on that point about salaries and contracts, so are the sailors all just in it for the money then?

PH: Are you kidding? There is no way in hell you could do Volvo Ocean Race just for the money. The appeal comes from the adventure of racing across oceans, the lifestyle and the camaraderie of being a part of a sailing team, the unique opportunity to see ocean wildlife in its natural environment, visiting new cities and countries, plus all the other innumerable experiences you have when you take on this incredible challenge. Make no mistake, it’s always a challenge, a personal, family and team challenge.

You need to live with eight other guys - or 10 other girls - in a shoebox for a month. You have to wake up at irregular hours of the day and night, put on wet clothes to go and get freezing cold on deck. You have to cope with the complete spectrum of weather conditions: battle tall waves and strong winds, deal with the frustration of no wind at all, shiver through the Southern Ocean and swelter your way through the Equatorial legs.
And, apart from all that, perhaps most difficult of all, you need to deal with months away from your family and friends with nothing more than minimal contact.

You have to understand, this race is difficult and there’s absolutely no way people do it for the money. 100 per cent it’s for the love of the sport, the adventure, the personal challenge, the personal sacrifice, the personal test, the teamwork and, if you are lucky, the glory of winning!

SRM: If you could whisper in the ear of new Volvo Ocean Race CEO, Mark Turner, what key changes would you suggest he makes?

PH: Giving in to my bias as a sailor, I would push for a more traditional course and I think that is what we will see happen anyway - to some degree at least.

Talking to a lot of supporters and people who watched the last race on the website tracker, I think there is a need to make it more interesting in the middle of the legs. It seems that, because the boats are so close now, none of the teams want to take a chance, so everyone sticks close together. As a result, the fans watch for the first few days, then switch off for 20 days and check back in at the end of the leg.

Personally, to counter this I would love to see the stealth mode option reintroduced, so a boat can hide from position reports for a 12-hour period, say once every 1500 miles or something? Done right, I reckon that would help keep it exciting for the whole leg.

Also, I would do away with the In-Port Race Series. Because all the teams take it so seriously, the racing can get really tight and there is huge potential for damage to the boats or equipment on the day before we leave on an ocean leg. So, I would scrap it but add in another day of Pro Am racing at each stopover, maybe a coastal race, so the city gets a spectacle without the risk to the teams. Perhaps we could have a draw in the Race Village where fans could win a chance to sail with a team on that day?

Generally, I think the Race Villages are great but we should aim to have more interaction between the sailors and the fans of the race who come to visit the stopovers. I think it’s nice for the sailors to get to show our appreciation for people taking time out of their own lives to follow what we do.

Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

SRM: Major projects like the VOR are a full time commitment but they only come around every three years - what happens in between races?

PH: It’s very difficult to come out of a Volvo cycle and stay busy. Naturally, after a nine-month race around the world, you want to have a couple of months off to recover, spend time with family and friends and just be ‘normal’ again. The problem is that the race finishes at a bad time, almost right in the middle of the sailing schedule when most campaigns are already well under way. I have found it’s very difficult to find work for at least six months after. You really rely on friends and your contacts to get you plugged back into the sailing scene and to help you stay busy.

All that said, I was really lucky after the 2014-15 race to quickly get involved with some cool projects such as racing on the 100’ Comanche.

SRM: Compare and contrast your last two race winning campaigns with Franck Cammas’ Groupama sailing team in 2011-12 and Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in the 2014-15 race.

PH: Well, first of all I must say what an incredible experience it has been to be on the winning crew for the last two races! Both Groupama and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing were great projects, both very different approaches and ways of running the campaigns, but both ended up with a win.

Yann Riou/Groupama sailing team

Yann Riou/Groupama sailing team

In reality, I think it’s hard to make a straight comparison as the lead ups to those two races were very, very different. We were on a custom designed and built Volvo Open 70 yacht with Groupama, which meant we had lots of development of the boat and sails to do. In contrast, on the one-design Volvo Ocean 65 with Abu Dhabi, our main job was to learn how to sail the boat as fast as possible.

Looking back, the management styles of the two teams were quite different but I think there are pros and cons for both.

The one notable similarity was that both projects really concentrated on the boat and the sailing to get the best possible result.

SRM: Based on your four-race experience, what do you think it takes to win the Volvo Ocean Race?

PH: For sure a great sailing team is important, but just as crucial is having a solid shore-based team. Volvo Ocean Race teams bring a fairly large group of people together, often from a wide range of backgrounds and experience. To get the most out of a group like that you need people to gel with each other. For sure you need a good mix of personalities, but everyone needs to get on.

It’s not a cheap exercise to run a Volvo Ocean Race team and you need a good budget. You don’t necessarily have to have a huge budget, but you do need to make sure you spend the money in the right way and on the right things. The management team really needs to be on top of things. Theirs is not an easy job but doing the little things right is what really makes a difference.

It doesn’t cost anything to treat people right and look after them properly, that’s for free. It takes some effort, but do it right and it creates an environment where people can to do their job to the best of their ability. I think this is what helps teams stand out from the others. Demonstrating professionalism is what separates you from the rest and enables you to be confident on the shore and on the water. The other teams soon notice that sort of behavior and it is daunting to be up against that sort of approach.

SRM: Will we see you back for the next Volvo Ocean Race?

PH: If all the stars align and there is an opportunity to do that race again with a great team and great people, for sure I would love to do it. The Volvo Ocean Race has been good to me, it’s in my blood now and I feel like I have a strong affinity with it.

Over four races, I’ve met some amazing people, been to some incredible places around the world and made friendships that I’m sure will outlast my involvement with the race. The Volvo is highly addictive and it will be hard to drag me away from it now!

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