Part Two -- Mark Turner: Taking on the World
Part Two of our interview with new Volvo Ocean Race CEO Mark Turner talking exclusively to Sail Racing Magazine about the challenges he has faced after taking charge of one of sailboat racing’s hallowed brands.
SRM: How did you view the decision of Abu Dhabi, the winners of the last race, not to be a part of the next edition? Did you get any sense of why they wanted out?
MT: Not having Abu Dhabi back was a loss, in that it was a stopover venue, a team and an important amount of revenue into the race. All together that was a big package. They have been a good sponsor and I think being a part of the Volvo Ocean Race worked well for them.
From the relatively limited feedback I have and my understanding of it, I think that probably the conversation was "Well, we won, so how do we do better than that?" You could say that’s more of sporting question, but it does relate to the purpose. You need to have a strong purpose, a strong reason for being there and the question of how to follow on the back of a win was a hard one to answer.
I think the important thing is that it was a very successful campaign over six or seven years on both the event/stopover side and the team side. That’s quite a long time in sports sponsorship terms. From what I understand, everyone was genuinely happy so there’s nothing for anyone to be negative about in that respect.
SRM: The upside of Abu Dhabi’s exit is that you have been able to create a racecourse for the next race that keeps the fleet in the Southern Ocean for much longer.
MT: That’s been fantastic. When I did the race in 89, because of apartheid at the time, there was no Cape Town stop, so Leg 2 was from Uruguay to Australia. I don't think there has ever been another Southern Ocean leg like that since.
We couldn't quite go that far - because we're very happy to be going to Cape Town - but to be able to go back to the race’s roots, while keeping the commercial balance is very satisfying.
We haven't had to sacrifice on the commercial value or the markets we are visiting. In fact, if anything, we've strengthened the commercial side, because now we are adding Hong Kong in as a hub in south east Asia and maintaining the link with mainland China.
Plus, we're going to some different markets in Europe. The race is going back to the UK - where it hasn't been for what I think will be 12 years.
Then, from a sporting point of view, there are three times as many Southern Ocean miles. We've got two legs in the Southern Ocean - the ocean where the legends are created. That’s where the likes of Paul Cayard have been frightened and written the most amazing content.
The Southern Ocean is the heart of this race but that heart has been put aside for quite a few years now and sailing fans will claim that it’s because they feel the race has too much commercial focus. Now, I think we have found a beautiful sweet spot in that we have taken the race back closer to its roots from a sporting perspective and at the same time the commercial focus is better than ever.
We've still got to decide what we do, in terms of limits and ice and everything else, but we're probably going for a bit of freer approach than has been in the past. We want to be as close to our roots as we can in that respect.
There are probably a few sailors a bit more scared than they might have been before, but that's part of it. We were all scared before, so I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be now. I think it’s healthy to be honest.
SRM: Any other changes planned that you can tell us about?
MT: We will beef up the youth rule a little bit. [Currently two under-30 sailors are mandated.] I don’t have a number yet but I think we will drive the age limit down a little bit more. There are plenty of talented sailors there. The Artemis Offshore Academy's been pumping out some very talented, single handed sailors who are very capable to go offshore at age 22 to 24.
We don’t currently have an all-female team confirmed but even if we don’t get that I’m determined the next race will not be all male.
SRM: What would you say to the fans who complained the boats were too safe and there wasn’t enough breakage or drama? Might the new course mean more drama and damage?
MT: From Dongfeng’s perspective, I can assure you we had more breakage than I would have liked, so you're probably asking the wrong person that question. The boats are well proven now, but for sure they'll be broken in some way. I don't think we can ever get away from breakages.
I think it's the right approach to try to design, build and manage a fleet of boats so that they should all go all the way around the world and all complete every leg. Things will happen that are sometimes in your control, sometimes out of your control. I don't think we've made the boats too safe or anything like that.
For me, we don't need the boats to break to have drama, but I’m sure we will have some boats break and who knows what else we'll have? That's part of ocean racing. Would I wish for more fragile boats? No, absolutely not. I can't see the interest in that at all.
Actually I think there's plenty of drama that happens that we don't hear about and that's probably a bigger aim for me. That's a hard nut to crack in this race, compared with things like the Vendee Globe and single handed sailing.
SRM: That brings us nicely on to the role of the OBR. What changes are you making in that area?
MT: We need to get more of the emotion off the boat. Technology now makes it a lot easier to get raw content straight from the boat. That doesn’t mean we are abandoning the OBRs, but it's important to understand that it’s not all about the OBRs.
The OBRs are not the heroes, they're reporters. They will rotate in the next race. They will not belong to a team and we will employ them and try to put them on the right boat, in the right way. That's quite a big change, one that some of the teams might struggle with a little bit, but it's about getting the content off the boat, not about being mates.
The mission is to tell as much of the real story about what actually happens on the boats as possible. That’s going to take technology, rules, culture, education. Also, improving relationships with the teams - and we are trying to approach that in a much more proactive, positive way very early on in this race cycle.
There's only one story to tell for the Volvo Ocean Race and it's the teams’ story. There isn't a Volvo Ocean Race story, it's a collection of teams and I don't think that culture has necessarily been understood or agreed on or worked on in the past as much as it needs to be. That's probably one of the most important changes I’m trying to drive.
SRM: You only have to glance at the level of engagement the race’s Facebook page engenders from its 1.2 million followers to understand the passion of the Volvo Ocean Race fan base. Do you feel a weight of responsibility to those fans?
MT: Absolutely. It's an enormous responsibility because of the incredible depth of engagement the fans have with the race. That's from random people all over the world, through to a lot of CEOs of big businesses who are just completely absorbed by the race.
That's got incredible value. Maybe the Vendee Globe has that sort of attraction in France, but I don't think anything else in the sport has that on such a global level.
You have people who just can't wait for the next edition. It'd be good to grow that number in the places that work for the people that are fundamentally paying for it - the team sponsors and the event sponsors. Grow the number and lengthen that engagement - that's definitely our objective.
SRM: You are quite an implacable character but I get the feeling you are excited by the challenge you have taken on?
MT: Yeah, I am.
It is probably the only other thing I would have done in this sport. Just to have this starting point of the scale and the brand and the story and everything else is quite unique.
There's so much value in the history and the legends created from this race and as you'll have seen already, we're not going to drop that. It's not a passing phase, talking about the past. You'll see “Since 1973” on the backs of videos, to reinforce the great pedigree and a great history of the race.
We need to make sure we keep revisiting those incredible stories from the past. They are what created the legends and they are the reason why sailors want to do this race. It’s a very tough race just to complete and with zero prize money – that is something that’s truly unusual in professional sport. Our sailors have grown up hearing the stories and they want to be a part of this race, whatever it takes.