Interview: Richard Mason
As a four-time competitor, New Zealander Richard Mason knows a thing or two about the Volvo Ocean Race. Last edition he stayed on land to run the shore side of the all-women Team SCA campaign and now is helping to shape the future direction of the race itself in the role of Operations Director at the race HQ in Alicante, Spain.
SRM: Tell us a bit about your unique relationship with the Volvo Ocean Race.
Richard Mason: It’s a life-long history that started with childhood dreams of competing after watching Peter Blake and the guys going around the world on the Ceramco [in the 1981-82 Whitbread Race].
Sometimes you follow your dreams and I ended up racing in the race.
I sailed in the race four times with varying levels of success and disaster and then got offered a very unique opportunity in the last race.
I was originally going to sail with the guys on Abu Dhabi, but when Magnus [Olsson – Team SCA coach] passed away, they felt they needed to strengthen the management side of the team on shore and on the technical side. So I joined them as shore manager.
That was a fantastic opportunity to be involved in something quite rare in the sport – to put together an all-female team to compete at the top level, in a strictly one design class that would fully expose all your weaknesses and your strengths. It turned out to be a fascinating challenge and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.
Then, at the end of that race, the guys here at Volvo kindly - or stupidly - came and asked me if I would be interested to work for them. So now I’ve ended up as the Operations Director.
SRM: That’s quite a catch-all title, but what does it really mean? What are you responsible for?
Richard Mason: I’ve got to figure out how to deliver this race. Effectively, in my role you’re responsible for the route - where we go leg to leg. There’s a lot of negotiating with the stopover host cities around how we incorporate the sailing side and how the logistical side of things will work. It’s about understanding what we can deliver, managing bump in times, the shipping schedules and lots and lots of other stuff, including the logistics of moving the race staff and all the different assets around the world.
The race is quite a bit different from previous editions. The introduction of one design boats means we can offer a lot more to the teams and often we can share logistical expenses. We really try to integrate the race organisation, the teams and the other stakeholders much more than before. In fact, that’s one of the key objectives of this race - to really have everyone be a part of the Volvo Ocean Race family – as opposed to in the past, when it’s been quite segregated between the teams and Volvo and the various stakeholders. I think we’re having levels of success at this stage, but we’ve got a long way to go and a lot to learn.
SRM: You are still an active sailor but has your transition from the cockpit to the office been a smooth one?
Richard Mason: Well, I think I’m really starting to enjoy it now, but to be honest with you, I was terrified when I took it on. Talk about taking someone out of their comfort zone! My comfort zone is when I’m out on the boats out on the ocean, because that’s what I know and I know how to deal with it. Out there, I know the parameters and I know the risks involved.
Once you immerse yourself in this side of it and take on all logistical and financial responsibilities and start understanding the risks involved with doing this, you quickly realise what a daunting challenge you have taken on.
SRM: As a sailor, do you see yourself as an advocate for the teams within the race organisation?
Richard Mason: Absolutely. I often put my team hat on and say, “No way, you can’t do it like that,” or “Can I suggest that we do it this way?” It’s fair to say that when I was on the team side, as much as I’ve been a massive admirer of the Volvo Ocean Race organization, I possibly did not completely understand the complexities of the decisions that get made while delivering this race.
To deliver a stopover you have to deal with corporate and financial stakeholders, the sailors and sporting associations, local authorities, health and safety, harbour masters, the police, fire departments, liquor licences – the list is endless.
We negotiate on the structures that can go up and what you can and can’t do in public spaces. We have to think about how to integrate global sponsorship with local sponsorship. We have to protect the teams and their stakeholders.
There are so many stakeholders and so many different aspects that go into making a decision. To give you an idea, I was sitting in front of the Vice President of Hong Kong two weeks ago, getting an absolute roasting. Then suddenly I’m in Auckland dealing with mayors and vice mayors.
Those sorts of things go on around this race all the time. When I was in the sailing side of things I would never think for two seconds that this level of diplomacy is going on to deliver the race around the world. It’s a real eye-opener.
SRM: We understand there is a waiting list of stopover host cities. Can you quantify what they get out of the Volvo Ocean Race coming to their neighbourhood?
Richard Mason: From a socioeconomic standpoint, there’s a lot of things about the race that help these cities to sell themselves as a destination for tourism and for commerce.
Then, from a return on investment point of view the numbers stack up very well. Taking Auckland as an example, for every dollar that's invested they got a dollar seventy-five back. That’s purely ROI and doesn’t take into account that our mast manufacturer, Southern Spars, is in located Auckland. They build all the masts, all the side rigging, the spare masts, all the jockey poles, the booms. It’s done more than 60 million New Zealand Dollars of business because of the race.
Aside from the economic impact, the race is a huge and spectacular global sporting event. It’s very impactful. It highlights the cities usage of their waterfronts, which most are developing and looking to reuse.
They can attract the public down there and of course it’s something that people can easily relate to. Yes, it is a skilled and technological sport but everyone can understand the fundamental concept of people racing each other around the world on yachts
SRM: What are your thoughts on the future for the Volvo Ocean Race?
Richard Mason: At the end of the day we have to deliver a good race. That is the backbone of what we do. We are the best crewed sailing event in the world where the sailors push the boats to the limit.
It’s not much good if we go and build a Sherman tank of a boat and sail it around the equator - which is more or less what we did in the last race.
We have to go back to the roots of what we are. Next race there are some epic legs and we’re going back to the Southern Ocean – something that’s really important for the sailors and the fans.
On the media side of the race, people now are used to having access to enormous amounts of information at their fingertips. They look at something for thirty seconds and throw it away.
I think the key media challenge for us in this race is getting the real story off the boat. Having been on the boats during four races, I know there’s great stories out there that are not yet being told.
If we can bring the real stories into people’s living rooms, they will be fascinated. They watch the deadliest catch; fascinated by crab fishermen in the Bering Sea pulling up crab pots over and over and again. Compared to that, the stories of life on board our boats are truly amazing.
At the risk of repeating myself, we are a yacht race around the world, fully crewed, at the extreme. That's what we’ve always and that’s where we have to remain. But we’re in a bit of a corner at the moment. We’ve gone one design. The markets are changing. The appetite is changing.
Looking beyond the next race we’ve got to break out of this corner and we’ve got to put a new boat on the race track.
First we’ve got to define what that racetrack is going to be. Is it one race around the world or do we run one proper Southern Ocean series with an Asian series in between? I’m not too sure. We’ve got it all on the table.
I’m excited about the opportunity to bring the race back to its roots, but also to give it a future. That’s going to be a real challenge, but we can’t just live in the past.