Q&A with a top Volvo Race skipper

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A strong favorite in the round-the-world marathon, Mike Sanderson discusses teamwork and twin rudders

A strong favorite in the round-the-world marathon, Mike Sanderson discusses teamwork and twin rudders

Mike Sanderson, skipper of the Volvo 70 ABN AMRO One, already was the odds-on favorite to win the Volvo Ocean Race when his boat reached Baltimore Light in Chesapeake Bay April 17 and won the fifth leg of the around-the-world race.

Sanderson and crew had thus tucked four ocean-leg victories into their sea bags, with only one major ocean leg — the Atlantic crossing to England — to go. (The race’s final two legs are a 1,500-mile passage from Portsmouth to Rotterdam, Netherlands, and a sprint from Rotterdam to Gothenburg, Sweden.)

Their success seemed to prove one cliché — practice makes perfect — and disprove another — money can’t buy happiness. Despite having spent 5,000 miles sailing from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in a boat that makes tent camping seem luxurious — the black carbon fiber of the entire interior gives the sense that you are inside a Michelin radial — Sanderson was politely pleased with the progress of his well-financed team.

Two factors were working in the team’s favor. Sanderson had brought a strong sailing resume to this race, including participation in three America’s Cup campaigns, two Whitbread Round the World Races (predecessor to the Volvo) and a solo trans-Atlantic race in an Open 60. And Sanderson’s Volvo 70 is one of two boats entered by Dutch banking group ABN AMRO. The team started with a white-hulled boat designed to the Volvo 70 Class rule by Argentinean designer Juan Kouyoumdjian. They sailed it for six months, looking for things to improve. Then a second Kouyoumdjian design was launched, this one black, which Sanderson took across the starting line in Spain Nov. 12.

Soundings caught up with the New Zealander on a perfectly cloudless afternoon in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor 10 days before the May 7 start of the sprint from Annapolis, Md., to New York City — which, by the way, he and his crew won. Sanderson, 35, had just finished a team meeting in the top-floor dining room of the Rusty Scupper restaurant and had stepped outside to the open-air tables. Below, zephyrs stirred cats paws on the harbor and faint gusts sent a Volvo Extreme 40 catamaran — part of the in-port entertainment — scooting on one sponson past the water taxis and docked raceboats, a tame scene compared with the life Sanderson has been living and the daunting challenges he has faced offshore.

What separates ABN AMRO from the rest of the fleet? Which factor is most important?

I don’t think there’s any one factor. There’s just so many little bits to it, to any of the campaigns, whether you come in first or last. I think to date we’ve got lots of little bits right, and to date that has turned into some bigger bits. But no, I mean we’ve got a great team. We’ve been given a great opportunity by ABN AMRO to give this a very good shot. That’s the nice part about it.

You started the campaign with a trial boat and moved on to a second. How much of a difference does that make for your team?

Well, I think it makes, you know, it’s a pretty nice feature. I’ve had lots of advantages. We had an advantage by [getting] to experience building one of these boats. We got to experience designing one of these boats. We got most of the experience of sailing one before we had to commit to the boat which we are racing.

The biggest thing we did while we were a one-boat program is we got all our sails and things ready for when we were a two-boat program. We wanted to do a proper two-boat America’s Cup-style testing program. [For example] we had lots of nice versions of sails. What we needed to know was what was fast and what was going to make them be fast. And so the idea was to get as many arrows in our quiver as possible so that we could shoot them all off when we were a two-boat program.

Has anything about the race to this point surprised you?

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised that at times we’ve got a speed edge. I think obviously that’s a very exciting thing to have as you enter any yacht race. That was the whole aim of this program, to try to have a speed edge reaching. We knew we’d be slow in light airs, and luckily we are about as slow as we thought we were going to be in light airs, so that’s probably the only thing. And to be fair we’re quicker than we thought we were going to be compared to the fleet, reaching. Those have been two nice surprises.

You’ve sailed a Whitbread.

Two.

Not as a skipper?

No.

Do you think your Whitbread experience gave you an edge in this race?

You need to have Whitbread experience [to sail the Volvo]. It certainly helps. I think America’s Cup experience certainly helps. You develop technology and things. And then the Open 60 was great to get some ideas for short-handed, because basically you know the Open 60 is very similar, in the fact that you are short-handed, you’re overpowered and, you know, that’s what we are with 10 of us on the Volvo 70, as well. We’re short-handed with a very powerful boat.

What size crew on a Volvo 70 would not be shorthanded?

I think offshore probably 14 would make a pretty big difference and inshore, 17. They’re just as powerful as an America’s Cup boat, and you race them with 17.

Have you learned anything about yourself in this race?

I probably learned more about myself in the single-handed [trans-Atlantic] race I did last year. I probably learned more then, which I think has helped me be a skipper, racing across the Atlantic on my own.

What else have you learned?

Just how important it is getting the right bunch of people involved. I’ve been on some good teams before, and it’s been a known fact for quite a while that these are very much people-oriented events. But you know, really, the trip across the Atlantic on my own I think really helped. I sort of matured as a skipper. And it was a great thing to have been involved in the Open 60 program before being involved in the [Volvo] 70 because ... the closest thing to a Volvo 70 is an Open 60. ... And we developed lots of things which came through to be very useful in the 70, as well.

Which of your sailing experiences most prepared you for this race? Sailing single-handed?

No, because that’s the least of anything I’ve done. I’ve been involved in three America’s Cups, two previous Whitbreads. I don’t think there’s any one particular sailing experience that has helped the most. It’s nice to have had the Whitbread experience if you’re going to skipper a boat in [this] race. It’s nice to have the America’s Cup experience because that’s our game played at the highest technological level, so you really do get to test some weird and wonderful things in the America’s Cup, especially in the larger campaigns. And you become very time conscious in the Cup. You learn to get the most out of a two-boat testing program and things like that, so that sure helps. And then the single-handed in the Open 60 experience was invaluable for the short-handed side, [which] I believe was probably quite underestimated in the Volvo 70s.

Which is more significant in terms of winning the race: Are you basically along for the ride on a very high-tech machine, or do the people make the difference?

Fast sailors make fast boats. There’s no doubt about it. So I mean it’s a very double-pronged thing. Any team is trying to get the right team involved, which can create a fast boat. Winning boats don’t normally come off the drawing board in their entirety. It’s like a race car these days. So much of it has to be the input from the sailing team working with the design team. I mean, I’m not downplaying the importance of Juan Kouyoumdjian, but you know to do a job he needs the input and the feedback once the boat is built, as well.

So you were involved in the design?

Yeah, for sure. Not so in the white boat [ABN AMRO Two], because at that time it was more important to get the team together. But the black boat has very much been our baby.

Are there significant changes that you can talk about?

Yeah, we just went farther down a very similar road. We got another six months of design time. We towed more tank models. We had the benefit of having sailed the white boat before we had to commit to the black boat.

Are the hull shapes identical?

No. The black boat is different, and that is just a benefit of more time in the design phase.

If you had to choose three words to describe the Volvo 70, what would they be?

Power, speed and — my third one is two words — but physically demanding would have to be my third phrase.

Are they predictable?

We’ve made ours less. With the black boat, we paid a handling penalty in extreme downwind conditions for reaching speed. So we knew we were going to make it more of a handful down south by making it reach faster. That’s all to do with how much of the transom is in the water, how prismatic the boat is, and a few other bits and pieces like that.

Do you have personal sailing heroes?

Yeah, for sure. Sir Peter Blake and Grant Dalton [for whom he has crewed] from a team-building aspect and from just the whole ability to get the most out of a group of sailors and people.

Of the six teams and seven boats competing in the Volvo, all but one boat have participated in most of the legs. Of these, the Ericsson team has had the most trouble, resulting in various crew changes. Can you see what’s causing Ericsson’s problems?

No, in all honesty I can’t. A good bunch of guys. I think the boat’s just fine. I can’t see why she would be slower than her sister ships, which at times she quite clearly seems to be.

All but the two ABN AMRO boats are Bruce Farr designs. How would you have done with a Farr boat?

I’ve worked with the Farr office a lot, and the only thing I could say is I’m pretty sure our Farr boat wouldn’t have looked like these ones, because I became a believer in twin rudders pretty quickly from the Open 60 sailing, and as soon as you are comfortable with twin rudders it enables you to build a wider boat, which is a more powerful boat. So I believe our boat wouldn’t have been the same as what we’re seeing on the dock here, just because I became a believer in twin rudders.

None of them has twin rudders?

No. And if you say, Well, I don’t want to have twin rudders, then you’re limited to the beam. Pretty much these boats are all on the maximum beam that you could get away with on one rudder.

Obviously at this point it looks like you’re walking away with the race. Is there any way you might not win it all?

Ah, for sure. I don’t feel it’s in the bag at all. We’ve got to keep the thing in one piece. We’ve got some tricky situations coming up.

If you win the Volvo, what would top that?

At the moment, it’s all 100 percent trying to win the Volvo, so I haven’t really given after this race a whole lot of thought. For me, winning the Volvo race as a skipper has been a dream since I was 5 or 6 years old.