On Wednesday 6 December 2017 I was privileged enough to sail on the Volvo Ocean Race entrant, Sun Hung Kai Scallywag in the shake down practice race after esential maintenance.
At the helm was Australian Skipper, David ‘Witty’ Witt – a veteran of more than 20 Sydney Hobart races and skipper of the 100 foot Superyacht, Scallywag.
Witt was introduced to the Volvo over 20 years ago and this larger than life Aussie bloke has an obsession around team work and a disdain for the rock stars. In this day and age that places him fairly in the crosshairs of more ‘PC types’. He has assembled a team of mates that he has shared sailing experiences with on Scallywag and his thinking is centred around the fact that sailors need to get on – especially if the race is an 8 month around the world trip. They need to know and instinctively trust each other as one small mistake, especially in the Southern Ocean, could mean certain death.
On the practise race David was, how can we put it delicately, reticent and quiet, a little bit suspicious of the attendant media – all as a result of a certain incident on Leg 2 involving some high jinks as he and navigator Steve Hayles asked some hilarious and slightly risque questions of the only female crew member, Annemieki Bes. Bes is an Olympic Silver medallist in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a 3 time Olypic sailor.
When Witt mentioned that he sailed a 18 foot Skiff for fun, the penny dropped – he was at the helm of an 18 foot skiff many years ago in an impossibly strong breeze and, despite leading the fleet by a country mile, elected not play the safe win but to hoist the spinnaker time and time again to win in a thrilling race that is a pure classic display of seat of your pants sailing and an absolute joy to watch.
Quite a change from sailing a 65 foot Carbon Fibre Monohull around the world but an indication of pure sailing skill nontheless.
But, now does the VOR65 stack up against all the claims of it being a Formula One racer?
One thing is for sure – the yacht is abolutely fit for purpose: Pipe cots, Carbon Fibre, all controls effortlessly fall to hand, the pit man can see at a glance what is going on, fine rudder control at your fingertips, more electronic monitoring than you can shake a stick at, roller furling jibs make the bowman’s job slightly safer and quicker. There is no room for luxuries, two burners to prepare freeze dried food and the only (sort-of) private section is a carbon fibre gimballing heads. The Skipper, Navigator and On Board Reporter have probably the most stretch out space in front of their instruments down below than anyone else.
How does it sail?
Stiff was the first word that comes to mind – having sailed on a few yachts built for speed the VOR65 is definitely much stiffer and feels… ‘safer’ than the few racing yachts I have sailed on. In fact it feels as though it could sail one more around the world campaign before the signs of falling apart do occur.
During my time at the helm Witt was at pains to point out that the VOR65 does pick up her skirts and go when off the wind on a reach – in fact he did seem a bit nervous that the rookie at the helm would panic and ‘cock that point of sail up’ so we stuck to more pedestrian sailing into the wind.
The thought then is have the yachts been built more with safety and longevity in mind rather than outright seat of your pants speed? Not having spent enough time on the VOR65 my conclusion is that the designers have engineered a satisfactory compromise between the three: safety, longevity and speed.
Of course – short course yachts – like in the America’s Cup – can ‘afford’ to really push the envelope in terms of speed as they do not descend into the Southern Ocean, but sailing around the world demands more sober minds with more than a nod to safety.
Maybe the advice here would be to the organisers to rather focus on the marathon aspects of the race in contrast to any emphasis on speed. After all, one does not expect a Formula One motor car to perform optimally on say, the gravel roads of South Africa so, it is rather unfair to expect a round the world yacht to compete on equal footing with an AC Foiling Catamaran.
With only two sets of sails to get each yacht around the world they also have to be woven for strength and longevity which inevitably leads to decisions being made that err on the side of caution. For example the debate ahead of the start of the Practise Race centered around whether the J1 or J2 should be the jib of choice. In an out and out around the cans short course race the decision would have been obvious – J1 and balls to the wall. But, with many more miles to go the nod went to the J2 sail.
Of course the uneasy feeling is that the speed is compromised as the VOR65’s traverse the world and one wonders just how much of that is because of sponsors and the hunger for as much exposure as possible on their part?
At the end of the day, one instinctively knows whether a yacht is safe or not from almost the first time you hoist the sails and, yes, the VOR65 feels safe and stiff. Inevitably the question will be asked though; “Is stiff and safe compromising adventure and excitement?”
My grateful thanks to David Witt (who after a couple of weeks of worry was exonerated of any wrongdoing in his ‘fun’ video with Steve Hayles) and the Sun Hung Kai Scallywag team for the awesome experience.
Maybe one day we will see the Volvo Ocean Race make a stopover in Port Elizabeth?
Watch as I sail Sun Hung Kai Scallywag under the close eye of David Witt – skipper of this VOR65 Yacht about to set off on Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race. Next stop – Melbourne. Kindly filmed on my camera by Dylan from co-sponsor Regus.
Watch to the end to see what David politely declined from me.
Watch David Witt on the 18-foot Skiff, Nokia take on the Big Breeze in Auckland.
WHY? It is a little known fact that Port Elizabeth has been approached TWICE to bid on becoming a stopover for the Volvo Ocean Race – the first attempt was stopped by our local Port Authorities and we await the outcome of the second. The home of Volvo Cars is Gothenburg – the second-largest city in Sweden which is twinned with Nelson Mandela Bay and which has provided incredible support and promotion for our Metropole.
MyPE is running a series of articles about the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race to: 1. Acknowledge and thank Gothenburg for their support, 2. Showcase a sport that Alan Straton is passionate about, 3. Demonstrate to citizens of Port Elizabeth just how much exposure a city like Cape Town receives from the VOR and 4. As a gentle reminder to the TNPA and our city of the great value that such an event can bring to our city.
The start city of the VOR – Alicante, Spain – estimates the economic value of each leg to be R960 Million. Click here to read very Volvo Ocean Race published on MyPE.
The local Algoa Bay Yacht Club has hosted many international sailing regattas, the most recent being the 60th 5O5 World Championships and, along with requests from the Volvo Ocean Race, have also recently been asked to host the 2019 stopover for the Clipper Around the World Yacht Race.