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Volvo Ocean Race 2014/15: Meet the fleet

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10 October 2014 | Volvo Ocean Race,Feature

Volvo Ocean Race 2014/15: Meet the fleet

When the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race, the fourth under the control of Volvo Group, begins in Alicante, the Spanish coastal city which has become the organisers’ home, this weekend, it will mark the beginning of a new era for the round-the-world sailing event, a race considered one of the toughest in all of sport.

In an attempt to cut costs and attract a larger fleet, race organisers, led by chief executive Knut Frostad, have made a game-changing rules alteration. Whereas in previous years, teams have been required to design and build their own boats at great expense, now Volvo has taken that process in-house, developing a fleet of identical Volvo 65s, which have been built by a consortium of European boatyards.

A central design has allowed components essential from a media standpoint, but perhaps not previously the priority for individual teams, to be built in from the start, rather than retrofitted as was previously the case. Dedicated camera positions, to cite but one example, will help Volvo Ocean Race meet another of its targets for 2014/15: the focus is on telling the human stories of life on board, to convey the emotion, team relationships, stresses and strains of a nine-month, 38,739 nautical mile (71,745km) voyage around the world.

There will be 11 ports visited along the way, a variety of traditional sailing hotspots and commercially important locations, with the planned route similar to that of the 2011/12 race. Over the last couple of years, and facing perhaps the largest regulation change in the race’s history, the contenders for this year’s race have been assembling the necessary financial backing and sailing prowess required to compete in one of sailing’s most recognised and established events – the first edition of the Whitbread Round the World Race, as the race was once known, was staged in 1973/74.

Seven teams have made the start line this time round; here are the stories behind them.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

The Abu Dhabi team is the only one of the six to take part in the 2011/12 Volvo Ocean Race to return for the 2014/15 edition. The target this time round is to improve on the fifth place finish achieved on its debut. “We went back and did a very thorough review after the 2011/12 race,” says Phil Allen, the team’s general manager. “We looked at the things we did well and things we didn’t do well and we were critical. We wrote a report, we were thorough with the sponsors and we’ve set ourselves up differently.”

The sailing team is built up by and around British skipper Ian Walker and performance manager Neal McDonald, but the team is, as the name suggests, part of the wider national brand-building project underway in Abu Dhabi. “Abu Dhabi would not have done this again if they had not seen the benefits from it,” says Allen. “A lot of the benefits come from the stopover side and I always see the boat as a promotional vehicle for the stopover.”

After a successful debut in the last race, Abu Dhabi is on the route again – the fleet is expected shortly before Christmas. “Getting a lot of footfall through Abu Dhabi is a key goal,” continues Allen, “and making people aware of Abu Dhabi, where it is in the world, is obviously another key asset.” UAE sailor Adil Khalid is back aboard as a crew member.

Although the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority is the main sponsor and focus, the team has been granted some commercial freedom. IWC Schaffhausen, the Swiss luxury watch brand which, like Abu Dhabi, is also a central race partner, is a returning sponsor. Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s national carrier, also has logos on the boat.

Team Dongfeng

Well known in sailing circles and best known as the owner and operator of the Extreme Sailing Series, OC Sport is running the Chinese entry in the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race. The heavy-duty vehicle division of Chinese manufacturer Dongfeng is the title partner of the team. While OC Sport’s Mark Turner suggests it may be the largest sponsorship by a Chinese company since computer firm Lenovo partnered the Beijing Olympics, the Dongfeng investment forms only part of the funding – enough to get the project off the ground and convince OC Sport it was a project worth pursuing. Additional support has been secured, from another Chinese firm Aeolus Tyres, and the city of Shiyan where Dongfeng Commercial Vehicles is based.

“We are managing the campaign right the way across – finding sponsors, managing the sponsorships, advising on the activation; getting them to understand activation which is a whole new word and new territory for them – right through to training and selecting all of the sailors, managing the boat, managing the technical side of it, managing the stopovers and pavilions,” explains Turner.

The Volvo Ocean Race will form an important part of Dongfeng’s first international marketing assault. As Turner says: “They are present in some markets from a product perspective – South Africa, Brazil, the Middle East just starting – but from a trading perspective they’re not present in Europe yet. It’s planned and it will come very quickly so a key objective outside China for Dongfeng is to start that marketing process, in a very classical way.

When the race stops in Sanya, the Dongfeng hospitality pavilion will be three times larger than anywhere else, while Turner believes the “accelerated learning” of sponsoring a sailing team will yield wider benefits across the Dongfeng business.

Team SCA

Team SCA was the first entry to confirm its place in the 2014/15 race, with SCA, the parent of many well-known hygiene and sanitation brands, teaming up with Volvo Ocean Race specialists Atlant Ocean Racing. The headline is the all-female crew the team has assembled but the wider aim is to promote the SCA name, the company having previously focused on foregrounding its many individual brands.

Once SCA had decided to enter the race, it made contact with Atlant, the sailing management company founded and run by Richard Brisius. Atlant has won the Volvo Ocean Race, or the Whitbread as it was originally known, twice, with boats funded by EF and Ericsson. “We knew something about what it is to work with a less experienced crew and we said we were willing to do it,” recalls Brisius of when the all-female crew idea was first pitched to him.

“80 per cent of their products are purchased by women across the world,” he adds, outlining the rationale for the female squad. “It’s a way of being very true to the values of SCA, which is a company that believes in women, the environment and diversity. It’s a very good commercial fit – I’ve seen a number of companies being involved with the race but this is one of the best natural fits that I’ve seen.”

Although the sailing side of the entry is run by Atlant, don’t expect to hear that name too often. “We keep that super low-profile, that’s not part of the story,” Brisius explains. “We are SCA. We are totally integrated. I have learned over the years to just immerse [yourself] in the main partner and do as good a job for them as possible. I believe that long-term we will have a woman winning this race. If that’s in one year or in four years or eight years, I don’t know, but I hope that that’s why I’m here, because I want to be part of that happening.”

Team Brunel

Team Brunel is named after the Amsterdam-based consultancy and project management company, but Brunel is one of six sponsors backing what is, to all intents and purposes, a Dutch entry. The project is being steered by Gideon Messink, who, along with colleagues Bouwe Bekking and Gerd-Jan Poortman, have created Sailing Holland, an organisation designed to attract funding for sailing in a difficult economic climate.

“We started about two years ago,” Messink explains, “and it’s a totally different set-up to what we’ve done in the past. The normal Dutch entries in the Volvo or the Whitbread had the main sponsor owning the campaign, like Delta Lloyd, like ABN Amro, like Philips, Equity & Law, etc. But of course the financial crisis caused a problem to find sponsors, so firstly we started a foundation – a non-profit. It was possible to have more sponsors in the foundation, and the foundation’s responsibility is to take care of different kinds of sponsors.”

Brunel, as the largest backer, has taken title rights. It is the company’s third appearance in the race, after running campaigns in 1997/98 and 2005/06; Messink was aboard the Brunel Synergy entry in the former. Sailing Holland has brought together five secondary partners to support the cause – Belgian flooring firm Moduleo, training company Schouten, outdoor clothing specialist Gaastra, EY, and asset management organisation Robeco.

Team Alvimedica

The Turkish-sponsored, American-run Team Alvimedica effort was made public in January and represents the first major international foray for Alvimedica, a medical services provider which specialises in endovascular and interventional cardiology. The company’s black and orange corporate colours will adorn the boat but the sailing part of the project is in the hands of sailors Mark Towill and Charlie Enright, who have created All-American Ocean Racing to run the campaign. Sailing veteran Bill Erlekens runs the project as chief executive.

Off shore, however, campaign director Anna Bernsten has become a trusted advisor to Alvimedica’s executives as the company embarks on its first global marketing project. Bernsten previously worked on the Assa Abloy campaign of 2001/02 and ABN Amro’s 2005/06 entry and says of her new Turkish colleagues: “The company is extremely ambitious and very visionary and they have a very strong financial backing and really want to make sure their technologies are being launched – they have a long-term commitment. We looked at the brand positioning of the company – a young challenger – and we said we should have a Volvo Ocean Race team that is agile, that is a challenger. They are maybe a little bit the underdog, like the company. 

“Knowing that the US market is the largest in the world for medical devices,” Bernsten adds, “we said, ‘Ideally if we want to create brand awareness and build business for the future, we should try to see how we could get connections to the US.’ Finding a young American team was part of the strategy.”

Mapfre

Few know the Volvo Ocean Race as well as Pedro Campos. The Spaniard was in charge of Movistar’s entry in the 2005/06 race and Telefónica’s two-boat effort in 2008/09, plus another entry in 2011/12. This edition, however, may be his most challenging yet.

Campos was able to confirm a Spanish team as the sixth entry, supported by Spain’s National Sports Council and the Royal Spanish Sailing Federation, in June, although the main sponsor, insurance firm Mapfre, was not confirmed until days before the start. The crew will be led be the experienced Iker Martínez, who was aboard Telefónica in 2011/12.

“The saving, compared with the last race, is very big, probably 30 or 40 per less,” Campos explains, referring to the new one-design rules. “Without this big effort from Volvo, I think almost nobody – probably only one team – could have been able to be there. This was very important. The budget that goes straight to the boat is somewhere between €12 million and €13 million, and then we have some extra expenses because we have to run the team, take care of the communication, of the guests, of the sponsorship, to activate the sponsorship – and this changes a lot from one sponsor to another. Normally we spend between 20 and 30 per cent of the whole budget taking care of the sponsors.”

Campos is also keen to emphasise the sheer difficulty of the Volvo Ocean Race. “In the last edition a Spanish newspaper took a picture before the start of all the crew, and then they did another picture on the day of arrival, and the difference was incredible,” he recalls. “They were like different people; you could not recognise them.”

Team Vestas Wind

The seventh boat in the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race fleet was announced on 12th August, just weeks before the start of the race in Alicante. It is the first Danish entry in the event’s history. Vestas Wind Systems installs wind turbines across more than 70 countries and six continents, and the company is now planning to utilise its expertise in wind technology in a race where reading and predicting the wind is vital. “The Volvo Ocean Race will take Vestas to many of our most important markets, whether it’s China, Brazil or the US or South Africa or the MENA region,” says Morten Albæk, the chief marketing officer of Vestas Wind Systems. “And, in addition, also five stops in the European region.

“Both with regards to wind energy and where we have our market focus, it’s a perfect match. On top of that, the Volvo brand is also a brand which is focused on sustainability, which Vestas is also, so for those three reasons it was obvious to us that we had potential for a good collaboration.”

Albæk concedes that the project has come together late, leaving little time for preparation. However, he hopes that disadvantage will be offset by the experience of skipper Chris Nicolson and shore manager Neil Cox, who Vestas has hired to lead the team. The pair steered the Camper with Emirates Team Zealand entry during the 2011/12 race and spent August and September assembling the rest of the crew, including at least two young Danish sailors. “Hopefully down the road we can see for the first time a Danish Volvo Ocean Race skipper,” Albæk adds.

For more in-depth analysis of each of the Volvo Ocean Race 2014/15 teams, plus a wealth of other information and comment on the world of professional sailing, please click here to order the 2014 Sailing Black Book.

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