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Of many changes being made for the next Volvo Ocean Race it is the dramatic alteration to the crew format that is likely to have the biggest influence on the results. Blue Robinson talks wholesale revamp with Sam Davies and Sophie Ciszek of Team SCA and 2014 winner Ian Walker

Seahorse Magazine:What were your thoughts when you heard of the proposal from Volvo on the different crew ratios permitted in the next race?

Main picture: Experienced New Zealand sailor Bridget Suckling trims onboard EF Education as the Swedish-backed all-girl entry thread their way up through the Bahamas to the Fort Lauderdale stopover during the 1997/98 event – a race dominated by their more experienced male teammates on sistership EF Language, led by first time round the world skipper Paul Cayard

Sam Davies: I was aware this was in the pipeline as I had spoken to Knut Frostad and Mark Turner at the Yacht Racing Forum in Geneva last winter, so I have had time to reflect on it. I know Knut and Mark have been considering it since before the end of the last race and initially I wasn’t so sure, as we had such a great team with SCA which was the second all-female crew I raced round the world with. Both crews promoted professional sailing for women, encouraging others to do the same. It was an honour to sail with such a talented group on SCA, with Olympic and world champions in the team; we finished third in the inshore series and won a leg, but we struggled with offshore experience.

Boathandling in the Southern Ocean is all about experience, the big loads and dealing with the inevitable wipe-out situations. Every single crash we did was a first for us, whereas the guys have done it all so often, during the VOR and on the big private campaigns on the offshore circuit that are hard for us to access – and if we do get onboard those boats we have no responsibility. Whenever it gets tough and decisions have to be made, it’s not women onboard who are making the calls. So on reflection, yes, I’m really pleased with what has been done for the next race.

SH: How will the male crews respond…

SD: To begin with there will be sacrifices and compromises. The guys will have to take a step backwards as they will have to understand they will be sailing with people who are less experienced than they are used to. Even though we raced the last VOR, we still have less experience than these guys, but they know they are going to have to select good women sailors to win the next race. So the more the guys help us progress the more it helps them win. Initially it will be tricky, and the guys will get frustrated at the start of this process, but soon this will be normal…

SH: Reactions from other SCA crew?

SD: I haven’t spoken to all the team, some of them were already working hard to continue with the Magenta project – with the same crew. If that had happened Mark Turner might have had less pressure on him to push these new rules forward. Mark wants women in this race, he wanted what we achieved on SCA in 2014/15 not to be wasted. Some of the girls will be disappointed as SCA was a great team and we learned so much. We could feel how much we were improving but I don’t know if the outside world saw that. There is so much more potential we didn’t get to see had we raced again with the same crew. Of course we would do things differently, but I can tell you we would be up there with the results.

SH: Sophie, what are your thoughts?

Sophie Ciszek: For me it has all been positive, especially here in Australia where I sail with a group of guys on Ichi Ban. They’ve all been encouraging. It brings a new focus onto the race. I see it as a bit like the under-30 rule – the more experienced guys have no choice but to take on these younger crew and try to teach them everything they know with their years of VOR experience. This is largely what has kept the race alive, with the younger generation coming through to then take lead roles onboard. I think that was an enforced rule that worked; and to get women more involved is another good solution with similarly beneficial prospects. There was only so much we could learn off each other in the last race, so to have the chance to be sailing alongside the guys will be awesome in fast-tracking female sailors to gain more serious offshore experience.

SH: Surely a mixed crew is also more advantageous to potential sponsors…

Sam Davies: Absolutely, and that is the value of the VOR. It’s not just getting PR about your company, but it is the closeness to a company. At every stopover we held pro-am races with lots of guests coming onboard. So they raced on or visited the boat, spending time with the skipper and crew – that is unique in sport. In motorsport the guests can’t touch the car let alone get in it, or race it, so sailing has that extraordinary advantage. Plus of course there really aren’t single-gender corporations now – there are quotas to include women, and that parallel was missing in the VOR. Sponsors see that. The more we can maintain these parallels and make it interesting to sponsors the more we will continue – and the better the sailors will get.

SH: Having skippered a VO65 around the planet, which combination stands out?

SD: Firstly, it’s great to have the option to not have the same combination or number on every leg, especially with the legs being radically different next time. There are legs where it will be an advantage to have more people and legs when it’s better to be light. The squad system we used on SCA with two spare people resting we know works well; we didn’t have reserves, we had people rotating because the VOR is so gruelling and the stopovers are so short. So hopefully it won’t be just one girl per team but a mixed squad that has several female crew to rotate. Having people know in advance which legs they are on and when they can rest is also a big advantage.

SH: Have either of you been approached?

SD: I have spoken to a few people. But with the boats foiling I am mad keen on the Imoca class again, so I am working on the Vendée Globe in 2020. However, the VOR is such a great race… if I find a way to do a few legs next time I’d jump at it.

SC: Not yet! I’m here and ready to go…

Ian Walker

SH: Which of the new crew combinations appeal to you, particularly for the long Cape Town-Hong Kong leg?

Ian Walker: I think it would be hard to sail with fewer than eight onboard. It’s difficult to make watch systems work and you have no cover if someone is ill or injured, so it would be foolish not to have more hands. But do you go with eight or nine? I think nine is a big help, even when it is light: you have lots of code zero work, tacking and furling and hoisting, so realistically you need as many hands when it’s light as when it’s windy. On the last race I could have gone light from Abu Dhabi to China, a longish, light-air leg with lots of straightline sailing, but there isn’t really an obvious leg like that now. The shorter legs are mainly around coastlines with lots of boathandling, so seven men plus two women is the obvious choice for me.

SH: Five and five?

IW: There are only so many experienced women racing now, and if suddenly eight VOR teams secure two women each that has pretty much taken up the SCA group from the last race. So it’s not impossible, but if you are looking for women with plenty of offshore experience the pool is relatively small right now.

SH: Does this change the potential for sponsorship here?

IW: That is a core reason I think it has been done. Yes, it is to promote women’s sailing, but crucially most companies are now strongly equal opportunity and they want to be seen as such. If the sponsorship is coming from any sort of socially responsible corporate budget, there will be a very strong message to promote equal opportunities. That will help tick more boxes with potential corporate sponsorships than before.

SH: In a pretty brutal offshore environment what are the pluses and minuses of a mixed crew?

IW: Whenever I have sailed in mixed teams I have never really noticed, to be honest – it’s just high-level sailors I am racing with, male or female. I can imagine on a longer offshore leg certain different traits might start to play out, rather than racing inshore for a day, what these traits are I don’t know and are yet to be found out. As a skipper do you treat everyone the same? Or are there grounds for being aware of different sensitivities? How the guys react as much as the women react… I remember coaching Shirley Robertson and her female team in the Olympics, there were different things I needed to be aware of in how I approached the campaign; that could also play out in a long offshore programme. And don’t forget a lot of the women I sail with are tougher than many of the blokes I sail with…

SH: Do you think some of the guys will have to adjust their perceptions?

IW: I think most of us have sailed with women who are good enough to be in the team, and so we are fine with it. Whether it’s a woman or an under-30 crew or a first-time Chinese or Arab crewmember, it’s all about earning respect in the crew, and this can be done in a number of ways. Adil [Khalid] earned respect on Abu Dhabi for the things he did, the young Chinese guys did the same on Dongfeng. It is about physicality, enthusiasm, humour, mental resolve, decision making, technical skills, you just have to bring something to contribute to the team and earn the respect of the others. And if you don’t achieve this it always breaks down, because on a VOR people are under huge amounts of stress and fatigue. They are often also very cold and so people snap.

I guess it’s possible some sailors may be entrenched in their thinking, but they should approach this with an open mind. I did the charity sail around Britain and was very impressed with Dee Caffari, I really enjoyed sailing with her and came away knowing I would sail with her offshore again. If you approach this with the feeling the race isn’t what it used to be, and the boats aren’t what they used to be, and you are being forced to take women onboard, then that is one way to perceive it…

But look at Dongfeng, with two Chinese crew who really weren’t that experienced before the race. It was six crew and two offshore novices who didn’t speak English and they put in a massive performance and pushed us hard on Abu Dhabi.

The other component is how the under- 30 rule is going to be handled. Will you have two under-30 women? One male and one female? If all the under-30s are women that now prevents opportunities for the young guys… You could train up a really good, young, fit and strong woman and have an outstanding crew right there. I don’t know if I am underestimating the challenges here but I actually don’t think it is a big deal.

SH: Sailors like Sophie Ciszek and Annie Lush must be on the recruiting radar now.

IW: Yes, talented, fit and strong, but wouldn’t you rather have Sam Davies or Libby Greenhalgh in your nav station?

There is great potential here – on Abu Dhabi we spent so much time on deck that with a four-on four-off watch system the nav station was empty for long periods of time. The result was that we missed many opportunities to analyse performance and think through enough different options, or repeatedly run different routes and variables. That role is an obvious one for a good female navigator. Plus women will always be more interesting for the media as they are generally much more open than the guys… Interesting times.

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