Volvo Ocean Race: An Unbelievable Experience

Published on June 30th, 2015

Mark Towill was just 18 years old when he met Charlie Enright while making the Disney movie Morning Light, a documentary that followed their training and participation of the TP52 Morning Light team in the 2007 Transpac Race. But together they hatched a dream, which was realized when they launched their Volvo Ocean Race campaign in January 2014.

Now 26 years, and having just completed the 2014-15 edition with Team Alvimedica, Mark shares an update with Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck…

Can you remember when this campaign began?
Seems like yesterday, and it also seems like it was years ago. It depends when you want to start the clock, to be honest. Obviously the race started in October 2014, and where we are now compared to where we were then, it’s like night and day. It’s kind of a shame that the race has ended because we feel like we’re just coming into our stride. I almost want the next race to start tomorrow.

How would you reflect on this experience?
It’s been unbelievable. I’ve learned more in the last 12 months than I have my entire life – both on and off the water. Just the sailing itself has been unbelievable; my knowledge and understanding of offshore sailing, what it means to be competitive on the water, and really what it takes to be successful in this event… the gains have been immense.

Coming into it, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. So now we do know, and we can do a whole lot better. I’d like to think that we did some things well, but we could certainly do a lot of things differently, in a better way. And that, I think, excites Charlie and myself a lot. To have another opportunity at this, to implement everything we’ve learned and to be able to put together a winning campaign from the beginning, would be pretty cool.

For what we just did, there’s no instruction manual. There’s nobody that spells it out for you, and the only way to learn is to just do it, which is what we’ve been lucky enough to do. But the reality is, now we do know. We could use our time better. We could make better decisions on everything. So that part’s really exciting for us.

How did you and Charlie balance your roles?
I think we work well together because we have balancing skill sets, but at the end of the day, we have similar values and views of the world. Charlie tends to take on more of the sailing and performance stuff, and I’ve always tended to focus more on the onshore portions; the commercial and organizational stuff.

In the early stages, I was definitely much more involved in setting everything up. And as we came onto being fully online and sailing, I’ve transitioned more into just the performance side of it, at least while we’re on the boat. So it’s been an interesting balance, and as we transition into the next step here, I think that it’ll only continue.

Sounds like you are ready to get started. What’s next for you guys?
Charlie and I will start by sailing together in the Transatlantic Race on the R/P 63 Lucky. Charlie also has fatherhood in the immediate picture. But in the longer term, we’re already starting to prepare for the next Volvo Ocean Race. We are preparing for the process of sponsorship acquisition. Whether that’s with Alvimedica or with another brand, that’s still a little bit up in the air, but we definitely want to do the next race and want to continue to use the momentum that we’ve generated right now to make that happen.

Events like the Volvo Ocean Race typically struggle to maintain momentum, despite how vital it is for both the teams and the event. How do you plan to maintain the momentum?
For starters, it’s pretty nice to be able to know that the exact boat we’re sailing now could be the same boat we would sail in the next race. With the majority of the ports already defined, that brings a lot of certainty to what’s typically an uncertain event. I’d say in that respect there’s definitely some momentum there. As for the team side specifically, it’s just about getting back sailing as quickly as you can. There’s always more you could be doing, more you could be testing. Ideally, it’s just continuing to build the team and sail with the same guys. So that’s our focus.

What becomes of the assets – the boat, gear, shoreside base?

It sounds like Volvo’s going to set up their boatyard facility in Alicante, so that’s where our boat will eventually head and get decommissioned. I think a number of the boats are doing the same thing though some of the boats are doing some commercial sailing in the short term.

Does Alvimedica plan to continue as a race sponsor?
Alvimedica will advise their intentions in due course but Charlie and I are ready to go again whether with Alvimedica or other partners. We will be looking at all opportunities to ensure we are the starting line for the 2017-2018 edition.

How much did budget size impact this edition?
It’s no secret that we were one of the smaller budget teams in this race. Teams like Abu Dhabi and SCA have proven that with more resources you can certainly achieve a lot more. Maybe not as much as the previous editions of the race, but it did have an impact.

The plan for the 2017-18 race is for the current boats to be used again, plus there will be some new boats built. Without knowing what Alvimedica plans to do, what is the chance of you being a team without a boat?
Quite possibly, for the first time in this race’s history, there’s potentially a scarcity of boats. The event’s been so successful that there could be a supply and demand issue. So timing certainly is of the essence. The incentives are to secure the control of your boat and get sailing as quickly as you can, but you can only control what you can control. It would be great to have somebody call us up tomorrow and say they want to be our title sponsor for the next race, but the world doesn’t always work like that. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to get to the starting line.

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