Ian Walker: View From the Mountaintop
Published on January 5th, 2016
Britain’s Ian Walker achieved a life-time ambition by winning the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race last June as skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. Here he provides his outlook forward…
Has there been time when you’ve been able to enjoy the aftermath glow of achievement winning the race?
In some regards, I’ve been struggling a little. Not helped by everybody asking me what I’m doing next! It’s taken a number of years to achieve this victory. For the first time, probably ever, I’ve not really seen an achievement like this as a stepping-stone to something else. When I won the Olympic medals (two silvers), it was immediately on into professional sailing, the America’s Cup and then to the Volvo Ocean Race.
Now I’m not really sure what I want to do next. So it’s been hard to answer the people asking that question. What I’ve decided is that I’ve got to get back racing, particularly inshore racing, because if you don’t race, train and practise then you don’t remain any good and it will slowly fall away. So I think you have to train and race to stay sharp while you work out what you want to do next.
Now that you’ve won the Volvo Ocean Race, are there any more mountains to climb for you as a professional sailor?
Wow, that’s a big question. Obviously, you’d like to win everything you enter. It’s all about getting the right programme, the right team together and being in the right place at the right time. I think, realistically, I’m not going to have a role in an America’s Cup boat any more. I think the way that’s moved on precludes that and I don’t think there’s any other event in sailing that could rival the Volvo Ocean Race or indeed the Olympics thinking back that far.
There’s a lot of great events still, and obviously the TP52s is something I’ve been very successful in before, but it’s got very new boats now, probably the most competitive racing out there. I’ve got a lot of sailing lined up. There’s a lot more sailing than there are days where I’m not sailing in the next 12 months. And I’m still hoping that Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing will re-enter the next Volvo Ocean Race and I’d love to have a role in that having been involved from the start.
What is the current situation with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing returning to defend?
First of all, we will find out in January whether they will re-enter. It’s a 50-50 call right now. Secondly, it’s what management team they want and we need to sit down and discuss what they’re trying to achieve, what sort of team they want and how we’re going to go about it. Then will come the discussion who will sail the boat.
From my own personal point of view, my biggest commitment must be for my family and whether I feel able to spend that much time away from home again. As my children are at that pretty crucial school age period, it’s a big call.
Having said that, the race is well and truly in my blood now and we know an awful lot about it, and it’s hard to imagine not being involved in some shape or form. At this stage, you don’t worry about it until it’s become a problem and it’s not a problem until someone has asked you to be involved. What I’m not doing is running around to try to raise sponsorship.
If I do the next race, it’ll be because Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing want to do the race again or because someone else has asked me. I don’t have the energy as yet to run around and create and run my own team. I’m pretty welded to Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.
You have a lot of opinions about the way the race is run so how would you guide the event looking beyond 2017-18 that will run again on the Volvo Ocean 65s?
I think they will need to do some changes in the next race so there’s a different story – the route is the most obvious one, and maybe the sails, the way the Notice of Race and rules are written, the points system, maybe the crew composition, particularly for the In-Port Races. Maybe shuffle up that whole format because I do believe that those last four or five days before a leg start are reasonably untenable for the teams and sailors, it’s getting so busy commercially.
They need to make some fundamental decisions about how far they’re going to go in terms of information off of the boats. I don’t have a strong view on that. Obviously, broadband speeds are going to be way faster. When we’re going to get to the stage fairly soon where if you wanted to have real, live information and images coming off the boat you probably would be able to do that.
So there are big decisions there about whether that is good for the race, the sponsors, the sailors and how much it detracts from the sporting and competitive side of it. Someone’s got to make a call, as long as that call is made before people are deciding whether they want to do the race or not, based on those circumstances.
Looking ahead, I really don’t think we can race the Volvo Ocean 65s in 2020-21. I think the race should stay at the pinnacle of grand prix, fully-crewed racing. You’ve got to make it desirable for the best sailors in the world to want to do it. But that creates a difficult problem because it means you’ve got to build a new fleet of boats in time and someone’s got to take the financial risk of building it before knowing that anyone’s going to buy it. And that’s a massive commitment.
Do you think the future of the race will always be in monohulls?
My worry with the multi-hulls is that there will always be 100-footers going around tons faster, and the race, I don’t think, will ever support the cost of those giant trimarans. So whatever Volvo Ocean Race does, I don’t think it can get a lot more expensive than it is now to get the teams to enter. I’m not an expert in the relative costs between mono and multihulls, but I could see the boats potentially getting smaller with smaller crew.
If there were, say, 15 45-footers made for, say, four crew, you could probably guarantee you’d get teams in the race. Then you got to ask yourself what about 15 50-footers with six crew and then 15 65-footers, as we are, with eight crew. At what point does it become economically not viable? Ultimately, that will be the key component.
I’m a fan of one-design but it would be interesting to see some element of design come back into the race if it could be done with a cost-controlled manner. But we all know the downsides – as soon as you open up the design space at all you run the risk of a team coming in and spending a huge amount of money.