David Witt: Preparing for the Pinnacle

Published on July 9th, 2017

Over 20 years after getting his first taste of the Volvo Ocean Race, SHK Scallywag skipper David Witt is back in the race – and he’s proudly leading Hong Kong’s first ever entry.

Backed by Seng Huang Lee and Sun Hung Kai, Witt also skippers Lee’s 100-foot yacht Scallywag so he’s well prepared for the task at hand

A Sydney Hobart veteran, here the tough Aussie comments on his Volvo Ocean Race obsession, assembling a round-the-world crew – and whether his crew can really lift the Volvo Ocean Race trophy.

On getting to the start line…
The Volvo Ocean Race is the absolute pinnacle of the sport. It’s such a big achievement to even get to the start line, never mind to win the trophy. I want to finish with the same guys we start with – I want them to sail every leg together. Out of that comes friendships and relationships that you’ll keep for life – you can’t get that just having a beer in the pub.

On his Volvo Ocean Race obsession…
I think obsession is born out of passion. The Volvo Ocean Race is the most epic team sport on the planet, hands down. It’s a character test every single day. Every time you go to sea, whether it’s an overnight race or a Volvo Ocean Race, you know you’ll learn something new about yourself – and there’s always a moment when you’re offshore with a bunch of guys, where you have to make a conscious decision of whether to stand up and help your mate, or hide and let him struggle by himself. Doing this race is a good check to make sure you are who you want to be.

On choosing crew…
If you’re not prepared to stand in a trench in a war next to a bloke, don’t take him to sea. You have to know that everyone has each other’s back. In my opinion, people allow personal ambition or goals to get in the way of the team too often. My crew has to be as passionate and obsessed with winning this race as I am. In 2017-18, we’ll have two guys onboard similar to my age, who have families and businesses, who have just given up everything to come and sail with me. That’s what I want in a teammate.

On the introduction of a mixed crew rule
I’ve made my decision – we’re going with seven guys. I just don’t think the rule is a good fit, and I don’t think the dynamic will work. It’s hard enough to win the race, the last thing we need is to be part of a social experiment.

Teams that win this race are rock solid from the start – and that’s what we’re planning to be. I’m not saying it won’t work, but I think that it will take a very special group of people to make it work well on board. I’m not willing to take that risk.

On his first memory of the Volvo Ocean Race…
Actually, a current Volvo Ocean Race legend, Neal McDonald, introduced me to the race back in 1993. It was the first time I’d seen this event, and as a skiff sailor from Australia, I remember being really inspired by it. I realised it was a whole other way of life. I then went on to do part of the race on board Innovation Kvaerner in 1997-98.

The fact that I haven’t done the whole thing is one of the attractions of doing this for me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I’m pretty headstrong and I can’t put up with a lot of the more political, corporate crap that goes on in some campaigns, which is why I haven’t been involved until now. This time, I get to do things my way.

On his leadership style…
Loyalty and respect are big things to me. I’d never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do. You’re putting your life in each others hands. Plenty of people over the years have tried to put a whole lot of rock stars on the boat they clash and it’s been a disaster. Ian Walker would be the first guy to tell you that the reason he won the race in 2014-15 was that he had the right people.

On the Southern Ocean…
It’s what the Volvo Ocean Race is all about – it’s the ultimate, and a key attraction of the race. I’m a big traditionalist, and when I read about the return to the Southern Ocean for this edition, it pushed a few buttons inside me. The Southern Ocean is cold, wet and a shit fight, but the worst part in my experience is the mental slog. We’re all good sailors, but the key to winning is focusing the mind.

On his Volvo Ocean Race hero, Lawrie Smith…

Lawrie was always my ocean racing hero, and still is. He’s a man’s man, tough as you like, but the best thing about him was that he pushed everything harder than anyone else – his boat and his team. He was also the best leader I’ve ever seen in the Volvo Ocean Race. He was blunt, he would say whatever he wanted, when he wanted, but his guys would follow him anywhere. With Lawrie, it wasn’t theatrics, it was just how he was. I think that’s something been missed in the race over the last decade or so.

On the competition…
We’ve been a sailing team together for nearly 10 years – the people and the infrastructure are in place, and for us, it’s just like a sporting team going to play in a different competition. We’re behind in terms of time in the Volvo Ocean 65, but I’m not worried.

We’re ahead of the others because they’re building a crew for this edition only, so they’re still trying to get the dynamic right, whereas we have all our guys in place and we know each other well. How realistic are our chances? Everyone wants to win, anyone who wants to sail 45,000nm around the planet when they don’t believe they can win is an idiot – and I don’t see why we can’t. We might just shake things up a little bit.

On representing Hong Kong…
Our campaign aims to put Asian sailing on the map, and we’re proud to be representing Hong Kong – it’s the perfect backdrop for the race, and the public are really excited about the stopover in 2017-18.

On time in the gym versus time on the water…

100% time on the water. I’m getting on a bit now and a lot of the boys are fitter than me! I think that toughness comes from your brain and your heart. I must say, I was shocked at just how strictly one-design the boats are, and I think that will help us.

On preparing for 2017-18…
To be honest, I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. We’re busy trying to catch up as we’re a little late, and we’ll be sailing as much as we can. I think this is the best chance we will ever have to win the race.

On the Host Cities…
In my opinion, this is the greatest team sport in the world. When we go around the world, we’ve made it 100% clear that from now until the end of the race, no-one is leaving the Host Cities, no-one is going on holiday, we’re in it together, day in, day out, for the whole race period. I’ve been trying to get my own Volvo Ocean Race team for 20 years and the last thing I want to do is jet in, jet out, and not get the whole experience. I feel privileged that these guys want to do this with me.

On leadership…
I’ve learned how important honesty and trust are. Believe me, we will get it wrong plenty of times in this race, and you have to take responsibility and hold your hands up. I think that’s the ethos that separates the good sports teams from the bad ones.

On transparency…
At SHK Scallywag, we’re a complete open book. We don’t hide anything. I think that as the race has got more professional, people have got a bit ahead of themselves. At the end of the day, we’re sailors – we sail the boat. We’re not doctors, or brain surgeons, or curing cancer, we’re just good yachties. I really believe that one of the problems restricting our sport is that some people at the top think they’re Beckham – and we’re not soccer, we’re sailing.

If you carry on like you’re a rockstar when you’re just a guy who is good at driving a boat, you won’t appeal to the general public – and I think some of the top-level sailors have lost that connection. In the old days, it was okay just to be you. If we have a high, everyone will see it, if we have a major low, everyone will see it. I’ve spent 20 years wanting to do this race, and if I pretend I’m someone I’m not, that’s a failure in my opinion.

On #thefuture…
I watched the whole #thefuture announcement roll out with a lot of interest, and I’m all for the direction Mark Turner is taking. The problem with sailing is it’s so diverse – every side of the sport requires a different skill. There are lots of really good sailors around the world, but a truly great sailor is a guy who can be at the top level in every form of the sport. I think the evolutions mean that the winners of the future Volvo Ocean Race will genuinely be able to say they’re the best sailors on the planet – they will have been tested in every single discipline.


Race detailsRace routeFacebook

2017-18 Edition: Entered Teams – Skippers
Team AkzoNobel (NED), Simeon Tienpont (NED)
Dongfeng Race Team (CHN), Charles Caudrelier (FRA)
MAPFRE (ESP), Xabi Fernández (ESP)
Vestas 11th Hour Racing (DEN/USA), Charlie Enright (USA)
Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag (HKG), David Witt (AUS)
Turn the Tide on Plastic (POR), Dee Caffari (GBR)
Team Brunel (NED), Bouwe Bekking (NED)

Background: Racing the one design Volvo Ocean 65, the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race begins in Alicante, Spain on October 22 2017 with the final finish in The Hague, Netherlands on June 30 2018. In total, the 11-leg race will visit 12 cities in six continents: Alicante, Lisbon, Cape Town, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Auckland, Itajaí, Newport, Cardiff, Gothenburg, and The Hague. A maximum of eight teams will compete.

Source: Volvo Ocean Race

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