Last year was an unforgettable one for the rookie Team Alvimedica duo, who completed their first ever Volvo Ocean Race in style, rounding Cape Horn in first place and winning the final leg into Gothenburg.
And, just over a week into 2016, they've already agreed a title sponsor for the next 12 months, announcing the launch of their new racing team, 55 South, and partnership with environmental and sustainability organization, 11th Hour Racing.
But, though many assumed that this signalled confirmation of another Volvo Ocean Race challenge for the young Americans, Charlie and Mark tell us that there’s still a long way to go before they’re back on the start line come November 2017.
So guys, let’s kick off by reflecting a little on the journey you both have taken from rookies in the Volvo Ocean Race to finishing the 2014-15 edition in such style, winning that last leg into Gothenburg last June.
Mark: If you think back to where we were three years ago, we’ve certainly come a long way. Just between the whole sponsorship fund-raising process and then once we met Alvimedica, creating the team and setting up the infrastructure, the training and then the eventual race including so many highlights like winning the Alicante In-Port Race, sailing first through Cape Horn and winning the last leg. For us, it took the entire experience over the past three years to really figure out what it takes to be successful in the event. It really feels like unfinished business - we’d like to have another crack at the race, to apply all that learning and really have a competitive go at a podium finish. I’m 27 now so I’ll still be an under 30 at the time for the next race.
Charlie (who is now 31, adds joking): Oh, I’ll be over the hill!
I think we can safely say you’ve got a few more races left in you both but how much of a learning experience was that last edition for you? Was it tougher than you thought?
Charlie: We kinda went into it with eyes wide open. We didn’t really have expectations. With something like that it’s hard to hazard a guess as to what you’re going to experience so we just tried to keep an open mind and continue to learn and improve with every leg.
As sailors, do you feel that you’re now different guys now than before the race or was this a question of simply honing your skills?
Charlie: Both. We were honing our skills over the course of the race but we certainly know more now than when we started this whole thing. There’s no substitute for experience. We look back and we’re proud of the things we accomplished, most certainly, but there were other things that we say, ‘wow, we can’t believe that we even thought that was a good idea at all’. But that just comes with learning.
So what have you been up to in the last six months since we finished the last race in Gothenburg?
Mark: Well, the two of us flew straight back from Gothenburg to Newport, Rhode Island, and got on a boat two days later to do the Transatlantic Race, which we ended up winning. Our first dose of reality post-Volvo Ocean Race, kind of funny because we sailed on a 63-foot boat called Lucky and there were 15 guys on the boat. So we went from the Volvo Ocean 65 boats with eight guys to a slightly smaller boat with twice as many crew. It was interesting, put it that way.
It was fun to be able to share the experience and having the extra set of hands. You certainly notice the difference in terms of the boat handling and what not. On the Volvo Ocean Race, everybody gets up for every single sail change and on the Transatlantic you could wake up and there would be a different sail up from when you went to sleep.
But it was a really fun group and a fun way to wrap up the sailing aspect, plus icing on the cake to win the whole thing. Then we took a little time to collect ourselves, deal with our families – Charlie’s wife had their first child, which was pretty exciting for them.
Charlie: This Volvo Ocean Race involves a lot of tying up of loose ends. It’s not like you can just shut the door on a campaign and everything ceases to exist. There are a lot of loose ends to tie up, budget follow-up, evaluations. We’re still in constant communication with the team. You don’t go from 60 miles an hour to zero.
Mark: And we’ve also been working on our plans for the future and building on the momentum that we managed to create during the race. The goal, there’s no secret about it, is to get back to the start line for 2017-18 and anything we can do to make that possible is what we’re focused on.
How much of an advantage is it that people in our industry will now know your names around the world when it comes to trying to win new support for a campaign?
Mark: The real answer to that remains to be seen. Having a track record certainly helps. Last time, we were essentially two guys with a dream having never done it before and now we have a foot to stand on. But when it comes to finding a sponsor, it comes down to establishing the right relationships and being in the right place at the right time. We’re fortunate in that we still have some time ahead of us and we now have support from 11th Hour Racing. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and a busy 12 months ahead of us.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you hooked up with 11th Hour and your current relationship with them?
Mark: We’ve had a long relationship with 11th Hour Racing. Charlie and I first organised our Youth American Transatlantic team back in 2011 and 11th Hour was a small supporter of ours then and we’ve been in fairly constant communication with them ever since. They helped us facilitate the ocean summits, which happened during the race in Newport and Gothenburg. With their involvement in Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup team and a lot of the other organisations they work with, they’re really looking for opportunities to have a substantial impact on the sport of sailing. We’re excited to get behind this as a subject we’re genuinely both passionate about.
Charlie: 11th Hour is our title sponsors for the year 2016 and for the events on our calendar for 2016. But, they are not our title sponsors for the Volvo Ocean Race. We have a different view on some of the problems that are facing our planet having seen them now sailing around the world in the race and teaming up with 11th Hour Racing will give us the opportunity to hopefully bring meaningful solutions some of the problems.
How shocked were you by what you saw of the pollution in the seas?
Charlie: It’s jaw-dropping really. You can tell people about it but until you see it you don’t understand the magnitude of the problem.
So as things stand, cleaning up the oceans will be very much a key theme of your campaign, right?
Mark: We certainly hope it will be one component of it. Through this year, it will be a part of it for us and our longer-term relationship with 11th Hour is specifically focused on the impact that we can have during the Volvo Ocean Race – and on the race itself. We hope to work with the event to help ensure it keeps up with its best practices and hopefully this will rub off too on all the other teams.
And the stopovers too? We all agreed that one of the many things that Newport did fantastically well in 2015 was ensure they kept their stopover so clean despite the great footfall.
Mark: There are all sorts of things that can be done and to think that we can achieve everything is naïve. The problem is so big that we’ve got to pick a few things and do them well, that’s the focus. Over the next six months, we’ll be working on a sustainability plan that hopefully we’ll implement during the race. We’ll set up some very specific objectives and things we’d like to achieve, and then ultimately a plan for how we can do that.
What sort of support are 11th Hour giving you?
Mark: There’s financial support as well as advisory. It’s a very collaborative partnership. It’s definitely going to be an open-ended and fluid relationship with ideas going back and forth. All parties are pretty excited about it.
So what do you need now to get you to the start line in 2017?
Charlie (laughing): Money!
Mark: It’s pretty simple – we need a big international title-sponsor. When I say international, I mean either U.S.-based on internationally-based but someone who’s ready to activate around the world because as we all know that’s the bread and butter of this event and that continues to be our primary focus.
How tough is the business environment now as we enter 2016, compared with your previous campaign as this stage? Do you sense that the economy is looking up to such a degree that companies are back looking at backing big sailing campaigns?
Charlie: It’s pretty tough to generalise, but I graduated from university in 2008 (year the financial crisis first hit) and so that should give some kind of perspective. I only really know an economy being rebuilt, but things are better now than they have been in my sailing past, I can tell you that.
Mark: I also think that with the race format now, using the same boats and going to a lot of the same ports, retention of some of the existing race sponsors, I think that hopefully should minimise some of the potential worries of a new sponsor. The last race was undoubtedly a success with the one-design concept and so on. Hopefully, that will be something a new backer would want to be involved in.
Let’s talk about your crew. I take it you both want to sail again with Charlie as skipper again?
A lot of people talk about having a fully U.S. team this time. You sailed under a Turkish/U.S. flag combination with a multi-national crew with Team Alvimedica but what are your plans for the next race in terms of team composition?
Mark: Every time I get asked this question I come back to a conversation I had with Knut (Frostad) way back when at the beginning of the 2011-12 race. He made the point to us that we could talk for hours about who will be in your team and where are you going to train and all these wonderful things you’re going to do on the water, but until you can tell me how you’re going to secure your funding then none of it really matters. I think we’ve both adopted that mindset. To pick your team and all that kind of stuff is certainly fun, but it’s putting the cart before the horse. The sponsors will certainly have a say on the team too and we will remain flexible on that side of things.
So what are your plans for the immediate future? I see you’ve been competing in the M32s in Bermuda.
Mark: It’s all about balancing our time between trying to be on the water as much as we can, and just getting better at sailing and sailing together. But any day we’re on the water is a day that we’re not focused on achieving the real goal, which is getting back on the start line for the Volvo Ocean Race. From the sailing that we have outlined this year, the M32s is certainly something we’re going to be focused on at least for the next months. It’s pretty exciting and hopefully we can have some influence on it as well with regard to sustainability.