On for the hat-trick

Text by Jonno Turner
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On for the hat-trick Text by Jonno Turner
 
Meet the man eyeing his third consecutive Volvo Ocean Race win. Phil Harmer, who lifted the trophy with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in 2014-15, and Groupama in 2011-12, could get the hat-trick next edition – and we sat down to chat to him about what's he's been up to since the end of the race, his views on the evolutions ahead of 2017-18, and his plans for the future.

Hi Phil! We’ve not heard from you for a while – where in the world are you right now?

I’m back in Sydney. I just did a big boat race today, which was really fun, and I’m doing the Sydney to Hobart Race too. I actually recently raced alongside Charlie Enright, Mark Towill and Nick Dana on a boat called ‘Wizard’, in a short race up the coast from Miami to West Palm Beach. It’s been a busy few months.

It certainly has. You’ve also been involved in the Comanche project too, haven’t you?

Yes, and it’s been quite a busy year with Comanche. We’ve done a lot of cool races, a lot of different challenges, and it all started pretty much two days after the end of the Volvo Ocean Race, when we finished in Gothenburg and got straight onto a plane to America to do a transatlantic race. We did the Hobart after that, and won it, and then a couple of fun events such as maxi-worlds, and then we managed to break the 24-hour monohull record, taking it off a Volvo Open 70’s hands! More recently we’ve done the Fastnet, and then managed to break the transatlantic record for a monohull, which was a very cool experience to be a part of. It’s been a lot of fun and very rewarding, it’s such a cool boat to sail on.

The Comanche crew is kind of like Volvo Ocean Race veterans on tour, isn’t it…

[Laughs] The project is run by Ken Read, who has done two Volvo Ocean Races himself, and a lot of the other guys who are involved have done the Volvo too. We worked out there were something like seven or eight Volvo Ocean Race wins onboard Comanche for the transatlantic, and most of the crew had competed in the race before. It is a style of boat very similar to a Volvo boat, and I think Ken does a nice job of trying to get guys with that kind of experience so we’re never short-handed, and it seems to work pretty well. It’s really nice to be able to sail with other guys who compete in the Volvo Ocean Race as it’s such a unique event which takes all types of people.

You've also been involved in product development with Spinlock. Do you enjoy getting involved on shore and giving feedback on those kind of projects?

To be able to work with a company like Spinlock is a great experience. Ultimately, we are all using this gear onboard, but it's important to try and make it as comfortable as possible in order to encourage people to wear things like lifejackets as much as possible. It's great to be asked by a company for our input as it's the stuff we use on a regular basis and to have input into the development is amazing from a sailor's perspective. I feel like when you've tested the equipment in the toughest conditions and worn it for 40,000 miles, you have a different perspective and a grasp on how little improvements can make a big difference.

Talk us through the end of the 2014-15 edition, when you lifted the trophy with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. What are your memories of that period?

The end of the race was a weird experience. After the race had finished, it actually felt like quite a short time that we were there on shore, and we didn’t really get a chance to sit together and think about what we’d just achieved. And then for a few of us to get straight back on a plane to America to sail back across the Atlantic, well, it was pretty tiring to say the least. It would have been nice to get a month off just to relax, sit back and enjoy it with the family – but you have to take those opportunites when they come. As a sailor, it’s quite a difficult part of the year when the Volvo Ocean Race finishes, as the season’s coming to an end, and it can be quite tough to get work for another six months after the end of the race.

How does something like a Volvo Ocean Race win strengthen the relationships within a crew? Are you still in touch with the guys?

On a project like a Volvo Ocean Race team, you spend a lot of time, with a small amount of people, in a very confined space. It’s quite nice to get away from that for a while at first, but at the end of the day, the things that you go through make you pretty special friends. I’ve stayed in contact with everyone – we’re all sailing at regattas around the world, and sometimes we’ll be on the same boat, sometimes different ones, but we all get together and tell stories about silly things, and it’s great to hang out with the guys as it brings the memories back. A lot happens in a short period, and you forget a lot of it.

So what’s the plan for the 2017-18 edition? Less than a year to go, has the phone rung yet?

I think you’d be kidding yourself if you just sat around and waited for the phone to ring – there are so many good sailors out there. I’ve been actively looking for a job for the next race, I’d love to do it again if everything was right. If the team looked good and had the goal of doing everything possible to win the race, that would be a cool experience. It’s going to be a very different race next time – there are some longer legs, a lot of Southern Ocean, and as a sailor, that’s really appealing. At the same time, it’s not easy to get a ride in this race, so it’s a tough time of year, as you need to start now to fill your calendar, or you’ll be unemployed, and there’s nothing worse than having to let people down after making a commitment. I’ve done it four times now and been lucky enough to win two of them, and I love the race more than ever.

You’re on for the hat-trick of wins next race, having lifted the trophy with Groupama in 2011-12 and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in 2014-15. Does that play on your mind?

I never really thought about it before, but it’s been mentioned a couple of times, and that’s kind of like dangling the carrot! As far as I know, there’s only one other person who’s done it, and that’s Mark Christensen, who won with EF Language, Illbruck Challenge and ABN Amro.

I suppose the bad news is that if you win the next race, you have to do one more, to beat his record!

[Laughs] Oh no, don’t say that. But you’re right, yeah!

You’ve been around the race for over a decade now. What’s your view on the evolutions ahead of the next edition?

I think change is always good. It’s always great to see evolution, although I’m not sure that drastic change is the way forward. I’d love the see the race stay in monohull – I think it’d be a real shame if the race went to multihull as it feels like we’re losing all the monohull races in the world, yet 99% of the sailing community still sails monohulls. As people heard in the radio debate I did with Abby Ehler on the female rule change, I’m not against the rule of having girls onboard – I don’t think anyone is – but I’d love to see at least one or two all-female crews in the race, which would be awesome as you’d have a race within the race. It’d be a shame to not use the momentum started by SCA last race. It’s definitely a tough call.

How do you think having a mixed crew would change the dynamic onboard?

I’m not sure. Look, it’s a really macho environment onboard a Volvo Ocean 65, and even on Team SCA it was pretty macho-feminine – those chicks are tough. It takes a unique person to sail around the world.

How about the changes to the Onboard Reporter concept? Do you think sailors recognise the importance of the media in the race?

We’re trying to encourage people to be interested in the race, and the best way to do that is to show them what we do, which is why OBRs are so key – and, bonus, it saves us sailors doing it. In my first race, one or two of the sailors had to be the OBR, and it was something that no-one wanted to do because you had to do it on your off-watch, so it was a case of quickly taking a couple of pictures and sending them back. Now, it’s completely different – these guys are professionals, it’s what they do. The leaps forward in the last two editions of the race are cool and good to see, and everyone onboard does what they can to help the OBR capture whatever they need, whether that’s interviews or explaining stuff, or if there’s wildlife then making sure that they get up on deck and get the footage. It’s a nice experience to have them around.

I think teams are waking up to the media side of things and want the best OBR possible, in the same way they’d want the best watch captain, or bowman, or trimmer. You have an obligation to your sponsors and to Volvo Ocean Race to provide the footage, and so in one way you do have to treat them as part of the crew because you’re trying to find the best of the best to fill the boat up. Knowing that the guy you have onboard does his job, whatever that job is, to a high level is key. As far as we were concerned onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Matt Knighton was always part of the team – he was there to help us, we were there to help him, and we were all there to help the sponsor and the race. It’s not an easy job and it’s not one that many people would both want to do and be able to do well. I was lucky enough to have Matt Knighton with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Yann Riou with Groupama, and they were both top level OBRs. I think it’s nice to have someone around that isn’t sailing the boat, as it gives you something to talk about – everyone is focusing on speed and sails for 40 days and then Matt comes up on deck wanting to talk about baseball.

So what’s the process going forward for you trying to get on a team? Is there anyone you’d particularly love to sail with?

I haven’t spoken to anyone successfully yet. I have a lot of respect for Charlie Enright and the way he did things with Team Alvimedica. I’d love to sail with him and Mark one day. They have a great attitude, and their team environment seemed to be one of the best last edition. They stood out last race as leaders. I think it’s really important to be half sailor, half businessman these days, as the teams are smaller. The skipper has to be more than just a good sailor, he has to do all the media appearances, run the business – there’s so much to it. Before, you could almost hire a business partner and have a whole team to run the business side. I think it’s a really hard job to be a Volvo Ocean Race skipper and be everyone’s boss and everyone’s friend.

You’ve had some of the best skippers in Volvo Ocean Race history – not least your two winning bosses, Frank Cammas and Ian Walker. What were the differences in their styles?

Ooh, that’s a good question. [Pauses] I think they’re both very, very intense. They seem like complete opposites, but in many ways, they are very similar. For a start, they’re both really good sailors, and very smart in terms of business. There’s obviously a fitness level difference between the two! [laughs]. Ian is just one of the guys, and he’d rather take everyone for a drink than to the gym, so he has my vote there. I think Cammas was a bit more distant as a boss, and he had his own way of doing things, not in a bad way, but I think where some of us would go and have a few beers to unwind after a leg, he would rather go bike riding or spear fishing. The cool thing about that is that we did loads of really cool team acitivities with Groupama and it was a different experience to what I was used to. I think it’s valuable exercise to have team building and there are loads of ways of going about it, none of which are bad, it’s just different cultures. And of course, I’m proof that neither way is wrong, because my team won the trophy both times! So whatever Frank or Ian did, it was pretty successful.

If the Volvo Ocean Race is the world’s most global event, you’re probably the epitome of a global sailor – you’re from Australia, you live in the UK, you’ve sailed on a Dutch, Irish, Chinese, French and Emirati boat. Do you still feel patriotic? And do you think the Volvo Ocean Race could ever return to a more nationality-driven structure?

It’s tough. I think it’s the same across all events, even something like the America’s Cup is more about business than nationalities now. I guess businesses want a diverse and global workforce, so it works. Last time, we were sponsored by Abu Dhabi, which wasn’t a brand in the traditional sense, and so we had support from a large amount of people rather than one company. I think that’s the key – even if you’re sailing for a sponsor which is a brand, it’s good to have a nation behind you. You could clearly see that Charlie and Mark had a huge following in America last race, and so they probably had a similar feeling to us onboard Abu Dhabi. Without doubt, that huge support is one of the best things about the race and I think we should encourage that.

Do you think we could see an Australian boat in the race – and if so, would you want to be involved?

I think it would be awesome. I’m not sure whether it would happen – I don’t know if the marketplace and the infrastructure is there in Australia right now. My gut says that it might be a challenge to get funding for a team like that, but if it was to happen then for sure I would love to be involved. Hopefully the race will be able to stop in Australia again – that would be something of a homecoming for me.

What do you think to the 2017-18 race track? It’s looking pretty epic…

The whole Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits region was a pretty challenging part of the race – it was tough sailing. It may have been stinking hot and light winds but it’s very difficult to make your boat go fast in those conditions. Going back to the Southern Ocean is going to be hard too, it’s freezing cold, windy, but there’s nothing better than turning around Cape Horn, that’s for sure. To know you’re going to spend another two and a half weeks down there makes it a very cold race. It will be very cool, it’s the best sailing in the world, and that’s why people do the Volvo Ocean Race.

Go on… try and describe the Southern Ocean to someone like me, who has never been and will never go there…

Well, I can try to put it into words, but not words that would make you wish you were there! It is cold, foggy, damp, miserable, but it’s the most beautiful place you can go to. The colour of the water is amazing – a perfect dark blue – and the wildlife is unreal, albatrosses, whales, there are icebergs – and it’s really tough sailing. It can blow 20 knots in Alicante but it’s a soft 20 knots, the air is warm, whereas 20 knots in the Southern Ocean would feel like 30 knots in Spain. It’s dense and cold. It’s rewarding, and to make your boat go fast and to float is a tough experience. If you can master sailing light winds and heavy winds, you’ve got a good chance of winning the race.

Can you explain why you keep coming back to this race? This would be your fifth consecutive ride – what is it that’s so special about the Volvo Ocean Race?

I love being on the ocean, and I think I could stay out there for 60 days. I think the whole idea of the race is really appealing. I love the fact you’re racing yachts around the world, that’s a pretty cool and rare experience. To win it takes a lot, and the fact you have to work with eight or ten guys and girls onboard to try and win the legs, but also the shore team, who are a huge part of the race as well – you can never forget the people who spend their time fixing everything that you break! I fell in love with the race when I was an apprentice sail maker at North Sails, and I was working with a guy called Alby Pratt, who has also done the race a couple of times. I just had in my mind that I wanted to do this race. I managed it once, and thought I’d love to do it again, and that feeling never left. I’d love to do it again if I get the chance. It’s hard to explain why, but I’m kind of hooked. It’s very addictive – and I’m not the only one who feels that way. If you look through the records there aren’t many people who have done the race once and walked away.