'I have to make sure I do the Volvo Ocean Race' – Falcone

Text Agathe Armand
Dongfeng Race Team, a Chinese entry in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15
Travelling packages for sailing fans in Abu Dhabi
'I have to make sure I do the Volvo Ocean Race' – Falcone Text Agathe Armand
Having just won the America’s Cup with Team Oracle, Shannon Falcone already looks forward to the next challenge – which may very well be the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15. After sailing twice in the race, the charismatic grinder tells us about the differences and the similarities of both events, and why doing both made him a better sailor.

Shannon Falcone
Age: 32
Nationality: Antigua
Sailed the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09 (eight legs) and the 2011-12 edition (one leg) with PUMA Ocean Racing
Won the America’s Cup 2013 with Team Oracle USA

It has been over a month since you won the America’s Cup in San Francisco. What are your plans now?  
“It’s still crazy to think about it really! It was only a month ago and it already seems a lifetime ago. Since our defending campaign was a success, Team Oracle still dictate where the future of the event goes. I think they are going to take time over the winter to really scope and understand what they want to do next. Who knows how far the next Cup is! I think it’s going to be a pretty long campaign considering that the Olympics are in 2016 and the event usually wants to put itself in a separate year to other big global events.”

So you have the time to enter the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15?
“Definitely! I’ve done two Volvo Ocean Races but for short periods of time only. I haven’t technically done the Volvo because I haven’t rounded the Cape Horn so definitely, I have to make sure I do that! I’m keeping my eyes and ears open and I’m following very closely all the developments.

“Now that the Volvo Ocean Race has gone one-design, it’s more in my favour because it’s a much smaller time requirement to be involved for a full campaign. If you have the right group of guys, you can pretty much come in last minute and do just a little bit of sailing. You don’t have to do the months and months of testing and developing beforehand.

“I’ve also had a son this year and I’ve always thought the Volvo was a great race to take the family on. They go around the world and see new places – it’s a travelling circus. Nowadays, you sort of lose that; you jump on a plane and sail. To go round the world at the pace of sailing sort of slows everything down, even though they are super-fast boats.”

Speaking of going around the world – what are the key differences between a global offshore challenge like the Volvo and a match-racing event like the Cup?
“The Volvo is an ultra-endurance race. It’s the Ironman of sailing! The nine months that you’re racing is a gradual decline of your physical and mental performances. Even if you don’t feel it, even if you think you’re just as good as you were at the start, you’re not.

“In the Cup for example, when you were training at max heart rate, we would make simple mental tests. We realised that at maximum physical exhaustion, the simplest mental puzzle becomes very complex. It doesn’t feel like it when you’re doing it, but if someone is filming you and you’re watching it back later, it’s crazy to see how much slower you become! We did that to study how to make split-second decisions on the racecourse at maximum exhaustion.

“The Volvo may follow a slower pace but the lack of sleep, the freeze-dried food and the fact that you’re in a black box with all your teammates for nine months affect your mental performances.

“In the Cup you’re pushing the boat hard and the risk is extremely high, but you do have a whole team behind you – on-the-water support and the guys back at the base. You push every day on the water knowing that you’ll have a chance to fix any problem during the night.

“On the Volvo boats, you’re far from any assistance and you really feel it. You need to back off. It’s such a long race that you’ve got to get to the finish. You do give everything because every boat length counts, but you also know that you need to always have something in the tank.

“And that’s true for both races – no matter what’s happening, you just have to keep sailing fast. Whether you’re two boat lengths behind or 200 miles behind, the game is still open until you cross the finish line.”

When are you the most tired then – after a long Volvo leg or a tough Cup day?
“I haven’t sailed the new Volvo Ocean 65 yet but I’m pretty sure the feeling after a leg won’t change – I felt like my body was destroyed. You pay a big price in the Volvo Ocean Race. In the Cup, you may be burning a lot of calories but you get a good recovery. It sounds like a prima donna comment but you get some good sleep, a lot of physical rehabilitation and a physiotherapist on a daily basis. In the Volvo, helmsmen and trimmers hold the wheel or ropes for hours and end up with big muscular issues. You get the same thing with grinding – I’m still working on scar tissue I developed during my first Volvo.

“But the satisfaction you get from the Volvo Ocean Race is very different from what you get from the America’s Cup. The Cup is a one-on-one fight; it’s you and your teammates against the other guys. The Volvo is a race against the other teams but primarily you’re racing against yourself. You’re out there in the ocean by yourself a lot of the time. It’s crazy when after two weeks at sea, you’re within a couple of boat lengths of your competitors, but a lot of the time you’re motivating yourself as a team and you’re making sure that everyone is always on it. To do the Volvo Ocean Race and to finish is, in itself, a great team accomplishment.”

Which skills do you transfer from one event to another?  
“When the America’s Cup was still raced in monohulls, I learnt a lot more in sailing by doing the Volvo Ocean Race. Going back to trimming and helming made me a better Cup sailor.

“And it still helps as a sailor to do both. The conditions in San Francisco are very Volvo-like! The water is freezing cold and the summer fog makes for very cold conditions. That’s where you could see the difference between Cup-only sailors, and people who’ve done both. If you’ve done the Volvo Ocean Race, it’s still a walk in the park. No matter how cold you get, at the end of the day you’re coming back and you’re jumping into a hot shower so there is no reason to complain. Doing the Volvo really puts discomfort in perspective. You’re not going to be wet for three weeks so no matter what you do, the comfort level will still be better than during the race.

“I’m sure lots of Cup sailors would be great Volvo sailors but it’s that aspect that keeps them from doing it. It’s the dog food, the fact that you’re going to wear the same pair of socks or underwear for two weeks; it’s those kinds of things… Many sailors would love to jump on a Volvo boat for two or three days. But it’s in the long term that things change. You have to be a little crazy.”

You obviously love offshore racing – didn’t you feel like sailing away from San Francisco Bay sometimes during the Cup?  
“Yes, that’s my thing! I did my first transatlantic when I was three years old and we sailed round the world as a family. For a lot of people, and a lot of Cup sailors, sailing is going to the yacht club to take a dinghy out for a few hours. For me, sailing has always been the big blue, going into the ocean with nothing around.

“I really like being in the middle of the sea but I know it’s difficult to share that feeling with the people watching the sport. I think we’ve seen in the Cup that no matter how amazing the boats are, no matter how great the racing is, it’s the team’s tale, the personal side of the story that matters.”