How the perfect skipper won the first race

Text by Agathe Armand
Suggested accommodation in Alicante
Dock talk #4
How the perfect skipper won the first race Text by Agathe Armand
“We won because of our skipper. We exceeded our own ability because Ramon Carlin trusted us.”

Forty years after winning the Whitbread 1973-74 with Sayula, Butch Dalrymple-Smith still looks up to his former leader - just like everyone else in that team.

On September 8, 1973, a fleet of 17 boats left Portsmouth to tackle the first edition of the race. Nobody would have bet on Sayula, a team of Mexican rookies and international sailors skippered by Mexico’s self-made man Ramon Carlin. 

The fleet returned to the UK seven months later with Carlin’s men in the lead. They won the first Whitbread. 

On June 27 next year, in Gothenburg, a new winning skipper will grab what is now named the Volvo Ocean Race Trophy.

Just like Sayula, the success of that team – whoever they are – will depend on the respect and friendship they will have for each other. And of the skipper that will lead them.

Crew member Dalrymple-Smith just got back from Mexico City, where the Sayula team gathered in Carlin’s house for a long overdue reunion. Most of them hadn’t met since the prizegiving ceremony in 1974, but personalities and characters haven’t changed.

“It was wonderful, and very emotional. You can find good sailors everywhere but it’s very rare to find someone with the vision of Ramon Carlin. He was – and still is – a great guy, and a great leader.”

Aged 50 at the time of the first Whitbread, Carlin saw an ad for it in a UK newspaper. So he bought a Swan 65, took his wife Paquita, his son Enrique, his best mate Adolfo and two nephews with him, and got in touch with professional sailors from all around the world – an Australian, a British, three Americans and a Dutch.

The 12 teammates didn’t know each other and met shortly before the race. They faced some of the best sailors of the time – skippers like Chay Blyth, who had already sailed non-stop around the world, or French sailing hero Eric Tabarly.

But they won. Because they were led by someone who understood how to get the best out of his team, and who did his best to keep everyone happy.

“Ramon was as close to a perfect captain that I have ever experienced,” explains Bob Martin, another one of Carlin’s guys. “He was enthusiastic, he did everything first class, he cared about us, we had the best food and the boat was perfectly equipped.”

“He was a perfect skipper really,” adds Dalrymple-Smith. “He identified the things that were necessary to win the race and he took care of it. He let the best sailors sail the boat, and the best navigator do the navigation.”

They say delegating is the key to good leadership. Carlin knew that. The Mexican businessman managed his team smartly, and humbly, even in the toughest Southern Ocean conditions.

“We were sailing in the Roaring Forties and everyone’s nerves were a bit shaken,” he recalls.

“I was not the best helmsman on the boat, the watch captain on deck was one of the best, so he asked me if I would like to take the wheel, and I said no.”

“He was very, very considerate,” adds Dalrymple-Smith. “If someone was sick, he would take his night watch. He would dry our wet gear if we forgot to do it. Others would scream. He just wasn’t like that.

“Everything that made the difference between success and failure can be traced back to Ramon. And that hasn’t changed – the race still requires leadership.”