Lifting the bar

Text by Jon Bramley
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Lifting the bar Text by Jon Bramley
 
It's the question we are asked more than any other: now the race has finished what on earth do you do with all those boats? And how will you ensure they’re all still ship-shape for the next edition in 2017-18?

Darned good questions but the man with the answers – and many others besides – is 37-year-old true blue Aussie, Nick Bice, the head of the Volvo Ocean Race Boatyard.

A two-time racer and a further two editions under his belt as shore crew, Bice was the obvious choice when the Volvo Ocean Race went scouting in 2012 for a character with endless passion and expertise to run the event’s ground-breaking shared maintenance centre.

Anyone who has met Bice – or ‘Bicey’ as he’s known by everybody from the CEO to the doorman at Race HQ – knows that it would have to take one hell of a challenge to have persuaded him to part with his native Adelaide.

But running the Boatyard in Alicante was a golden career break that he just couldn’t say ‘no’ to. And three years on there’s certainly no regrets.

Sure, Bicey had his fair share of sceptics to win over as he went about trying to persuade seven team shore chiefs that they could slash their teams by more than half and rely on the Boatyard to meet all their maintenance and spare parts needs. But 38,739 nautical miles and nine months of hard racing later, the Boatyard and the Volvo Ocean 65 one-design boat it serviced, have more than proved their mettle.

“Throughout the entire race there were only two major incidents – one was definitely human error because of a boat being sailed into a reef, and the other was a broken mast,” he says.

“Other than that, the problems were relatively small fry.”

Compare that to the previous edition in 2011-12 when two boats were forced to limp to dry land and safety after breakages on day one, setting the tone for an entire race of cracks and crashes.

Nonetheless, Bicey took time to persuade all the shore managers that the Boatyard, in which resource, human and materials would all be shared, was the way ahead.

Those who didn’t buy in completely, hiring more shore hands than needed, paid for their scepticism in the pocket, he says.

“During the last race, the teams that embraced the boatyard and utilised it to its full extent got the benefits. The teams that were sceptical about it and didn’t utilise it to the maximum probably wasted money.”

This is no time to crow, however. Bice is convinced most in the industry now see the Boatyard as he does: a model of collaboration, efficiency and a golden opportunity to push down the technological barriers of racing boat development and maintenance.

He has already drawn detailed plans for the forthcoming three years, taking us through the next race, starting in October 2017, and beyond.

Right now, his immediate concern are the three boats in his care at Race HQ in Alicante, Spain – Team SCA, Team Vestas Wind and Team Alvimedica.

“We’ve built our tent so we don’t need to shrink-wrap the boats and they’re in there now. They’re completely out of the elements which in any case, aren’t too bad in Alicante.

“The tent is 65 metres by 20 metres, 1300 square metres. We’ve got all our workshops in there, our small sail loft floor and three boats.”

The others to contest the last race, MAPFRE, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Team Brunel and Dongfeng Race Team are wintering in Sanxenxo, Spain, Lisbon, the Caribbean and London respectively.

Bice has also been busy recruiting a Boatyard team which will eventually grow to 50-plus once suppliers have provided their own staff to a multi-talented, united group.

“We have got seven people right now; then from November-December, we’ll have four full-time, two part-time and from January onwards we’re going to start looking at filling positions. From Q2 next year we’ll fill positions quite quickly,” he says.

“Full time we’ll be 15 and the extras coming along afterwards will come from the suppliers. So we’re going to be staffed up to 50-60 at race time during the busy periods.”

Midway through next year, Bicey’s dream remains a training camp based in Lisbon – although he concedes that may well not happen without buy-in from cash-conscious teams. He then looks ahead to the big re-fit of all the boats come the final quarter of next year.

“It’ll be like stripping a car down, repainting it, replacing what’s broken, upgrading what needs to be upgraded and making changes that we feel are necessary,” he says.

“You could have a boat in there in October and by January 1, it’s now a new, Volvo Ocean 65 ready to compete in the next edition of the race.”

The boats will then spend much of 2017 training, before a probable rendez-vous at that year’s Fastnet Race off the coast of the United Kingdom prior to the start of the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 itself in October.

With plans to work even more closely with teams and suppliers in the new cycle, Bicey believes the future could not be brighter.

“The potential going forward is much, much bigger. The buy-in from the suppliers and technicians has made a model in the industry that is second to none,” he concludes.

“We now have the trust of the teams. We can set new levels of professionalism for the entire industry.”