Flying the flag

Text by Jonno Turner
Zoom in
Fair winds, Knut!
Flying the flag Text by Jonno Turner
Two Olympic medals (one gold, one silver) and a hatful of World and European Championships under his belt, Xabi Fernández is one of the most decorated sailors in the game.

But, so far, one trophy has alluded him. Despite four attempts at the Volvo Ocean Race, the Basque athlete hasn't managed to get his hands on the hallowed silver just yet.

We caught up with him to find out how he's recovered from an exhausting 2014-15 campaign onboard MAPFRE, the importance of a Spanish boat to Spain, and a look ahead to the next edition...

Hi Xabi. What have you been upto since the end of the 2014-15 edition?

This is one of the first times that I’ve actually been able to rest after a race. Believe it or not, that actually makes the physical recovery slower – you don’t have a goal to focus on, to lose weight for, to get fit for.

In that sense, it’s been a bit tougher physically, but mentally it’s been much better. I’ve had a lot of family time – I’ve been at home all summer and over Christmas. I’ve missed a few of those over my career so that’s been great.

Obviously Iker is really involved in the Olympics, but for me it’s been a bit more relaxed. I’ll do some sailing on smaller boats, catamarans, and slowly get back into it. After all, it’s our job. I’m looking forward to 2016 and I think that the next Volvo Ocean Race will come around really quickly.

So you’re already thinking about the next edition?

Of course. There’s a long way to go, almost 18 months, but I guess this is the starting point. We’re presenting ideas, but it’s important to remember that we’re still quite far from the start.

How important is it to have a good run-up to the start line? Last edition, your team were a little later than a lot of the others…

It’s definitely important. Last time, the world economy was bad and we struggled to get to the start line. I think that if the Volvo Ocean Race management hadn’t taken some unilateral decisions, like bringing in the one-design, we probably wouldn’t have made it at all.

Right now, we’ve committed to at least trying very hard to do the next race, which is the first step. Being there early doesn’t guarantee the win, but for sure, it helps.

You’re very passionate about this race, and if you manage to sail the next one, that will be your fifth. What is it that keeps bringing you back for more?

That’s a tough question! I’ve done four Volvo Ocean Races already – and I think you find new reasons to do it every time. The beginning, I remember it like a dream. We just wanted it so bad. Then the third one we did, with Team Teléfonica, was the great one. We had loads of time to prepare, we had funding, perfect timing, but in the end we just missed out on the trophy.

Last time we struggled for time, but I think we still sailed a good race. Next time? We’d love to do a race like 2011-12 on Team Teléfonica. We’ll do everything we can to win.

How important is it for Spain to have a boat with a Spanish flag on the start line of this Race?

I do think it’s important. We had a lot of historical participation in the Whitbread Race, with boats such as Fortuna – but then there was a bit of a break, with no Spanish team and very few Spanish sailors. When we came back in 2005 it was huge. I think that Spanish people are following the Volvo Ocean Race more and more – it’s made ocean racing really interesting for the public. It would be a huge shame not to have a Spanish flag on the start line. Olympic sailing is very big, particularly over the last 20-25 years, it’s the sport with the most medals in Spain, but now the Volvo Ocean Race is also a real part of our national sailing picture.

Of course, it must help that the Race is based in Alicante…

Of course. For me, to have the start of the Race in Alicante is huge for Spain. It’s a round the world event, so you can’t have the whole thing, but the start is the next best thing. I used to watch it on the TV as a kid, and it’s great that for 10 years now we’ve had the start of the Race in Spain – first with Galicia, and then with Alicante. The economic data shows that it’s a very good investment as well. I really think that the two regions have made big steps in the sailing world.

Perhaps at first some people might not have liked it being based here, as the base of ocean sailing has always historically been the UK or France. But I think everyone has got used to it and embraced it. It’s an amazing headquarters there, with fantastic facilities, and I really hope that the Race stays in Spain.

When you look back on last campaign, how do you reflect upon it? You’ve had seven or eight months now to think about what went right and wrong…

For me, it’s not an excuse at all, but to be in such a big rush to prepare the race last time, was a mistake. We didn’t like it, and we knew it wasn’t the right way, but of course we didn’t have much choice.

But on the other hand, I think that if we hadn’t done it that way, we probably wouldn’t be here now [looking ahead to next edition], so it was worth it.

Of course, it was a shame the way that we started the first leg, as it was a very expensive mistake to come back from. But after the first leg, I think that we sailed a high level in all of the legs and In-Port Races. That gives us confidence that we can really do well if we prepare enough next time.

You were skipper in Iker’s absence on a few legs in the last edition. How do you see the team shaping up for next race? 

It’s true that we have a big team. It starts right at the top, with Pedro (Campos) and César (Elízaga), who make the thing happen. We don’t see it like other teams which have just one person leading the crew. I really think that last time didn’t work out too badly - Iker and I, two people at the head, making decisions. Right now, I’m going to look after the pre-race work as Iker is committed to the Olympics this summer. I really hope that he can be motivated after that to take the helm and be Skipper again. That would be the ideal scenario.