Meet the woman with the inside track on the Volvo Ocean 65

Text by Jonno Turner
The mast-erclass
Meet the woman with the inside track on the Volvo Ocean 65 Text by Jonno Turner
Having clocked up over 80,000 miles sailing on a One Design Volvo Ocean 65 over the last three and a half years, it's fair to say that Liz Wardley knows this boat inside out. Probably better than anyone else on the planet.

Not content with  completing the 2014-15 edition of the race onboard all-female campaign Team SCA, she now spends her days taking them apart, and then re-building them, as part of The Boatyard's extensive re-fit process...

Quite the CV. So with just 229 days until the start of the next edition, will we see this elite sailor and boat captain – with two Volvo Ocean Races under her belt – make a third lap of the planet? We caught up with Liz to find out about life after the Volvo Ocean Race, the re-fit challenge, and the future.

Liz – thanks for catching up with us. It seems like life is pretty busy for you right now! What have you been up to in the Boatyard?

After the last race, I decided pretty immediately that I wanted to do the race again. I didn’t necessarily want to be part of an all-female team again as I’d already done two campaigns, so I thought, if I’m going to stand a chance of getting on a guys team, or a mixed team, then I had to make myself super-skilled. I asked Nick Bice (Chief Technical Development Officer) if I could be part of the re-fit process, because I wanted to learn this boat inside out, in the hopes of making myself indispensable for the next race. I’ve always loved playing around with boats so it seemed like a natural fit. During the re-fit process, there are two of us boat captains, so we make sure that everything is ready at the right time as the boats go through the bays, and then when it comes to the commissioning phase we make everything come together and ensure that everyone is on schedule. Alongside that I’m working in the engineering department, which is really interesting in terms of the technical aspects which go into these boats.

Do you enjoy working in the Boatyard? It’s a really cool facility down there… 

I’m primarily a sailor, but if I wasn’t doing that, then this would be pretty much my dream job. The team in Lisbon is really high-end, we have the best of each area in the world working here. It’s a very fun place to be. Everyone is super passionate about the Volvo Ocean Race and you don’t need a lot of motivation to get out of bed in the morning. We’re under a lot of pressure and the schedule is really tight, especially during the commissioning phase when teams start to arrive and breathe down your neck about getting things turned around. Everyone is super professional and we’re getting fine-tuned at it now. We’ve got the last boat in Bay 1 and we’ve got the second completed boat going in the water this week.

"I wanted to learn this boat inside out, in the hopes of making myself indispensable for the next race."

You’ve spent more time on the Volvo Ocean 65s than anyone else in the world. Any ideas how many hours you’ve now spent either onboard, or around, these boats?

Wow. That's a good question. I'm not sure on hours, but I can guess the miles. I joined SCA a year before the race, then sailed the race, and since then I've been doing deliveries, then sailing a Volvo Ocean 65 every day in Gothenburg at Volvo HQ where we clocked up over 4,000 miles in five months. Now, I'm around them every day – I'd say around 80,000 miles!

Have you learned anything you didn’t already know during the re-fit process?

Definitely. We all had a specific area to take responsibility for during the Team SCA campaign, and I was looking after the engineering side of things there. In my role as boat captain at the Boatyard, I’m involved in a little bit of everything, so I’m really broadening my horizons in terms of knowledge and skills around the boat. There were areas that I was responsible for during the 2014-15 race which I know a hell of a lot better now. It gives you a lot more confidence making decisions prior to a leg start.

Your main focus remains trying to get back in the race as a sailor – how is that going?

I’m in a good position being on the inside of things – as the rumours build I am contacting different people to see if there are any opportunities. I did a bit of sailing with one of the teams, but that wasn’t a trial, it was just a delivery. I’ve had a few replies saying it’s all dependant on budget, or key markets, so there have been some mixed responses, but nothing overwhelmingly positive as yet.

That must be tough – is it tough to keep positive?

I definitely haven’t lost faith. I’m living, breathing and working everything Volvo Ocean Race, so I have a very big will and drive to do the race. Make no mistake, I love my job in the Boatyard, but I want to be on that start line in October.

"Iā€™m living, breathing and working the Volvo Ocean Race ā€“ I want to be on that start line in October."

What would your message be to potential teams looking for a female sailor?

I think it would be pretty easy to lose hope, but I haven’t. I’m not just sitting here living in hope and waiting for a call, I’m working as hard as I can to be in the right place at the right time. I know that even though I’ve spent a lot of time on the boat and know it inside out, I’m not as experienced in offshore sailing as some of the guys who might be getting picked up. There are tons of awesome female sailors out there, but you’ve also got to fit the profile of what people are looking for.

How does the transition from boat captain to sailor work? At what point do you need to make the mental and physical switch to compete in the race – is there a cut-off?

I haven’t stopped training since the last race. I’ve been lucky that my schedule has involved sailing a lot on these boats, and also a lot of physical work. I have a degree in Physical Training, so I know what to do to keep myself in check. I’m actually training more now than I was on the lead up to the last race with Team SCA. Our personal trainer from the SCA campaign, Santi, actually helped me through my Physical Training course, so we’ve been in touch a lot, and, given the benchmark training we were doing prior to the 2014-15 start, I’m at the same level. I think the fitness is slightly down, but the strength is up, so I’m confident that I could integrate into a mixed team pretty easily.

"I haven't stopped training since the last race ā€“ I'm at the same fitness levels as before the 2014-15 edition, so I'm confident I could integrate pretty easily"

Has been involved in the Boatyard opened your eyes to the scale and quality of what they do?

I feel that the Boatyard was massively underestimated last race. Everything from the planning, to the prep, to actually pulling it off, is pretty impressive. I definitely think we were a bit sheltered as sailors during the last race. I hadn’t seen it all in action before I got there – and I think that anyone who walks through the facility and sees how everything is going on would be seriously impressed. If anyone has any kind of concerns or issues putting their trust in the Boatyard, they can rest easy. It’s a very smooth process.

Talk us through the strict adherence to the one-design rules, it’s quite an in-depth process with very small margins, isn’t it?

Between the boats coming into the shed and getting completely stripped, from what we call Bay 1, to the point where they’re re-weighed just before branding, every single item is taken off the boat, right down to the washers, so that when the boat goes back in the water you know exactly what’s the same. We took off 600-odd items, and had a 10-page scope of work listing all the different details, complete with photos and illustrations. We weigh the boats under a very strict protocol prior to their branding, and they’re closer than they were after coming out of construction.

During the race, several Team SCA sailors mentioned that sometimes you just lacked a little experience and it would have been nice to have someone to tell you whether to push a bit harder, or ease off. Have you learned any life hacks or shortcuts around the boat during this process?

I definitely have found little things popping up. We’ve done a lot of deliveries and tried new things, which is really helpful. Sometimes you think, why didn’t we try this earlier? You never stop learning, even in one-design boats.