Dongfeng's Stu Bannatyne is a man who has dedicated his life to conquering the Southern Ocean. He's already done an incredible SEVEN Volvo Ocean Races, winning three times – and he can't wait to get back down south in 2017-18.
Hi Stu! Tell us what's been going on in the Dongfeng camp recently...
We’re trying to find the right balance between doing some offshore training and testing, and some inshore training and onshore testing. We completed an offshore testing trip from our base in Lorient down to the Boatyard in Lisbon just over a week ago, and that was very productive. The main reason for coming to Lisbon was to replace the mast – we’re just putting a new one in the boat now, and we’ve spent a few days getting that dialled in.
We’ve also been checking out our first set of sails which we’ll be using during the race. We’re not using them yet – we’ll continue with our training sails. We’re leaving on Thursday morning for a seven day trip via Madeira and the Azores back to Lorient, which will give us even more offshore training and testing.
You've been working hard in Lorient, not just in terms of sailing, but also physical and mental preparation. Talk us through it...
It’s been great, and what we've been doing is fairly typical in any kind of top-level sailing programme. Every area of preparation has to be looked at, including the physical side – we’ve got a very good trainer who is putting us through our paces in the gym – and psychological. We have a mental coach who is currently working with Team France in Bermuda and will be joining us straight after that event.
The same focus goes into the nutrition side of things, making sure that all the meals we’re eating both at the base and on the boat have been planned to make sure we’re getting the right fuel to operate properly. We need to train hard and that means being well-fed, and looked after when we’re racing.
It's important to balance that shore side prep with getting enough miles on the boat, working together as a team and testing different sail crossovers.
We’re focusing hard on offshore manoeuvres, testing, getting comfortable with the boat – so that once you start the race, everything is second nature. You need to be very quick to go to the right settings, so we’ll establish a sail crossover chart that we have good faith in, and the same thing for stuff like daggerboard positions. We’re working to find our base lines for those things so that we can quickly move to the right set up.
What do you think will be the secret to winning the next edition?
In my opinion, the number one factor in this race has always been reliability – that’s in terms of the sails, the masts and the boat, but also in terms of the people, electronics. We try and push the boat as hard as we can in practice in order to try and root out any weak spots – and fix them. That’s the advantage of starting early like we have – we have more time to keep chipping away at the reliability of the boat, and we can start the race with a high level of confidence that we’ve got everything covered.
I think the race will be closer than it’s ever been in 2017-18. Being able to change gears quickly in terms of stack, trim and sail setup is going to be really, really important. Everyone will go pretty much the same speed, but it’s those marginal gains here and there that will really matter in the end.
You've been doing this race for almost 25 years – has the preparation changed in that time?
To be honest, I haven’t seen a huge change in the overall concept of race preparation. I was very fortunate to get a start fairly early on in my career, and at that time, I think the sport had already turned from being an amateur challenge to a fully-professional sport.
Obviously as knowledge evolves around various performance factors such as physical training, people learn more about it and develop new techniques. One of the biggest driving forces behind round the world racing, and a particular interest of mine, is the technical development – whether it be sails, rigs, boatbuilding, naval architecture, all these things have been developing over time, so it’s been really nice to be a part of that and it’s different now because it’s one design but there are still challenges in terms of getting the best out of the boat.
We have new tools now, like the weather modelling, which is way better than it ever used to be because we have exponentially better computer power available both pre-race and onboard. The weather analysis that was going on 25 years ago compared to now is completely different – the competence and accuracy of the weather models now is worlds apart from that.
You've spent a lot of time in the Southern Ocean – how tough is it to maintain that balance between speed, performance and safety, when you're racing through the most remote and hostile region on the planet?
The experience that I’ve gained over the years has given me a lot of insight and a feeling for when you can push and when you can’t. I mentioned before about the weather models – a lot of decisions around whether and how hard to push are based around those, and how close the boats are around you, and how hard they’re pushing. It’s nice to have the experience to know that sometimes pushing or backing off can make all the difference. Sometimes, a sail change to go with a slightly more conservative combination during the hours of darkness can actually end up with you going faster. Some people think that you need to keep your masthead sail up to push hard, but actually if you change down, it can be easier to sail the boat and faster, too. The experience of knowing when is the right time to make those changes is invaluable and something that I bring to the team.
Dongfeng's squad is one of the most diverse in the history of the race. How does it feel to be part of that?
It’s certainly a very interesting crew and I must say I’m pretty excited about sailing with this group of people. As you say, it's a very diverse group and has a lot of different cultures with French, Chinese, and of course the girls, and every person brings something unique to the team.
It might take a little longer for a diverse team to gel, but I think at the end of the day because every individual offers so much, we will have a far stronger team. The team gets on very well, we all train together and enjoy having dinner together, we’re getting to know each other inside out and as time goes on we’re getting better and better at working together.
Coming from different backgrounds, solo sailing, women sailing, it all comes together and we have a very open communication set up where everyone can speak their mind, and when we sit down to discuss how best to do something there are always a lot of ideas from a lot of smart people. I’m looking forward to sailing around the world with this bunch.
You mentioned the females – and Dongfeng hit the headlines for being the first team to announce a mixed crew. Are you surprised at how well the girls have settled in?
No, I’m not surprised at all – I’ve spent a lot of time sailing in mixed crews, not in terms of round the world stuff but in plenty of other racing. In fact, my sister-in-law sailed the Whitbread and Volvo Ocean Race a couple of times so I’ve sailed with her a lot as well, and the girls at Dongfeng are doing a great job. Marie and Carolijn are two of the best female sailors in the world and they bring a lot to this team, and we’re definitely a stronger team for having them.
If a team opts to race without a mixed crew, they're limited to seven sailors – how would that affect life onboard, and do you think it would be foolish to leave dock with an all-male team?
I think that it would definitely be a struggle to race these boats with seven crew. I’m not saying it’s not going to work, because who knows – but it’s certainly not an approach that we’re taking. We feel like sailing with eight or nine crew is the way to go, and only time will tell if that’s really the correct way to do it.
I’d be very surprised to see anyone actually do any of the legs with an all-male crew – and if they do, I’d be even more surprised to see them do well.
Your skipper Charles masterminded one of the surprises of the 2014-15 edition, leading Dongfeng to an incredibly impressive first campaign. How is it working with him?
I’ve really enjoyed working with Charles – he comes from a background which isn’t round-the-world racing, but all the same he’s had an incredible career even before he started doing the Volvo Ocean Race. There are plenty of first-timers who come into this race and immediately make an impact, and it’s no surprise to me that he did and is still doing such a great job. I’m looking forward to racing with him.
And the Chinese guys – Wolf, Black and Horace – have continued making big progress even since the end of last race...
For sure, and it’s great working with all three of the Chinese guys. They were very new to ocean racing at the beginning of last edition, but with the experience of a campaign behind them they’re just going from strength to strength. They know the boats extremely well, their English is very good, so communicating isn’t a problem at all, and they bring a lot to the team in the way they run their own areas.
The next edition will be your eighth Volvo Ocean Race, with three wins. Two questions: are you crazy – and what motivates you to come back and put yourself through it all over again?
[Laughs] I still think the best sailing in the world is the Volvo Ocean Race. Whether it’s the Southern Ocean or the transatlantic, those times when you get to settle in with a nice sail combination in some big waves, it’s pretty hard to find that kind of racing in any other area of the sport. That’s a big factor – you’ve got to enjoy doing it to keep coming back, and I do. One thing about this race is that the memories of the bad times seem to fade a lot faster than the memories of the good times. There’s always a new challenge, whether it’s a new boat, or like next race, when we’re going back to our roots with a more traditional Southern Ocean course.
In 2014-15, you jumped on Team Alvimedica for Leg 5, and helped them to be the first boat around the infamous Cape Horn. Are you planning to be a more permanent team member, or switch in and out for specific legs?
Right now, the goal is to do the first few legs of the race at least, and then we’ll see what happens after that. Charles is running a rotation policy and I think that’s a good way to go – as the Race has evolved, the stopovers have become more compressed, and crew numbers have reduced, so it puts a lot of pressure on you. Having one or two sailors who can rotate in and out and bring some freshness is a really nice way of doing the race, so I’ll be a permanent part of that.
What are your thoughts on the other teams in the race so far? We have some world-class skippers, and some big names coming back to the race, such as Brad Jackson and Joca Signorini on team AkzoNobel...
It’s great to see some of the older guys coming back. I’ve done a lot of miles with them and I have huge respect for what they’re going to bring their teams during this race. It’s going to be a very competitive race, even closer than last race, and the five teams announced will have an advantage over any teams that come later in terms of prep. But the quality of people that are coming into these teams are very good, and it won’t take them long to get up to speed with the boats. I’m expecting that from the first gun there’s going to be some really full-on racing.
You've got three wins under your belt, so what's the plan for next race – are you going for a fourth? Can you actually win this?
Of course we’re in it to win it – but at the end of the day it’s sport and anything can happen. We have to do the best preparation we can and if we can start the race with a good shot at being on the podium, then we just have to sail well and have some good luck to win the race.
Right, I'll let you go and watch the Cup... I'm pretty sure I know who you want to win, but who do you think will win?
It'll be very difficult to take it from Oracle… but no prizes for guessing my fingers are crossed for Team New Zealand.