Little-known fact: Puma's store in Boston, the U.S. stopover for the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race, is now the sports apparel maker's hottest store.
I got that small but meaningful tidbit out of a sit-down with Puma Ocean Racing skipper Ken Read on the final day of competition at Les Voile de St. Barth, where Read spent the week aboard David George's winning maxi sloop, Rambler. With Puma announcing a return for 2011-12 and the Volvo race route now complete, there was plenty of elbow room for looking forward, and back.
"Puma saw bumps in their sales everywhere," Read said. "Of course there was a bump in local sales at every local stop, because Puma didn't just have a team, they were the providers for the Volvo Ocean Race. What they weren't expecting was the increase that happened regionally, even nationwide in some of these countries that we went to, because it was in the press so much. And it was not just the sailing market. They thought they were going to create a sailing market—and they did—but then they helped their whole market. "
Even in the USA?
"The Boston store to this day is the highest revenue producing Puma store in the world. Puma loves the Volvo. Jochen Zeitz [Puma AG Chairman and CEO] calls it the rock and roll of sailing, and it's true even if I've said it a million times. You look at Usain Bolt, who is the cornerstone of their sports marketing, and he is no normal sprinter. The Volvo is no normal boat race, and what we have is no normal-looking boat. Puma likes to break barriers. Another benefit they didn't anticipate is, figure, they've always sponsored teams, but they've never owned a team before and now they have a team and it's brought the whole company together. There's a synergy."
And our setting, Les Voiles de St. Barth, was created for a business purpose, to offset a dip in island tourism that historically follows Easter. As inaugurals go this one had a difficult leadoff—high profile boats such as ICAP Leopard canceling at the last minute, and Rambler sailmaker Spike Doriean dying in a freak fall in his hotel room—but the regatta has legs; the event has a future. Read and a few hundred of his closest friends have spent the last week sailing the Caribbean tradewinds in races that (sorry) ramble their way among tiny islands that serve as turning marks and rarely drift off-station. It's a different course every day, across crystalline waters at 18 north, and this is good.
Sailing in paradise is an easy sell, but I do believe Ken Read's mind keeps returning to Volvo prep. Certainly that's what I had in mind—
So, you've made the announcement that you're in. How long have you been working toward this?
"I had a breakfast meeting with Jochen Zeitz the morning after we finished in Russia in 2009. There was nothing close to a commitment, but that's when we started planning. Then we got the good word right after Christmas. It was a nice present. But it's different, too, because we had to find a sponsorship partner for Puma [enter BERG Propulsion] because, with the global situation, they didn't feel their pockets were as deep as they were a few years ago."
And your budget?
"Out of coincidence, almost the same."
Race organizers have introduced a number of changes aimed at reducing costs and encouraging participation. Only one new boat per team is allowed, and two-boat testing is outlawed. This cuts into the armaments race straight off. The number of sails is limited, and headfoils are banned in favor of furling or hanked headsails—to reduce foredeck exposure. The boats are simply too fast, and there's too often too much green water washing down the deck to send people up there if you can avoid it. All-up hull weight has been increased, but changes to the hull-design specs are minor, Read said:
"The old boats were a little stiffer, but the big difference will be the sail inventory. The playing field should level a bit because, as designs mature, boats tend to typeform. In this last race we were sailing within sight of each other so much of the time, and I can't imagine that it won't be even closer next time. That's cool for the sailors because you're part of the process. You're not just letting a fast horse run."