Debriefed: a Post VOR interview with Ken Read

In May of 2007, a fledgling team called Puma Ocean Racing announced their intentions of competing in the 2008/2009 Volvo Ocean Race — a 37,000 mile round-the-world grudge match that’s fought out in the world’s fastest monohulls — in Boston, MA. As an attending journalist, I can report that while excitement ran high, expectations were fairly limited. Not because of the sponsor
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In May of 2007, a fledgling team called Puma Ocean Racing announced their intentions of competing in the 2008/2009 Volvo Ocean Race — a 37,000 mile round-the-world grudge match that’s fought out in the world’s fastest monohulls — in Boston, MA. As an attending journalist, I can report that while excitement ran high, expectations were fairly limited. Not because of the sponsor or the sailors, but because the VOR has established itself as an event where dynastic involvement pays big dividends, as does a lengthy design and build-up process, two-boat testing and clocking in many offshore miles prior to the starting gun.

Puma Ocean Racing, led by the wildly talented American skipper Ken Read, took a different tack. Time and funding were limited (from the day they announced their involvement until the start of the race was a mere 17 months), so the team purchased the old ABN Amro Two —the monohull that held the fastest 24-hour passage until this past edition of the VOR — and used this as a training platform while the design firm of Botin and Carkeek worked up plans for their new boat, dubbed il mostro at her christening party, also held in Boston, in April of 2008.

Flash forward to the last three legs of this 2008/2009 VOR and Puma Ocean Racing found itself in a heated death battle with Telefonica Blue for second place. For a start-up team with no prior VOR experience, this was quit a feat. Time after time Ken Read and his Puma boys proved that adversity is their friend, as oftentimes their best finishes were on legs where disaster struck: a broken boom, a broken hull, or a broken rudder. For some strange reason the formula worked, and il mostro proudly sailed into St. Petersburg in second place for the leg, thus cinching up overall silver-place honors. For U.S. sailors this was spectacular news. Read and company not only introduced a great new sponsor to the world of sailing, but they also proved unflappable in the face of serious competition and tough times. Great seamanship, fast sailing and on-the-water smarts paid off in a big way for the black and red cat.

I caught up with Read about two months after the race’s finish to find out what’s next on his docket of adventures, and to get a pulse on what makes this great skipper tick.

So, now that it’s all over, what are your thoughts about the VOR? Is it the ultimate sailboat race?

It’s the best event in our sport, period. It’s doing it all – spectacular sailing, but that’s only part of it. It’s creating a fan base that the sport desperately needs, and spreading the good word of sailing. The boats open eyes everywhere they go, both sailing and on the docks, and the teams are developing personalities that people can relate to. I’ll make a case that this race was the first time that the sponsors got a good return on their investments. And getting a good return on sponsor investment is the ultimate litmus test.

Looking back on the 37,000+ miles that you guys sailed, what was the best moment of the race? Or, maybe more apt, what are your best memories of the race?

Probably the in-port win and the offshore win, these were important. Also, arriving in Cape Town in second place put an exclamation mark on the fact that we were going to be a player in the race. Going around Cape Horn and escaping the clutches of the Southern Ocean. Clearly, the best sailing was the last three days before arriving in Galway [Ireland]; putting the pedal down in some spectacular conditions.

Low points?

Coming into Boston, getting becalmed 30 miles from the finish and watching Tele Blue get a puff and pull away over the horizon. Becalmed, laying in my bunk watching the speedo read 0.0, knowing that our friends and family were there waiting for us. Coming home [to Boston] in a poor fashion wasn’t fun. Also, some of the gear breakages were low moments until you shake your head and figure out a solution.

Most-trying moment?

We had a few of these, so it’s hard to pinpoint. It’s amazing how humans have the ability to forget. One day it’s wet, cold, you’re eating bad food thinking what the hell am I doing here. Then, something happens and snaps you out of it. Usually, 24 hours later you’re thinking that there’s nowhere else in the world that you’d rather be. It can quickly become a totally different mindset.

Fastest SOG you guys saw?

40.3 knots. This was on the first leg. We had many times where our speed was in the high 30’s. On these boats there’s a fine line between having fun and being out of control — a half a knot more air can be the difference, or slightly bigger seas. Another knot more air and things get dicey, quickly.

Puma had a fair number of crew changes– what was up with this?

I think that this was more perceived, but it wasn’t really the case. We announced early on our plan to rotate crew. I learned that crew chemistry is more important than I had perceived. Conditions can bring out the worst in people. It has nothing to do with crew talent — it’s about who gets along with who. Roles change, things change, and we’ve always got to put the team first.

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