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Ian Walker Interview : Musto ambassador, Volvo Ocean Race winner, Olympic medallist

by Mark Jardine 21 Jul 2017 13:00 BST 21 July 2017
Ian Walker MBE © Mark Jardine /

We speak to Musto ambassador Ian Walker about his Volvo Ocean Race win, why food and clothing are so important offshore, his views on the America's Cup, his new desk job, sailing for fun, and 20 years of the John Merricks Sailing Trust.

Mark Jardine: After three attempts at the Volvo Ocean Race, what was it like to finally win it?

Ian Walker: Funnily enough, it's a similar feeling to when you win an Olympic medal; a lot of it is just relief. You'd think it would be joy and ecstasy, and all of that. But it's just relief that it's over and everything you have done, the decisions and sacrifices, have all been vindicated, and you can stop worrying about whether you're doing the right thing or not. Maybe I'm just a born worrier!

For us, that moment was when we came into Lorient (France), way before the end of the race, when we had mathematically won. So I think it was relief and satisfaction, and the fact that you're sharing it with a good group of people makes it more worthwhile.

Mark: Do you think the move for the Volvo Ocean Race, going to one-design yachts, was a contributing factor to your win (relying more on sailing skill), and secondly, was this change good for the race itself?

Ian: I think one-design definitely played into my hands. In the two previous campaigns, one was never going to be successful as we were too late and had no money. Ironically we had a really good team then - the likes of Justin Slattery, Damian Foxall, Neal Mcdonald, Ian Moore – we had a great bunch of people. Had that race been one-design, we probably would have done well. In the second race we just made bad design decisions and never recovered from that - we were too slow - but again we had a good group of people. Not as harmonious a team as we had with Green Dragon though. So I think that one-design definitely helped; it prevented mistakes on the design side, shall we say, and basically gave a level playing field.

Whether it's good for the race... I think in the short term there was no choice; there wouldn't have been a race, they wouldn't have got six or seven boats on the water, and I doubt they would have done this time either. So I suspect without one-design the race would no longer exist.

Having said that, in the medium and longer term I don't think it is as successful. There hasn't been the appetite this time round, maybe because it was the same boats. I think it's unfortunate that the pace of development has been so fast – the advent of the foiling Open 60s made the Volvo 65s immediately look very outdated, they weren't as high performance as the Volvo 70s as it was.

I think there are a lot of purists who miss the design side. If you look at the America's Cup for instance, the most talked-about thing in the whole competition was the bikes. This was pretty much the only thing the eye could see that was different between the boats. That wouldn't have happened if the boats were one-design; people would have had nothing to talk about. So it's a difficult balance. In the America's Cup people have always spent whatever budget they could raise; so they'd spend over a hundred million even if it's largely one-design, but in the Volvo Ocean Race I think it is a bit different; there aren't the private owners and it is hard to raise the money (even with one-design) and with an open rule I'm not sure the appetite is there for the race to exist, even though, deep down, that's what we'd all like to see.

Mark: Talking of the America's Cup, you sat on the fence before going out to Bermuda to take a look at the racing. You had concerns about the designs, the fact that you can't really tell if they're going upwind or downwind. What are your views having watched the racing live?

Ian: I was very open about my 'inner turmoil' of wanting to dislike the new format. Everything deep down as a sailor – who's done two America's Cups – I hated the fact that there weren't more people sailing the boat: they weren't winding winches, there weren't bowmen, there weren't spinnaker hoists and drops, no boat designers, and really no sail-making etc. I didn't like that, and I'm not sure it was good for the sport... but everything I watched I really enjoyed.

I loved watching it on TV, I was always wanting there to be more of it, and it was not just me; my wife and kids were watching it, and non-sailing friends. Although I hear the viewing figures were not that good, it seemed that everyone I spoke to was loving watching it. Then, having been to Bermuda, I thought they did a wonderful job. I thought the atmosphere was great in the Village, I thought the race course was a perfect venue. The only sad thing was that we needed a bit more wind for the finals. If you think it was only 7-10 knots of wind, it was still relatively exciting. I am not a fan of stadium racing generally but was a pretty big convert to the boats and that format for this event. One of the things that was really clever about those boats was the foiling tacks. Normally one of the problems is that as boats get faster and faster, they become punishingly slow to manoeuvre. These boats weren't. Yes you lost out, but it wasn't the end of the race. That's a real challenge: the boats need to be fast as I think we've proved the races need to be no longer than half an hour for television – even some of those races felt pretty long, when one boat was 500m ahead.

So I congratulated Russell (Coutts) when I saw him, and I thought there was a lot of good stuff. The TV was what made it: the graphics, the commentary, the insight. The only difficult thing I think was, on the TV, there just wasn't much to talk about. The commentators really were struggling to talk about anything, because the grinders weren't connected to anything you could see with the eye, and there were no sail changes. Even though there's a lot of team work and they are highly skilled sailors, you can't really see what they're doing.

Mark: Now it's most likely to be 'all change' for the America's Cup after Emirates Team New Zealand's win. If they choose to return to boats that you consider true sailing boats, do you think that's going to be positive if they take some of the aspects of the 35th America's Cup moving forwards?

Ian: The thing they need to take, whatever they do, is all the TV graphics. But first of all I think Larry Ellison may own all the intellectual property for that, and secondly, it's expensive to do. I don't know if that's viable or what deal would be done there, if any. I don't know where Team New Zealand are... I think the principal thing they wish for is a nationality rule, maybe that's the fundamental stumbling block - I suspect the Italians are more traditional than New Zealand when it comes to the boat.

I don't think the previous America's Cup style in Valencia was that exciting on TV. I think the final was very good, but a lot of the other races were all over at the first cross. I think they need to have faster boats, I think it needs to be more sailor-led and sailor-orientated, but how you do that is quite tricky. When the boats get really fast tactics become limited and you don't need traditional spinnakers downwind any more.

Mark: You've sailed round the world with Musto. What was it about their kit that helped you in your Volvo Ocean Race?

Ian: For us, in the last race, with it being one-design, it all came down to the people. So when we planned the campaign it really was based around: how do we get the most out of the people, how do we get the right people in the first place, how do we build the team, how do we equip them well, how do we motivate them? Obviously clothing is a big part of offshore sailing: if you're cold and wet, you're grumpy and you don't sail well. Likewise if you're too hot in the tropics you can't perform either.

Food and clothing were two areas we took very seriously. I think our food programme was excellent, and I think with Musto we also had the best clothing. They helped develop what we wanted... for instance, if the bowman wanted different pockets on his jacket to what the helmsman needed, then that could be done. So we had the best materials, the best designs and we could really make the clothing bespoke for the different roles onboard, and for the different legs.

Mark: Your career in sailing has involved everything from small dinghies, to the Olympics, the America's Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, and you now have a new role - a desk job with the RYA where you have to liaise with nearly every area of the sport. How do you see this new role working out for you?

Ian: First of all, it's a pretty rare opportunity, and it's a privilege to have that position, that responsibility. For someone who loves sailing, and has always been a supporter of British sailing, it's a dream role. I guess the downside is that I'm going to be a little further from the coal face, and I won't be doing as much sailing myself. Hopefully I'll be able to bring some of my knowledge and some of my passion, and my experience – not just my racing experience, but also the experience of my kids sailing, and other things I've done over the years. Somewhere or other I've tangled up with most of it, whether it's team racing, match racing, youth sailing, the rules or offshore/inshore yachting. Hopefully I'll have some knowledge for most of the areas that I'll have to deal with!

Mark: One of the big things that sailing needs to do is increase participation, and reduce the attrition rate. What do you think is the best approach to keep people in the sport?

Ian: It's a big problem and it's not just a problem for sailing; I think modern life is changing, and people have less disposable income and less disposable time. Sailing is a relatively expensive sport - or it can be - and it takes a lot of time. I know golf is also struggling, because it also takes a lot of time. It's not just the sailors; it's the volunteers. You go to any sailing club in the country and there's a group of people without which, nothing happens: the door doesn't get unlocked, the bar or galley doesn't open, the marks don't get laid. So there are a lot of challenges in modern society for a sport like sailing. Sailing clearly has to adapt, and we have to find ways of making it more fun, take less time, and be more affordable.

The good news is that sailing also has some really positive messages, which not all sports have. I think it is very open to both sexes, all races, all ages and differing physical abilities. There is also the sustainability message, which I know World Sailing are focussing on now - that is all absolutely right for the modern world. So I think if we can capitalise on that, and then adapt... maybe that's a good start.

We also have great role models in our sport. We take them for granted, but we have Olympic champions and people like Ben (Ainslie) and Giles (Scott) at the America's Cup, who are nice people and are approachable and happy to share their experience and knowledge with kids. Sailing has a lot going for it as a sport.

Mark: With your professional sailing now taking a back seat, will you be getting back to dinghy sailing and just taking the opportunities that arise?

Ian: I've been very lucky to be either an Olympic or professional sailor for 26 years, amazingly enough. In many ways it is the dream job; I'm sure any keen youngster could only imagine what it must be like to sail on some of the yachts I sail on: 100 footers, superyachts, Volvo Ocean Race boats, in some of the most beautiful parts of the world, with some incredibly talented people. On the other hand, once something becomes your job, it's no longer your hobby, and so I do really miss sailing for fun. I managed to do that in the RS400 at the Tiger Trophy this year, and that made me realise how much I miss it.

Through my children, and through being a member at Warsash and Itchenor Sailing Clubs, I've realised how much I miss sailing for fun. So hopefully I will get some time off and be able to buy a dinghy, though John Derbyshire warns me the role is pretty full on! I'm not saying I won't do any international regattas, but maybe I will be able to go and do them a little more light-heartedly, worrying a bit less about performance and have a bit more of a good time.

Mark: In the Tiger Trophy, raising money for the John Merricks Sailing Trust, what does your work with the Trust, and all the support they offer sailors, mean to you?

Ian: It's amazing. It is 20 years this year, since Johnny passed away, and we've awarded a lot of money to different young individuals, clubs, schools, scout groups etc in that time. So that's very satisfying, and we do that in John's memory, just so that some good comes out of what was a terrible event for everyone who knew him. So John's memory lives on, and we've had the same trustees since that first day: Rod Carr, Jim Saltonstall, Derek Clark, myself, Milly (Camilla Bullock) and of course John's dad Dennis. Now we're joined by Nick Bubb, who was once a JMST award winner and has been a fantastic addition. It's amazing to think it is the same group of close friends of John's, who still carry on the work to this day. That's nice.

We try to have a good time doing it too; there will be a 20th Anniversary party at the Royal Southern Yacht Club this year on Friday 24th November – all welcome! We all do our bit. Principally, my job is to help sift through all the applications, so I get the fun bit in telling people they have won an award (when the trustees unanimously agree on it) but I also have the not-such-fun job of telling people that we're not going to be able to help them out. Unfortunately, without raising more money, we are limited in the awards we can make.

Mark: Can you think of a particular instance of one person or one group that the JMST has supported, which is your personal favourite?

Ian: That's a pretty unfair question! I take pleasure from every award we make. Now obviously we like to see when sailors go on to achieve great things, and that was the original idea; John had a lot of help when he was a kid, to get to where did and win that Olympic medal, and so wouldn't it be great if we could help someone else, someone like Stu Bithell for instance, who we helped in the early days and who went on to win a 470 Olympic silver medal (like Jonny) in London 2012. But it wouldn't really be fair to single one person out. There are lots of people who have been touched by the Trust who don't necessarily even go on to race, but it has a profound effect on their lives. A lot of the time it's just showing people that somebody believes in them. Even if it's a grant of say £500 or £1000 then maybe it's not so much the money, it's just the fact that somebody wants to help them, and that gives them the inner belief to carry on and progress in the sport.

The work we do with the RYA OnBoard scheme is quite interesting because we award a boat or windsurfer to every region in the country, and have done for five years. It costs the JMST about £35,000 a year and that money goes into buying boats and boards for kids. After two years the boats get given to their sailing club. Sometimes at the end of that process they still need further help, so we see people re-apply. There are some kids who have come through that route literally from beginner to national squad in the Topper. That's pretty satisfying. The RYA onboard scheme has introduced well over 500,000 kids to sailing since 2005!

Mark: Ian, thank you very much indeed for your time, and best of luck with your new role.

Ian: You are welcome - I think I'm going to need it!

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