What Can Merchant Mariners Learn From Volvo Ocean Race Sailors?

Team AkzoNobel Newport
Team AkzoNobel sailing past Fort Hamilton in Newport Rhode Island. Photo by John Konrad

Last month gCaptain was invited by John Mangano, Key Account Manager – Coastal & Navy for International Paint, to Newport, Rhode Island to board the Volvo Ocean Race 65 boat and meet the crew of Team AkzoNobel.  

While there, I sat down for an interview with watch captain Chris Nicholson and boat captain Nikolai Sehested to discuss what some consider the most challenging sports event in the world.  

Six days after the interview, AkzoNobel made sailing history by breaking a world speed record as the first team to exceed 600 nautical miles (1,111 kilometers) in a 24-hour period.  Here’s my interview below: 

JK: Most of the very successful offshore big boat sailors started out sailing on small dinghies.  Some of the best ship pilots I’ve worked with also have vast experience in small craft. The question is why?

Team AkzoNobel boat captain Nicolai Sehested
Team AkzoNobel boat captain Nicolai Sehested (28)  from Denmark. Photo via Volvo.

Formula one racers first learn in go-karts then they fine-tune their knowledge and learn new techniques before moving into larger cars. For sailors, our go-karts are dinghies. 

You learn the fundamentals of sailing and seamanship better on dinghies because small boat sailing forces you to get the basics sorted out from the start. 

The best sailors are those who can learn the finer skills aboard small boats and transfer that onto big boats.

JK: How do the best sailors transfer those skills from small to large vessels?

It takes discipline and structure. You must pay attention to detail and figure out what makes you successful on dinghies then develop a plan and work hard to translate those skills to big boats. The best sailors can deconstruct intuitive processes they learned racing small boats and project them forward. 

JK: Have you had much interaction with ships?

No, it is rare. We see them on AIS. They are large so we can see them in the day and most are well-lit at night. Shipping only becomes a problem for us in heavy traffic areas but we always have men on deck looking out so we have good awareness of the traffic around us. 

You guys are pushing the envelope with the most modern equipment and materials which you sail at high speeds through heavy weather. How do you prevent equipment failure?

Team AkzoNobel watch captain Chris Nicholson
Team AkzoNobel watch captain Chris Nicholson (49) from Australia. Photo by Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race. 27 November, 2017

The naval architects and engineers calculate finite element analysis (FEA) for almost every item aboard. We have load sensors on the boat and most of our equipment and we are not allowed to exceed operating parameters or max load cases. 

Every time we go into port the majority of our equipment is taken apart, inspected and ultrasounded so that problems don’t carry over to the next leg of the race. 

There have been individual bits of damage during the race but none that we can attribute to material or engineering failures. As far as we can tell all have been the result of human error. 

JK: Nearly every ship incident there is a failure of Bridge Resource Management. Often one strong personality dominates another and communication breaks down. How is teamwork different on a racing yacht?

The team is forced by the conditions and the size of our boat to work together and live in close quarters 24/7 so teamwork is a natural result. We do have big personalities in the race and that’s ok as long as everyone feels safe voicing their concerns. There is always 100% encouragement to speak your mind and this is reinforced daily. Constant encouragement is necessary not just to operate safety but to sail fast and win races. 

You might be able to get away with brute force leadership on day races like the America’s Cup where everyone goes ashore each night and can let off steam, but ocean racing is different. We can’t escape the boat so we are forced to communicate well and also forced to make decisions as a team and accept the captain’s final word on the subject. 

JK: Regardless of vessel size at some point on every long voyage you hit the doldrums or heavy weather and wish you never left shore. How do you maintain crew morale and peak situational awareness on such a small and relatively crowded boat?

You have good and bad days on any boat and in any weather but the one secret all Volvo racers share is we love being out there. This race is too long and – both physically and mentally – challenging to withstand if your motivation is anything other than passion and love. We love each other, we love racing the boat and we love the ocean. We love the challenge too. 

Love doesn’t make the hardships easier but it does put a smile on your face when you crawl into the rack at the end of the day and that’s what you need to keep going. 

JK: How do you handle really bad weather.

It’s rare for us to encounter 20-meter seas, even in the Southern Ocean but when it does happen we shift out of race mode and focus on basic seamanship. Those conditions force you back to basics. You take care of each-other first then you focus on the boat and everything else takes a backseat. 

If you focus on basic seamanship and take care of the smallest problems on the boat you will be ready to race at full speed when the storm ends. If, however, you try to race through a storm things will break and you will lose headway. 

JK: gCaptain’s hope is to foster communication between all maritime professionals from the galley hand on a small yacht to the CEO of the largest shipping company we can learn a lot from each other if we learn to communicate better. What can merchant mariner and Volvo race sailors learn from each other? How can we work together?

We share a lot of the same challenges and even some of the same fears. Our industry is getting smaller and the number of racing sailors is getting less because of technology and automation. The ocean is changing too but at a far slower rate. 

The question is where is technology, climate change and change of all types leading us. What will the future look like? I don’t have the answers but I’m curious to find out. I think we can start by looking at the changes that affect us all and if we just start talking to each other more then we’ll be better prepared for the future. 

Watch Chris Nicholson and Nicolai Sehested discuss breaking the world record or HERE to follow Team AkzoNobel‘s progress in the race. You can also follow AkzoNobel US on Twitter and Facebook