LEGENDARY AUSTRALIAN SAILOR DAVID WITT WILL SKIPPER HONG KONG’S FIRST ENTRY IN THE 2017-18 VOLVO OCEAN RACE WHILE ALSO AIMING TO LEAD THE 100ft SCALLYWAG TO VICTORY IN THE 73RD ROLEX SYDNEY HOBART YACHT RACE IN DECEMBER.
What was the background to Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag becoming Hong Kong’s first-ever entry in the Volvo Ocean Race?
I put it together with Seng Huang Lee, the owner of Scallywag. My team and I put the deal together with Volvo and then we said to the boss, ‘Here’s an opportunity. Do we want to do it?’
I moved to Hong Kong to live about 18 months ago and we initially started working on getting a Volvo Ocean Race team out of Hong Kong, after we finished on Ragamuffin (Scallywag’s name under former owner Syd Fischer). We were already a fair way down the track with that and then SH (Seng Huang) bought the 100-footer and the Scallywag campaign started.
We were still working away on a Volvo team in the background, but we weren’t going to jeopardise our set-up with Scallywag and then we managed to create an opportunity where we sort of put it all together. It evolved through the Scallywag brand so the Volvo campaign is not a completely separate identity to Scallywag. It’s the same team, just another project for the team, so it’s all under the one umbrella.
When you were making plans, did you know Hong Kong would be a stopover?
Yeah, I knew it was a very strong possibility and it’s now very difficult to have a team in this race not representing a stopover – basically, almost impossible, because they don’t get the commercial benefits if the race doesn’t stop there. I’ve been coming to sail in Hong Kong for a long time and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to mix corporate business with sport in a commercial environment with a stopover.
How are you managing it all?
I have a boat management company called Professional Yacht Services. Apart from the Volvo Ocean Race campaign, we manage and run Scallywag. We employ all the people, run all the budgets, so do the whole thing for the boss. We also manage his big powerboats and yacht staff and all that sort of stuff. He’s our biggest client by far, but we do have a couple of other clients and look after crew for their powerboat or race boat.
There’s quite a lot of interest in China now from boats who want to compete in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race and through our business we’re looking at trying to help them do that. We have a facility in the Philippines, in Subic Bay, where we can paint the boats, fit the boats out, make sure it’s all up to safety standards, and we’ve got guys who do deliveries, who can get the boat to Sydney for them.
The logistics is often the stumbling block for a lot of people, so our company creates a service that makes entering the race a bit easier for them.
How can the Volvo Ocean Race stopover and Team Sun Hung Kai/ Scallywag’s participation help promote sailing in Hong Kong?
I think it’s extremely important that we’re in the race, that Hong Kong has a team, because if Hong Kong didn’t have a team, I think the stopover would struggle. Now, I think we have an awesome opportunity. We just have to make sure we do it well. We’ve got one chance at this so the people at Volvo, us and the people promoting the stopover need to make sure it’s a success because it will change yachting here.
People have been sailing here for a long time, but it has been seen in the past as a sort of upper-class sport for expats, but I’ve noticed myself since coming here, there’s a lot more Chinese starting to participate. This Volvo Ocean Race could be the catalyst that actually changes the sport in Hong Kong.
It’s a Tier A sport for junior sailing here, but ocean racing is still not that well known. I don’t think they’ve had as good an opportunity as this and I don’t think they will get it again if it’s a failure, so I think it’s probably one of the most important things to ever happen in sailing in Hong Kong.
What are your memories of competing in the 1997-98 Volvo Ocean Race and thoughts on doing the race 20 years later?
Yeah, but 20 years later I’m doing it as a skipper with my own team, which was something I wanted to do 20 years ago and it’s taken me 20 years to get there. I mean, Volvo is such a huge race and the hardest thing is just to get to the start line.
Basically, you’ve got to put your whole life on hold to have a decent go at it and we’re just lucky that SH has backed us and backed the team, and we’ve still got the 100-footer running at the same time, so it’s worked out really nicely.
One of the problems for professional sailors in the Volvo race is they do the whole Volvo race and then they’re out of a job at the finish because they’ve spent such a long time out of the pro circuit and everyone’s taken their jobs. It’s quite hard to then rebuild your rapport with clients and build up your work again, so this is why it’s so attractive for us to do it because it’s part of the Scallywag brand.
What distinguishes the Volvo Ocean Race as a sailing test?
The biggest test is mental, keeping your mind on the programme, and that will be the hardest thing in this race. Yes, it’s physical, yes, it’s all that sort of stuff, but especially with one-design boats (Volvo Ocean 65s), the only difference is going to be the sailors and the driving and the trimming.
Our job is to stay 100 percent focused for every leg, knowing that if you’re off the pace a little bit, you lose, because it will be very difficult to catch up ground once you’ve lost it. It’s mentally tough so I think that will be the hardest part of the race. That’s what I remember last time – having to be on the ball the whole time.
Have you got your crew lined up?
Scallywag’s quite a big team, with about 20 to 25 sailors. A couple of core Scallywag guys will be on the boat, with a couple of guys that have sailed with us on and off, and there’s a couple of guys that have previously sailed with us before that are coming back after the America’s Cup. We’ll basically have nine guys contracted for the seven spots, but we probably won’t name the team until closer to the race start.
What are your thoughts on the Hong Kong Race Village’s location at the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal?
I’ve had a brief look there. I think the venue itself is fine, but I think transportation to it is going to be an issue. It’s something we bring up a lot in meetings. They’re talking about running ferries across. I think getting people to the venue will be the biggest task for organisers of the stopover and hopefully that won’t deter from the numbers because it should be a great event for Hong Kong.
What are your thoughts on the in-port race?
I think that’s the best thing. The actual in-port race for points is around Hong Kong Island, which I think is one of the best things Volvo has done. That’s so different to every other city. Rather than having the race up and down around marks, you’ve got to go around the island. I think they’re very clever doing that. That’s already a popular race in Hong Kong and I think it will be spectacular.
How keen a sailor is Seng Huang Lee?
He’s quite new to it, but he’s very keen. I think he only missed one race on the boat’s whole circuit last year. He did the Rolex Sydney Hobart and he’s actually got quite a good feel for it. His problem is that his time is pretty precious, so he can’t spend as much time as he would like, but he’s very hands on in the whole thing. He’s not a guy that just writes a cheque. He cares about what we’re spending the money on, how it’s going to make the boat faster, what the branding looks like and so on.
We designed the whole look of Scallywag on WhatsApp, going back and forth. He’s an extremely intelligent guy and he’s very, very strong where I’m weak. His attention to detail and the look and all that sort of stuff is impeccable, so I think that’s why our boat looks so good.
And he has a strong connection to Sydney and the Hobart race.
He lives in Hong Kong, but was born in Malaysia and went to school in Sydney at Scots College (and later at the University of Sydney). They lived in Elizabeth Bay, so from their balcony they could see the CYCA (Cruising Yacht Club of Australia) and watch the yachts sailing out of Rushcutters Bay at the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart and other races. I think that’s where his initial interest in sailing came from.
What about the name Scallywag?
It’s the same name as his Hanse 56, which is his cruising yacht based in Sai Kung. His daughter came up with the name about five years ago when she was about five. He was reading her a pirate book and she came up with the name!
Will you still be campaigning the 100-footer while competing in the Volvo Ocean Race?
Yeah. Basically, we’ll still be doing some races in the gaps in the Volvo Ocean Race, including the Volvo Hong Kong to Vietnam Race in October and the Rolex Sydney Hobart in late December.
You skippered Scallywag to third in the last Rolex Sydney Hobart. Tell us about your record in that race.
I’ve raced in over 20 and I’ve finished second, second, second … about 11 times, I think. Have I ever won it? No. I was second on Ragamuffin, Leopard, Skandia, AAPT and so on. I did a lot with Grant Wharington, Sean Langman and other skippers.
What do you think you need to win the race?
Luck, luck … and in the past, money. Budgets. I keep going back trying to win it so hopefully we’ll win it with Scallywag.
Do the yacht and the crew have what it takes to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart?
Yeah, absolutely. The 100-footer game is very different to the Volvo game. The Volvo game is 100 percent people and the 100-footer game is about 75 percent your R&D and boat performance.
The problem is that the 100-footer boats are very varied. The most successful boat is Wild Oats, really, and it’s very much an all-round boat. Then you’ve got boats like Comanche and Perpetual Loyal which are out on one corner of the design and suit strong conditions. Then you have someone like ‘Wharo’ (Grant Wharington) who is on the other end of the scale, with a narrow boat that’s good in light airs, so it really comes down to the conditions.
We’ve tried to build an all-round boat like Oats, but closer to both ends of the scale, if that makes sense. I believe our boat’s good enough to win and I think we’ve got a big chance now.
So, what will be different this year?
With the injection of SH’s money and enthusiasm and everything, I’ve been able to do a lot of things to the boat that I wasn’t able to do under Ragamuffin and that’s only going to come to fruition this year.
When Scallywag gets relaunched at the end of September, everyone will see a new bowsprit, new keel, new boom – a lot of stuff we needed to do to be able to take the next step to hopefully win it. We couldn’t do that last year because SH only bought the boat in late May and we pretty much just sailed the boat non-stop, so we didn’t really get a chance to do any real work development.
The 100’s a very expensive boat to run, but we do more sailing than all the other 100-footers in the world, although that’s only come to fruition since we’ve become Scallywag. When we were Ragamuffin, we used to spend 11 months in the shed and do two races a year or something. Now we’re doing 10 or a dozen races a year.
Do you think competing in the Volvo Ocean Race will help your Sydney Hobart campaign?
You’ve already had some fun races on Scallywag, including records last year in the around New Caledonia Race and Hong Kong to Hainan, and this April in the San Fernando Race from Hong Kong, crushing the record by 15 hours!
The Hainan race was fun – the boss was on board for that one. It’s not that difficult to break a record in a 100-footer unless it’s a strong record.
As for San Fernando, no 100-footer has sailed it before, so that was probably the biggest factor, but also it was just perfect conditions for us.
We came out of Hong Kong harbour on port tack and pointed the yacht straight at San Fernando and never deviated. It was like it was on tracks the whole way. In those conditions, our boat does like 13 knots in six knots of wind, so that was part of the reason everyone else was so far behind.