Watching former Netherlands Olympic Tornado sailor, Herbert Dercksen, helming the Volvo Ocean Race Extreme 40, you wouldn't pick him out as being different from the rest of the iShares crowd. Where sailing is concerned, Herb comes over as just another guy who loves racing in these exciting, fast cats.
When you sit down and talk with him, as Aldous Grenville-Crowther did during the iShares event in HyŤres, France you discover the other side of the man.
Tell us what inspired the Extreme 40?
Herb Dercksen: Basically, I always sailed the Olympic Tornado and I’ve been to 2 Olympic Games, sailed in 4 Olympic campaigns and we said “The Tornado is a great boat, it’s fast, it’s good, but we can’t take guests sailing” and that’s where the ball started to roll. We thought that if we could get people on a boat, we could show them what sailing is about.
We started to think about the key things needed, to make sure the bill would be paid and give a sponsor the return on investment for the money they are putting in. We said we want to bring sailing to the public, so they have to be able to see it and the sponsor has to get return on investment and not only with a sticker on a boat, but by being able to bring guests to a boat. The boats are designed to be sailed with 3 crew and 5 guests, so you can have 8 people going corporate sailing. Then we thought those people had to understand what the racing was about and, OK they can see it from the shore, but would it not be best to have someone on the boat while you’re racing and that’s where the fifth man spot came from.
You’ve got 4 crew and the VIP experiencing racing at its very best, what we’re basically doing is like driving a two seater Formula One car round a track. It gives the sponsors the opportunity to give either media, or a VIP guest the chance to find out what it’s really all about.
When was this?
HD: It all started during the Olympic Games, in 2004, when we started thinking about the concept and key points, plus it had to be transportable, which put limits on how big the boat should be. That’s why we came up with 40 foot, so it could fit in a container and be trailable behind a car. We said to Yves Loday this is what you’ve got to design the boat around and make sure it’s a state of the art one design. By January 2005, the design was ready and Tornado Sport decided on one builder, because we didn’t want sponsors’ money going into development. If you want a development race you’re better off going to the ORMA 60s, or the Volvo Ocean Race, or the America’s Cup, which is the ultimate form of development.
What exactly is your role?
HD: I’m the owner of the rights; the rights to the boat, the racing, everything where the phrase “Extreme 40” comes in is what we own; that means production, racing and events. OC Events said “We are interested in putting an event together, because we see potential in the Extreme 40. That’s what they did and they have grown the Class; they put the iShares Cup together.
Once the concept was ready, how did you persuade wealthy people and corporations to buy the boats?
HD: We started with nothing; we had zero money, just a dream. We got the money together to get the design organised, then we set out to convince Volvo that we would be the right thing for their Volvo Ocean Race in-port entertainment. Then we would be able to get sponsors interested, because there was a good platform; so it was a Catch 22, where either Volvo had to announce that we were going to race, or we had to get boats sold, because we were telling Volvo we’d have five boats.
It all came together when Volvo made an announcement and Holmatro bought a boat. With that amount of money we could finish the moulds and, when we sold a second boat, we were able to build Holmatro’s boat and we kept leap frogging until we got five boats sold, but from zero money to being here was a very, very big challenge. It wasn’t always easy, especially after the Volvo Ocean Race, when there was no circuit. It made it hard to sell boats, because we couldn’t tell people what was going to happen.
I believe one builder makes all the boats?
HD: Yes, it’s a true one design, one manufacturer, Marstrom Composites, in Sweden, produces all the boats from our moulds; we own the moulds, we own the rights and Tornado Sports controls the measurements. I think every skipper would tell you this is a true one design class. We measure all the boats, we weigh them; everything gets corrected, like if someone puts on a load of stickers for the sponsor that’s all weight and we need to see they aren’t disadvantaged.
We’re not thinking about the performance and sporting side of the game, it’s all about what a sponsor wants to have out of this to make this a viable class and make sure they can pay the bills for the sailors, who will get a good salary out of it.
What is the investment a sponsor needs to make to buy a boat and do the series?
HD: We know that second hand boats trade at € 250 to €300 thousand and a new boat is €380,000. The key is that we deliver a true turnkey project; you get everything from a tool kit to fenders, to sails. There are fixed costs, of about €15 to €20 K, which includes insurance, maintenance over the year, and variable costs, which depend on how much you pay the crew, how you handle logistics, how you want to arrange things for your guests. It’s part of the iShares Cup that we do corporate sailing in the mornings and race in the afternoons; if you do 5 events, you’ve probably got €30,000 of variable costs per event, so we’re talking €550,000 for boat and series.
How many boats have been built?
HD: We built 5 in the first year, 4 in the second year and we’ve built 8 this year.
What’s the future of the iShares championship?
HD: What we are going to do is attach again to the Volvo Ocean Race that was the kick start for the class, but there will be an iShares Cup in 2009. We just want to be sure we can have the option to sail in the Ocean Race – we can only have ten boats maximum in the stop overs. With the iShares Cup we’re the pinnacle, the along thing around here, but with the Ocean Race there’s far bigger crowds to start with, but you’re always the second attraction to the Volvo 70s. It’s still a great platform to show what it’s about, it’s great to grow the class and it’s going to grow the iShares Cup in 2009.
Does an owner have to arrange to get the boat to the stop overs?
HD: It will all be arranged by Volvo Ocean Race Event Management. They will take care of all the logistics, which doesn’t mean they pay the bill. I expect we’ll have between 6 and 10 teams.
What are your own racing plans?
HD: For me this was a big challenge, because I’ve always raced Olympic catamarans and I was the longest serving athlete in the entire Dutch squad, from 1992 until I stopped sailing Tornados in 2007. I decided I wanted to try skippering – I’d always crewed on Tornados – and I’m trying to learn as fast as possible on the Extreme 40, because I’ve a lot of catamaran experience, but not as a helm.
Then I always said I’d never do long ocean races, but I’m starting thinking “maybe”; Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 could be something, but right now I’m focussed on getting the Extreme 40 around the track.
Is there any conflict between you skippering and owning the rights?
HD: I try not to let there be, but people could think there is conflict. As an organiser, during the Volvo Ocean Race, and being the guy who called the shots, I never cared what the sailors thought about it. I didn’t care if it was right or wrong, if it was good for the media and good for the sponsors we’d always do it.
When you’re on the other side, as a skipper, you start thinking “Maybe we should do this, or that.” I’d really prefer to do longer distances and a different course, but that’s not what the concept is about. The concept is and always will be about the return for the sponsors, so that’s it.
Do you think the public are really interested?
HD: There is a big difference; when you sail slower boats thereís often a discussion. You weigh up all the information and you might even discuss it within the crew. With these boats thatís rare and a lot of it is instinct. We plan a bit before hand, because we can see the course and even sail it a couple of times, but in the end itís a bit like a computer game where youíre trying to avoid one situation and thereís a whole load of others waiting to kill you. You can never relax.The public doesn’t understand what’s going on; they don’t know when boats are crossing, who is leading …… If you can get boats in one line, so they can see who is first second and third, it’s easier for them to understand. So, we’ve been doing some triangular courses, which is not great for the sailing, but it is for the spectators and it’s great to film …. easy to film.
The fact is though that, whatever type of event you put on, the best sailors will usually win. I’ve been on the sailing side and the race management side and the sailors probably don’t like it, but they learn to live with it and they understand, when they get the pay check, that’s what’s paying their bills.
Tornados have been taken out of the Olympics, what’s your view on that?
HD: We got thrown out because of decisions of ISAF that I think are ridiculous. That’s the way they’ve decided and it’s going to be very difficult to change the decision, but the basis they made the decision on is wrong. They say the catamaran isn’t very popular, it isn’t really action; all the wrong reasons are being flung about when, basically, it’s just about the politics. The fact is that, if you don’t have a team that does the Olympics in a Tornado, you don’t want to vote for it, because you’ll lose a chance.
Maybe the Tornados made a mistake too, where they lost the opportunity of growing the Class and I believe that’s all to do with the direction the Class took and that’s down to the President who has been running the Class. So, we probably made quite a few mistakes and would still have been an Olympic Class if we hadn’t. It’s ironic that ISAF decides to throw catamarans out of the Olympics and the America’s Cup goes to catamarans.
We are showing here, with the iShares Cup, where we’ve got 11 boats racing around the track, on short course so it is action packed; its action, attraction and addiction and, in that regards, I think it is the complete opposite of what ISAF thinks about catamarans.