As skipper of the PUMA Ocean Racing entry in the 2008-09 race, American Ken Read is overseeing both the design and build programme in his native Newport, Rhode Island and crew selection aboard the maxi Rambler, currently in Europe.
Read, who joined Ericsson for the last four legs of the 2005-06 race, shares his thoughts on what it takes to tough it out when the going gets rough.
Q: What were your first recollections of the Whitbread/Volvo race?

A: To be honest my first thought was ‘these guys have got to be nuts to do something like this, like any other sane person would think I imagine. I built up a fascination and an intrigue about the race from the books I read about it as a kid. When you delve back in to history and read some of the tales and the adventures they were mind-boggling to a young kid.

Q: What did your experiences in 2005-06 teach you about the race?

A: What I learned most is that you need a whole new mindset for this race. It’s a pacing rather than a pressing situation on a Volvo Open 70. The chemistry of the people on board is crucial and the all purpose mentality of an individual crew member rather than a specialist is a big part of it. Then there’s the question of how to tame the boats themselves. They are fascinating both in design and the speed they generate. How hard you can push a boat like this without it breaking is unbelievable. It’s like nothing I’ve ever sailed before. In terms of learning, we all want to become better at anything we do – whether as an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor or a sail boat racer. And even though I jumped in late last time, because of the guys I sailed with and because of the experience I had, I became a better sailor and I look forward to keeping the learning curve going.

Q: What was the thing that most struck you about Volvo sailors?

A: It’s all about the individual characters. Joining the ranks of those characters is something I’m quite proud of. It’s a hard mentality. It’s hard people who don’t bend or buckle to hardships on board. They grasp those hardships and thrive in a very tough arena. It’s back to your roots a little bit as well. You start out doing the bow on a two-tonner as a 16-year-old in Newport and all of a sudden you evolve to a particular spot on a boat. You become a specialist. I became a helmsman but over the years I feel I’d lost a bit of the pure sailing edge in general, because I became a specialist. Now of a sudden on a Volvo Open 70, you’ve got to run to the bow, you got to be in the pit, you’re grinding, you’re navigating, you’re bailing the bilge, you’re helping repair a diesel engine and everything in between and it brings you back to your roots of why you got into sailing in the first place. The Volvo sailors’ mentality has crept back in to my life and I’m real happy about it.

Q: What physical and emotional demands does the 2008-09 race present?

A: Life At The Extreme – it can be drifting in light air in 120 degree heat down below trying to keep the boat going in shifty conditions, all the way to toppling down 15 metre seas in 40 knots of wind. It’s both ends of the spectrum. Based on the weather data we have received to date for the next race, it will be even more extreme. It’s making sure you prepare for the physical and mental extremes. There will even be extremes on any given leg. There are going to some legs where one week you are drifting in unbelievable heat and the next week you are freezing cold and dodging gales. I hope we’re are all ready for it. It’s naïve to think that until we go into these new frontiers that anybody can say ‘it’s going to be like this or it’s going to be like that’. It’s time to go live it and see who can deal with it the best.

Q: What special qualities are you looking for in a PUMA crew member?

A: Experience on these type of boats is a factor for sure. I’m looking for proven, naturally-fast sailors. Guys like Chris Nicholson are the perfect example. He can make a 49er go fast and essentially the Volvo Open 70 is a big 49er. When you get a guy like that who has ocean racing experience – two Volvo races under his belt and five 49er world championships –you’re on the right track. The final criteria for me is ‘would you invite the guy to dinner? Would you have him come over sit around have a beer and hang out with your wife and your kid and just enjoy him as a human being? So it’s a mix of the three – inherent, fast sailing ability, experience and just plain and simple nice people, a good guy that you want to hang around with. Lord knows we are going to be spending plenty of time together and you don’t want to be hanging around with people you don’t like. I’m sure we’ll go over a few bumps along the way but I think if you have naturally good people who you enjoy being around you will figure out how to work through the tough spots.

Q: What is the status on crew selection?

A: We are getting close. We haven’t made any additional formal announcement yet but at some point in the near future we will reveal our starting 10. Until those guys are all signed and sealed we’ll hold off for a little while. We are continuing to use Rambler as a crew evaluation boat. Rambler will do three more events this year – the Maxi Worlds in Sardinina, St Tropez and the Middle Sea Race.

Q: Personally, what will be your toughest challenge in the race?

A: I get pretty charged up and I’m an in-the-moment sort of guy. Every inch makes a difference. The reason the race is appealing to people like me now is because it can be broken down into a series. Not just within the stopovers, but within each leg. It’s boat-on-boat, hand-to-hand combat all the way round the world. With that being said, I am going to have to sit back and learn how to pace myself better for the 39,000 miles. That’s what the guys on Ericsson (2005-06) taught me a lot about. They said ‘this is a big, long race, you can’t burn out the troops’.

Q: Can you update us on the design/build side?
A: The designers Botin Carkeek are still full bore. Marcelino Botin is back after his time in the America�s Cup with Team New Zealand. We have 10 to 12 people working on the design and engineering full time and we hope within a month or so to start the build in Rhode Island.
It depends on some of the variations of the design and complexity of the engineering as to how long the build will take, but we are aiming to be in the water by the beginning of next summer here (US). By then we would have organised a testing programme with Avanti the former ABN AMRO Two boat.
Q: How important is the entry of the PUMA brand into professional sailing?

A: I had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to be a wild and crazy ride and very different and I was 100 per cent right. PUMA, the whole company, thinks so far outside of the box that it’s spectacular. A breath of fresh air is a wonderful thing from time to time. As a company they are so into this – the products that are going to be introduced, the technical gear they will produce. The next couple of years are going to be a fun ride. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. Sailing is going to be a better place because of companies like PUMA.

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