David Witt interview

David Witt is a name familiar to many in Australia and, indeed, sailors the world over. His exploits on skiffs in Sydney Harbour in the 1990s, Sydney- Hobart races (20 of them, including the disastrous 1998 edition), Melbourne-Osaka Double Handed Races and even Fastnet Races, have earned him a reputation as a highly-skilled sailor, formidable opponent and hard-driving, no-nonsense skipper . . . of the Australian kind. Chairman of Sun Hung Kai & Co, Lee Seng Huang, knew this when he looked to Witt to front his campaign in the coming Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18.

Sailors in Hong Kong will know ‘Witty’ (pictured right) best for his helming of Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin 100. He also had a big part in the designing and building of this super maxi (which featured in our Number 283 coverage of the 2015 China Coast Regatta), so he’s not just a boat driver. Lee bought Ragamuffin 100 in May last year and renamed it Scallywag, hence the name of his entry — Sun Hung Kai Scallywag. The boat will have Scallywag on the transom.

But there’s more to Sun Hung Kai Scallywag’s entry than winning the race. Lee Seng Huang has a passion for sailing, says Witt, and having grown up in Sydney and watched all the big races, he has a plan to build a sailing brand for Hong Kong worldwide . . . and it’s long-term. There’s also the promotion of competitive sailing in Asia and a lasting youth sailing legacy. High and, yes, noble ideals but can they be achieved in one global event? We asked Witty how he was approaching the challenge.

During the 90s, you sailed on 18-foot skiffs, then recently you helmed a 100-foot maxi, and now you’re driving a 65-footer around the world. How difficult is it to adapt to different sizes of boat?
As I’ve said before, these days there’s no difference between a skiff and a maxi, it’s all apparent wind sailing. On Scallywag, for example, in 6 knots of wind we can do 14 knots! But that’s why our team is going to be successful in the Volvo Race; our 100-footer is just a Volvo 65 on steroids. It has exactly the same systems, similar deck layout, we both have tight luff sails. The only difference is the 65’s got grinders; on the 100 it’s press the button. Interestingly, the Volvo 65 came out a month before our 100. It’s like we’re the dad, and they’re the baby.

Did you have any input in the 65?

Can you explain more about adaptability?
Anyone can be a good sailor and you can spend your whole life in Hong Kong sailing a Flying Fifteen and be at the top. But to be somewhere between good and great, you need to be able to adapt. Sailing technology has advanced so much in the past few years and if you’re not prepared to adapt, you’re going to get left behind just sailing on one thing. Water ballast came in during the 90s, then canting keels, now there’s foiling. In another 10 years there’ll be something else. Probably the biggest difference, and difficulty, is the size of the team. Actually, the hardest part is putting the campaign together and getting to the start line!

When did you learn about your selection as skipper?
Back in May. We were in negotiations with Volvo but it was Mr Lee’s decision and Volvo knew about it. As for past experience, you did the 1998 Sydney-Hobart. Did it make a difference to you as a sailor? No, it didn’t make any difference to my sailing abilities but it certainly made a contribution to my leadership skills.
I still haven’t seen anything like it, and hopefully I never will.

Is that the worst you’ve been in?
By far.

You’ve done a few Fastnet races. Did you do the 1979 edition?
No, I would have only been eight years old.

What type of race do you get the most out of?
They’re all different but I’ve always wanted to do the Volvo. I did a leg on Innovation Kvaerner 20 years ago, when it was the Whitbread, and I’ve been in the Southern Ocean a couple of times but I’ve always wanted to do a round the world race with my own team.

Do you get to choose your crew?
100 percent I get to choose.

In the past, have you ever found you’ve chosen the wrong crew, miscalculated on ability, or there are personality problems?
Yes, absolutely. I’d be lying if I hadn’t made mistakes. The mistake is to put up with it and not deal with the problem. That’s why I’ve been so particular for this race.

45,000 nautical miles is a long way and a long time to be dealing with ‘mutinous individuals’, especially now that sailors can post their own social media updates via a new Crew Communicator platform. Is this device a way of monitoring ‘bad news’, or even a means to identify problem crew?
Six of the seven guys on this boat will have done more miles together than any other boat on the start line. The seventh will either fall in line or go. As far as social media goes, we’re going to tell it like it is. I actually think that’s going to be a positive thing for our team. The race has become a bit sterile and boring and this is going to perk it up. One of the great things about our sport are the stories, and the human factor — we’re going to bring that back to the Volvo.

In the rules, are you allowed to ‘fire’ crew during the race and take on replacements?
Yes, we have a squad of nine. Seven on the boat. That’s not because we’re thinking of firing but because of illness or injury.

Any chance of a sneak preview of the crew?
When’s this coming out?
Late July.
Okay, here goes, hand-picked: navigator Stephen Hayles, co-navigator Tiger Mok, bowman Ben Piggott, driver/trimmer Mark Fullerton, driver/trimmer John Fisher, driver/ trimmer David Mann, driver/trimmer Alex Gough, driver/trimmer Luke Parkinson, and me, skipper.

If you’re not happy with your boat, you won’t go, right? Can you seek redress for an obvious boat or rig problem, or even withdraw altogether?
That won’t happen. Volvo has spent a lot of money, and this is the strictest one-design class I’ve ever known. We’re not allowed to do anything. But for us it’s good, it’s our normal boat on a small scale.

So, really, your only variable among the eight boats is crew?
That’s it.

What other advantages do you think you have?
Well, we’ve got the boat that won the last race. And we’ve got a new mast.

This is the 13th edition of the race. Much was made of the 12th and coming 14th in 2019. Race publicity this time has made little of the ‘13th’. How do you feel about superstition?
Doesn’t cross my mind.

How about livery?
Sun Hung Kai will be on the hull, Scallywag on the transom.

When you are in Hong Kong, do you have a programme for the public?
We have an open boat policy. We do this at the end of the Hobart. With the HKSF, we need to promote Hong Kong sailing through this race. Hong Kong is not known well enough for its sailing, so this is a good opportunity.

Volvo gets big publicity out of this event. Race CEO is Mark Turner who was behind Ellen MacArthur. He is a master of PR and this suggests much emphasis will be placed on preparing boat and crew ‘visually’ for TV coverage, interviews, social media, onboard cameras and onshore appearances. How much of an imposition is PR on your job as skipper?
Nothing at all. We need to get across that sailing is not an elite thing, particularly in Hong Kong — sailing is accessible to all.

Which one of the 11 legs do you anticipate as being the most challenging?
I’m excited that the race is going back into the Southern Ocean. I think this time we have a proper balance.

Going into the Southern Ocean will be the hard part. That will be the real challenge, right?
Actually that’s not quite right. The hardest are the ones when you cross the Equator. There are four of them. Tactically and mentally challenging.

Who at this stage is likely to be your biggest competition?
Dongfeng are the favourites, with the biggest budget. They’re also China and we’re Hong Kong!

What about pay?
People get paid on a monthly basis. I’m actually the lowest paid on the boat. My partner, Kim, and I, have a management company and we run all Lee Huang Seng’s boats.

Last question; the future? I’d happily be a coach, but I’d like to build a business offering young people find a business pathway in sailing. As I said earlier on, the hardest part is getting the boat to the startline. You have to know how it all works.

Advice to other aspiring local Volvo Ocean Race sailors?
Never say no, take every opportunity, and be prepared to get knocked back more times than you get accepted.

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