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10 January 2002, 02:52 pm
His Secret Weapon is a Sewing Machine
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Volvo Ocean Race
Auckland

Interview with Grant Spanhake (NZL) of Team Tyco.

New Zealand-born Grant (Fuzz) Spanhake is a veteran of three Whitbread races, sailing with the now legendary Sir Peter Blake on Lion New Zealand in 1985-86, Grant Dalton in 1989-90 on Fisher & Paykel and finally in 1993-94 on the George Collins' Chessie Racing. Now in charge of sail design for Team Tyco, we caught up with him on a sunny morning earlier in the race.

Q: Having sailed three ocean races, how does it feel now to travel between stopovers on a 747 in a matter of hours rather than having to take a beating at sea for weeks end?

GS: I am quite happy being on the shore, especially being in sail design, as it holds a lot of interest for me. I felt that in ocean racing I had achieved all I wanted to achieve. I like developing boats, I like developing speed and, in sail design, you can do that. Out there, when you're sailing, you have what you have, you trim and you make the boat go as fast as you can. I'm not giving up ocean racing at all, it's just that I've done it.

Q: Do you think that being married and having a child has had some effect?

GS: Yes, definitely, I enjoy America's Cup sailing, IMS and Admiral's Cup racing - those kind of regattas are great because my family can come along. There is a responsibility. Before, when I was young and single, I'd climb all over the boat, go up the rig and, if something happens, you only have yourself to blame, you only have yourself to be responsible for, but now I'm married with a family and of course, in the back of my mind, I think about that, yes.

Q: How have you adjusted to being shore crew. Do you feel a pang inside when the gun goes off and the boat sails into the distance?

GS: No, though I must admit that when I was out watching the start and I watched the boat sail down the Solent I was mentally sailing the boat in my mind. That was interesting, but there is a lot of responsibility in sail design. You can be hero or zero all in the space of one blow out. It's just as easy to go from hero to zero on the shore as it is on the boat! There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that no one sees, that even the crew doesn't know about. Although everyone thinks I either go home or go and sit on the beach, I've actually only had about three days off since the boat left Southampton.

Q: How have you seen shore teams develop over the years? Is it very different now from 1985 or even 1989?

GS: Yes, 1985 was so much fun, it really was! Single and twenty-something and running around the world, how can you ask for better? Now it's all very professional. You turn up, you go training in the mornings. As the game has gone on in sailing in general you have to be sharp, you have to be on the ball, you have to be presentable. It doesn't mean you can't have fun every now and then, but even the way the camps are structured now is different. Before there were a couple of tents held up with some flag poles, now there are proper structures and there are proper offices and every person has a laptop. But structure is the name of the game with the shore crew as well as on the boat. The crew are all very professional, the boat is immaculately prepared, and the shore crew needs to be the same way.

Q: How do you integrate the shore team with the sailing team in terms of producing the best performance? Do you see any parallels with motor racing?

GS: In motor racing there is only one driver to interact with his 'shore' team but I think it is very similar in terms of performance. For example, he might want to give away some straight line speed for cornering ability. On board our boat we have several top sail makers and some of the best trimmers in the world - Kevin [Shoebridge - skipper] is one of the world's best at that and he has a great influence on how the sails are designed and structured. Also involved are Robert Salthouse, Jim Close, Gerry Mitchell, Tim Powell and the navigator Steve Hayles. We have meetings and the boat gets direction from the sail programme. Although I have my initial thoughts and initial designs, we work together as a team and that is why there is so much work to do. All this week I am designing sails for the third leg and during the stopovers I will design sails for the rest of the race. The boat comes in, we have a debrief and it's interesting that one sail which could be deemed perfect at the start of the leg, is, nearer the end of the leg, still deemed perfect but could still be made a little bit better!

Q: Do you get feedback from the guys whilst they are out on the race track?

GS: Yes we do. I get a report in every week or so, so I set up the preliminary changes and so when they're in port, I've got a design to show them. Sometimes they say it's exactly what they want and sometimes they say no, we want to change something here. We have a debrief and we discuss it. We might feel our boat is fine reaching but we need to improve upwind, or we need to improve down wind. It's one angle, one sail missing or something like that. So it's constant development and communication. Once we have reached our quota of sails and we don't get any more new sails, we have to fine-tune the sails, to re-cut them to correct shape, as eventually the sails do wear out and the shape does move around. It's like an engine going out of tune and you have to tune it up. We're tuning up even after one leg, so that's a strong parallel with motor racing.

Q: Do you enjoy your job?

GS: It's more emotional being on the shore than being on the boat in a lot of ways. It really is. I was actually quite nervous before the start. When they have a good sched [position report] and they include the angles and what kind of sail they're using or if they have a bad sched and have a spinnaker blown up. On the boat, if there is something wrong you change sails or you trim differently or you set the boat up differently or drive differently. Being on the shore, when the boat's going badly, you have to look at the whole situation. Virtual Spectator is excellent for that. I can have a look at the wind speed and the wind speed of the boats around them and I think that's OK they're sailing into a header or little less pressure. With the wind direction and the isobars I have a pretty good idea of what their sailing conditions are. Then I can see if they're slightly off the pace.

Q: What do you think about the Volvo Ocean Race as it is now?

GS: I like the points system - I think everyone likes the points system. It's a nine-race regatta and everyone has a bad race. It's interesting, but as a comparison, at Key West Race Week, we had forty Farr 40s and the best sailors in the world were racing them. To win that regatta you had to have an average of ninth place. If you got ninth in every race you would win the regatta. So even the best in the world have good and bad races, so that just makes the Volvo Ocean Race on a par with any of the other top regattas in the world, where the fastest boat might break a mast. Consistency is key. To be in the top three is great, but you can have a bad leg and win the next leg and you will be up there with a fighting chance. With the old format if you had a bad leg, you could almost just go home because you would have to have to have really good places in three or four legs to get a fighting chance and that is demoralising.

Q: What do you think about the short legs interspersed with the long legs? The race has changed it's personality since the days when it was a deep offshore race; now the short legs are sailed almost as you would a Fastnet?

GS: I like that. The short legs are exciting - lots of lead changes and a great opportunity for the last placed boat to go and win a leg and suddenly be fighting with the leaders. I think it is good for the guys too. They know there is some excitement coming up and they have mentally to change gears. It's interesting that once you do a Whitbread/Volvo race followed by an America's Cup, in the old format you would slow down a bit compared with the guys who race round the buoys all the time and you have to get up to speed again. It seems odd, but you do notice the change. Long ocean racing does hurt your short Grand Prix sprint style of racing, so I think with this it keeps the level high and more intense.
Volvo Ocean Race Press/News Editor
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