Stu Bannatyne: ‘Never Say Never…’

Stu Bannatyne.
pic by Jérémie Lecaudey / Volvo Ocean Race

When Kiwi Stu Bannatyne won the final Volvo Ocean Race with Dongfeng Race Team last year he was completing his eighth Whitbread or Volvo Race. His win rate is probably the best in the business, the 2017-18 success being his fourth after New Zealand Endeavour in 1993-94, Illbruck in 2001-2 and Ericsson 4 in 2008-9.

In his capacity with Doyle Sails he has recently been spending time in France with the Figaro Beneteau 3 comes on stream, helping the four anglo-saxon skippers who will be campaigning with Doyle Sails in 2019, seeking to replicate in the Figaro class the success of Alex Thomson – a long time Doyle customer – in the IMOCA 60. Tip & Shaft caught up with Stu to get his thoughts on the early Figaro sail designs, the Ocean Race and his perspective on French racing.

So you have completed the first period of testing on the water, did you feel like you are on the money compared to what others are doing?
It is our first attempt at an inventory for the class and I think we got it about right in terms of what the required sail concepts would be and the crossovers. That is satisfying and we will now refine the next generation of designs, modifying the shapes a little bit. The foils are interesting. It is very early days in terms of figuring out the best way to use the foils. The boats are not inherently fast like bigger boats with foils would be, and so there is a lot of sailing about at relatively low speeds. Sometimes it is about minimising the drag of the foils rather than getting the most out of them. But when wind gets up and you are off the breeze a bit it seems quite fast, the foils lift the boat a bit and you are quite bow up. It is a nice boat off the breeze in a bit more wind.

What skippers are with Doyle right now?
Four boats at the moment, Joan Mulloy, Will Harris, Alan Roberts and Conrad Colman. There has been some interest from others and so we will see how it progresses over the season. In fact they are fairly strict in terms of the sail card allocation and so there is not a lot of opportunity to buy a lot of sails which is good in terms of controlling costs, but it does make it a bit more difficult to break into the class. But with these boats hopefully we will have a good showing and slowly gain traction.

What is the appeal of the Figaro 3 to you right now?
It is a foot in the door to the French market. The style of sails and the sailors we are trying to appeal to is important. The Figaro 3 has attracted some of the best sailors in the class from years gone by are back, some who have gone on to be successful in IMOCAs and Multihulls, pretty much all have come back to have a go in the Figaro. It is an opportunity to show these guys what we can do. We take a long term view, now trying to establish a bit of a foothold there and get people to have a look at what we are doing and hopefully attract interest from some of the bigger boats.

And the designs you have done worked well off the boat?
The basic concepts we have got right I think. But to be honest there are not too many options you can try out. The Code Zero on these boats is going to be really important sail, it is sort of a light wind genoa as well as a medium air reaching sail, so we feel we have done a pretty good job with that. There is some fine tuning to do but we are good and close with that. And on the fractional spinnaker – it is a nice reaching spinnaker as opposed to a more downwind sail which some people might try. On the fractional we are with a more reaching style sail to fit nicely between the fairly flat upwind-ish Code Zero and the full VMG masthead A2. We felt a more reaching style sail would fill that gap nicely. It will still do the job for heavy air downwind as well.

And you are in step with other sailmakers, or did you see other ideas?
There were a few different schools of thought on the Code Zero, most of the other ones were more reachy and all-round in terms of geometry than our one, which is more focussed for upwind and tight angles. The big A2 masthead spinnaker was pretty similar across all sail designers, a few little subtle differences but I think everyone is trying to get the boats to go downwind. It is a hard ask for a non-planing non-foiling boat to get downwind in 10-12kts with an asymmetric and a bowsprit. Mainsails are all similar and in fact the rules are quite restrictive in terms of what you can do with most of the sails, in terms of the mains and jibs.

In sailing your first love is the Whitbread/Volvo, now The Ocean Race, you are pleased with the move to IMOCA?
I am very happy the race has gone back to a development class. The One Design was good in some respects. We saw some very close racing. But personally for me the challenge is in a development class. Having been through all the development classes and the One Design 65s one of the most enjoyable part of any campaign was figuring out the boats and working with designers and the rigs and sails to get the best out of the boats. So to return to that is pretty nice. Whether I sail again or not is another matter. I will be 50 when the next race starts so there are probably some younger guys around now who can do a better job. I would still love to be involved in The Ocean Race in a technical capacity, helping with the development of the boats and sails.

But given the right offer, the right role you would go, wouldn’t you?
I would love to have a go on the boats. I am not sure I would want to do the whole race. Never say never. If I could do what I did last time with Dongfeng and do some or the majority of the legs that might work out as well.

You are good mates with Jérémie Beyou, did you sail Charal?
I had a sail last year and it is such a very different boat to the Volvo 65. It is about half the sailing weight but with the lifting foils and an Open sail programme there is a lot to learn. Even the guys who have been sailing these boats for a while have been focussed almost entirely on the Vendée Globe and transatlantic races. But on a typical course like it has followed on the last few editions will require a bit more upwind and a bit more light airs performance out of the boats. So it will be very interesting to sit down with the designers and figure out the compromises that you will need to make to get a more all-round boat.

Could you see yourself running a team?
It would not be so much running a team as I have the job with Doyle Sails, I have other clients as well, different projects, but if I could have a term working semi to full time for a project in a technical role, being a liaison between sailing and design team, and developing the boats, running a testing programme, if I could have that role with the goal of giving the sailing team the fastest and most reliable package possible when the race starts, then that would be a nice thing to do.

Presumably you are talking to different teams?
I have spoken to a lot of people. There are teams out there with funding and some with not much. There is potential to have three or four new boats built specifically for The Ocean Race and that would be pretty cool, and there is chat of a few of the existing boats being converted and being available to do the race as well. If we could get six to eight boats, good teams, and maybe a couple of ‘stragglers’ you might get ten boats.

One would consider it unlikely to see a Kiwi team in the next race?
I have not heard of anything really. That is not to say there is nothing going on, but I have not heard of anything at the moment. It is always possible. It would good if Team New Zealand decided they want to do it but really the timing does not work for them in terms of there being too much of a dilution of resources and it is hard to imagine anyone else stepping up at the moment. The budget is much bigger to be at the really top end compared with the Volvo 65s. The talk is of between 20 and 30 million euros which is a serious campaign, that is close to double what it was last time.

You are impressed by the French scene I would imagine?
I was very taken by the level and the passion of everyone. Singlehanded and shorthanded sailing is so big and the fact that the Figaro is attracting all these big names back into the class regardless of age and experience. They are all back and it is so cool to see around the marinas. In Lorient where the IMOCAs and the UItimes are there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. It is amazing that they can get the sponsorship and to see sailing with such a good profile in France that they can attract these kind of sponsors. Obviously they give a great return.

Do you have a direct involvement with Alex Thomson’s programme?
Not directly. I have followed it and have a great interest in it. I know his boat has been sold now to one of the prospective Ocean Race teams and so it will be interesting and so it will be interesting to see how the old Hugo Boss goes in its new colours, whether it is a training or race boat for the next edition. It makes sense for the new team to keep working with us as there has been so much gone into that boat and the new boat and with Richard Bouzaid being part of the design team for the last two boats it makes sense to keep an involvement with the new owners.

Your thoughts on Team New Zealand’s position right now in relation to their Cup defence?
It is very hard to know. They are not out sailing like some of the other teams are. I am not concerned about that at all. Historically they have made pretty smart choices where they spend their budget. They have decided not to do a trial boat but instead to put the money into a simulator and two new full sized boats. The small trial horses are showing some impressive sailing modes and if the big boats can do that it will be impressive to watch. I have full faith in the guys at Team New Zealand. And it will be great to have all the teams back in Auckland and these boats racing around the harbour making it all look very small.

What else do you have on in terms of projects yourself and with Doyle?
I am working with a few clients and of course with Doyle. I am doing some sailing with Maverick the little DSS 46 and another DSS boat Wild Joe which had a refit last year and going great guns with some new sails and with the DSS transforming the boat. It is a 16 year old boat still with the original appendage configuration and the original mast, but with the addition of the DSS we have brought it up to be a contender.

There is growing talk that the Maverick team are going to go for an Ocean Race project?
The owner Quentin (Stewart) would love to do The Ocean Race and is looking for some like minded partners who would like to have a crack it. That would be very exciting to see because for sure they would approach it slightly different to the mainstream and that would be very interesting.

Can you see a way for DSS to sit with the IMOCA rule in any way?
It is hard to see the traditional DSS fit the IMOCA because you are limited to five appendages and to have two rudders and so you have to these compromised foils which give you lift and look after your side force. The ideal things with DSS with boats not restricted by the rule is you can separate the lift and the side force into different foils. The Hugo Boss style foils are closest to the DSS idea and that boat has been going very well. There is a lot of potential still with foil development and a few well funded Ocean Race teams with the resources to build multiple sets of foils I can see some interesting foil development to come.

Can you see the Maverick programme get to start line?
I would love to see that happen. I don’t know whether they could raise the €25m to make it happen for a programme but if there is the opportunity to do something for a lesser budget, maybe modify an existing boat and still be competitive if you do a good job with the foils and the sails.

What ambitions do you have left?
I just love being involved in these development classes, I will always look to be involved in the ocean race, it has been such a big part of my life, I will stay will involved for a few more iterations and slowly ease away from the sailing side, that will keep me very happy.

Reproduced with permission from Tip & Shaft/Sail Racing