Three decades after competing in the event, The Ocean Race's Managing Director Johan Salén is leading it into the new era.
It's almost exactly 30 years since Johan Salén set sail in the Whitbread Round the World Race – and today, he sits in the big chair at The Ocean Race HQ.
"It was a fantastic adventure. What we're doing now closes the circle in a way. I managed to get onboard a boat called The Card in 1989-90, and since then the Race has been a red thread through my life," Johan admits in Alicante.
It was a unique experience for the young sailor – racing onboard with The Ocean Race legend, the late Magnus Olsson, and creating friendships that would last for a lifetime.
Also racing his first Whitbread during the 1989-90 edition was another young Swede – The Ocean Race President Richard Brisius, sailing on 'Gatorade'. The pair would become business partners, going on to manage multiple campaigns in the race, including Ericsson and Team SCA, before finally getting the opportunity to jump into The Ocean Race hotseat in 2017.
"Richard and myself have been done some really nice campaigns, but we've been thinking about the event side for 15 years, so having the possibility to take this event forward, respecting the heritage but having the opportunity to renew and improve, is the ultimate – and we're grateful to be in this position," says Johan.
It's an exciting time for the Race – a new name, new logo, new boats (the foiling IMOCA 60s will join the VO65s on the race track in 2021 – more on that below), but ultimately, the same incredible adventure that has made this event such a thrilling spectacle for almost five decades.
With Volvo's 20-year ownership of the event coming to an end, the global brand will remain as a prominent partner of the event in the future.
"Volvo's involvement will be that of a major sponsor going forward," confirms Johan. "Both Volvo Group and Volvo Cars will be involved in the race."
But Johan is keen to stress that, despite the new era, the fundamental values of the Race will remain.
"It's going to continue to be around the world, it's going to be crewed, but I think we can expect more teams, better prepared teams, and teams that are on a higher level than ever before. Also, an important area that has been a renewed focus the last nine months is the sustainability programme."
With the introduction of the IMOCA class, the toughest test of a team in sport just got even tougher. These foiling boats push the limits of possibility, with even less space and crew onboard, and will see technology and performance return to the heart of the race.
"It's beneficial to use a class that already exists," explains Johan. "The IMOCA class offers a much better model for the teams to work. Before, you'd build a boat, race around the world once, and then it was hard to use the boat for anything else.
"With the IMOCA class we create continuity and a platform for the teams to be able to take part in other events and I think that's a good thing."
But that doesn't mean that the VO65s, which contributed to the closest race in history in 2017-18, are done – they'll be back next edition, and will race exactly the same route as the IMOCAs.
"The VO65s are there to make it possible for more people, particularly young people, to take part in the event – but it's still going to be a very high level."
As one of the masterminds behind the iconic Team SCA project which saw an all-female crew compete in 2014-15, Johan holds diversity and inclusion close to his heart – and he is clear that the steps forward in terms of female participation made in 2017-18 will continue in the future.
"There will be female crew on all the boats," he says. "There are also people working on fully female teams again, and hopefully that will happen – it would be great to have a race within a race, between at least two female teams."
Right – we know what you're thinking. Where will the Race visit? Well, the full route announcement for 2021 will be made this summer – but negotiations are already underway, and we know that Alicante will remain the base of the event for at least another seven years.
"We have a partnership with Alicante for the next two editions until 2026, which is great. We love it here in Alicante so it's a very good platform. We're now in negotiations to get the route for 2021 in place. It's a lot of work but the interest is good – there's a long time to go but we have the time to really get it right."
Text by Jonno Turner
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