Hong Kong’s Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag gives David Witt the chance to tackle Volvo Ocean Race on his own terms
The Australia returns to the world-famous round-the-world epic 20 years after making his debut
David Witt made a promise to himself that his next Volvo Ocean Race experience would be on his own terms. That was in 1998 when he was part of the Norway’s Innovation Kvaerner team who finished fourth.
Now, 20 years later, 46-year-old Australian Witt is about to fulfil his dream as he skippers Hong Kong’s Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag in the 2017-2018 race with a crew who are not only physically prepared for the testing 45,000 nautical-mile race but who are also mentally fine-tuned for a nine-month journey in which personal relationships are just as important as sailing skills.
“I really enjoyed the race [with Kvaerner] and the competition and the sailing part of it, but I really didn’t enjoy the team environment,” said Witt.
Watch: Scallywag crew trains in Lisbon
“I mean we had Australians on there and we had Kiwis on there and this was back in 97. I’ve been brought up my whole life through team sports, rugby and all that sort of stuff and I think, not too much now but definitely back in those days, yachting was not really a, you know, a perfect team environment, some people were average, some were professionals, some were trying to stab each other in the backs and get ahead you know.
“ It wasn’t a great environment and I remember 20 years ago thinking I want to do this race and I want to do it on my own terms.
“I’ve been really close a couple times too. This the first time I’ve tried to do it and I’ve really come close a couple of times. It’s fallen over and it’s probably as much my fault as any other reason why it fell over. I was younger and less experienced. I think now is the perfect time, the perfect time for me personally and the perfect time for the boss.”
For Scallywag, “the boss” is Lee Seng Huang, executive chairman of Sun Hung Kai&Co, who is throwing the full weight of the company behind the endeavour.
With strong backing, Witt has been able to put together a crew he believes will have an advantage over their six rivals in the race, which starts on Sunday with the first leg of 11 - a 700 nautical mile sprint from Alicante, in Spain, to Lisbon in Portugal.
“The most important thing about this race is to surround yourself with not just the good sailors but more importantly with good characters, people who have all got similar morals and values and then that comes across uniquely as the same type of people that we end up being funded by,” said Witt.
“You know I always said that good people attract good people and s*** attracts ***. To get to the start line with your own project and you raise the funding and you’ve done it your way, it’s a reflection of what you’ve done in your life, not just in this sport but in your life. And I think that’s why it’s so hard, it takes so long to do.”
Among the nine-strong crew is a 21-year-old bowman Ben Piggott, who Witt says is the youngest sailor in the entire race.
Piggott was the first crew member named by Witt and was introduced to yachting when he applied through a job website to work on Scallywag during his university gap year in Sydney. The intended one-year stint dragged on and now Piggott, nicknamed “Nipper”, is an integral part of the team.
“Nipper is a very sensible young boy, we call him 40-20, he’s a 40 year old in a 20 year old body, he’s worked for us on Ragamuffin for a couple of years,” said Witt.
Witt can also call upon the only Hong Kong sailor on the crew, Tiger Mok and another youngster Luke Parkinson, who raced in the America’s Cup with Artemis.
“Before the Volvo started last time, no one knew who Luke Parkinson was, he ended up like one of the biggest success stories of the race, then went straight into the America’s Cup on Artemis,” said Witt. “One of my better attributes is being able to identify talent.”
Also in the crew are veteran navigator Steve Hayles, from UK, John Fisher (UK), Alex Gough (Australia), Tom Clout (Australia), Antonio Fontes (Spain) and the only female member, Annemieke Bes (Netherlands).