‘There’s no room for women on my boat’: then guess who appears on David Witt’s crew in the Volvo Ocean Race
Skipper of Hong Kong boat Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag takes from one team and then gives back so they can start the 45,000 nautical-mile adventure
First, skipper David Witt says there is no room for women on his boat, Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. Then he admits he secretly head hunted Olympic silver medallist Annemieke Bes from a rival team.
And then that Dutch team, AkzoNobel, is in mutiny – and in court – as the skipper is sacked for a breach of contract, then reinstated at the eleventh hour.
Other crew members bail and AkzoNobel’s participation in the Volvo Ocean Race is sunk – until Witt loans them a sailor just hours before the start in Alicante last Sunday.
Can the Volvo Ocean Race get any better?
Yes, it can because Witt, the brash, no-nonsense, archetypal Aussie, will call it like it is.
He’ll ruffle more than a few feminists’ feathers and offend politically correct crusaders on his way around the world, and the first ever stopover in Hong Kong in January.
Witt, 46, wants to win the VOR, one of sailing’s most prestigious events, and will do whatever it takes. He’s spent all his life sailing the seas for this moment.
He will not be controlled by PR companies or toe the corporate line. We like him for that. And Hong Kong tycoon Lee Seng Huang, executive chairman of Sun Hung Kai & Co, seems just fine with it as well.
“I will not be told to act in a certain way. I want to be able to stand there and say that’s my opinion and the whole reason we live in a democratic society is I’m allowed to have an opinion different to yours,” Witt said before he set off on the 45,000 nautical-mile adventure.
So why didn’t he want a woman on his boat in the first place? The new race rules limit an all-male crew to seven sailors, but encourage teams to hire the best women sailors in potential crew combinations of seven men, plus one or two women; five men plus five women; seven women plus one or two men; or an all-female crew of 11.
Witt was dead against the idea months before the race, saying he didn’t want to carry extra weight and wasn’t going to be part of a “social experiment”.
“The least amount of people you can really sail on the boat is seven, so you want seven strong guys. It’s practical I think,” he says.
The boats are one design and the sails are the same, so weight is the big issue – food is rationed and you basically live in your skin with some wet weather gear.
“The only different decision you make in this race is the people. And that means character, gender and numbers,” Witt says.
“A lot of the other teams are taking one or two girls, and I think that’s Volvo doing a social experiment, and I’m pretty sure I know what the outcome will be and I don’t really want to be part of it.
“I’m not being a misogynist, but I think the way the rule is written is actually derogatory to women sailors as well – what you’re saying is you can have an extra person but only a girl because they aren’t good enough.”
But like the shifting winds that are his friend and foe, Witt has also changed tack and included Dutchwoman Bes. She is no stranger to his Witt-ticisms, though, having sailed on his Ragamuffin boat.
Witt explained away the about turn by saying he needed another hand on deck so he could spend more time with his navigator down below deciding tactics. And the second reason was that they had found the right woman and she fitted in perfectly.
“We didn’t just get a girl for the sake of getting a girl. We had to get the right person and Annemieke is the only person we asked,” Witt said. More like commandeered, as she was with AkzoNobel at the time.
Watch: David Witt saves the day
Bes will certainly know what she is getting in to and you can only imagine what conditions are like, living in a stench.
Any ceremony goes out the window – or overboard – pretty quickly. There is no time for sleeping, showering or s***ting in the world of Witt.
His only concern is being at the head of the seven-boat fleet when it sails into Hong Kong in January.
He’s already had an altercation with the Dongfeng crew and he would not take kindly to them passing him during the first leg to Lisbon. Nor AkzoNobalat being ahead of him by two places in third.
“I’m also going to say what I think and be 100 per cent honest and sometimes people don’t like that,” says Witt.
Like him or loathe him, this sea dog not only barks but he bites.