Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad reveals his passion for the event and takes a look at what’s on the horizon
by Julia Brandon
“The Volvo Ocean Race is the ultimate challenge you can find on the planet,” states Knut Frostad without hesitation. “It combines enormous physical and outdoor exertion with the demands of working closely with other people, which in itself is one of the biggest challenges that every human faces. I think that combination is so unique and there is nothing else like it out there.”
Having sailed the race himself four times, twice as skipper and twice as crew between 1993 and 2006, and now confidently holding the position of CEO, Frostad, 48, is well equipped to offer an informed opinion. A professional sailor for many years, including participating in the Seoul and Barcelona Olympic Games in 1988 and 1992, he has retained all of his original passion for the sport, and in particular the race.
Still enthused by the enormity of the event, the unrivaled pressures experienced by the race teams, and the almost unbearable conditions imposed on the individuals living aboard for nine months, he is ever respectful of those who take up the challenge, citing “passion for the ocean and the outdoors” as well as “self-awareness” as key prerequisites for survival.
“The race is something you either love or hate – it’s like being married and holding down a very tough job at the same time, 24 hours a day non-stop,” he jokes. Joking aside, Frostad was well and truly bitten by the racing bug, and intoxicated by the drama and adrenaline of it all. “It is a bit like a drug – you get it every day for 24 hours a day for months and become addicted to it and do it again and again. You always want to win it and come back and do better, but it’s such a unique experience: the very high stress levels, the huge challenge of getting around the world, and on top of that trying to race as well. It’s an enormous human feat. You learn a lot about yourself, and how to interact with other people, and you push yourself far beyond any situation you could possibly experience on land. For me, that was very satisfying.”
Born and bred in Norway, where he grew up close to the water, Frostad has managed to make the successful transition from impassioned sportsman to accomplished businessman and motivational spokesperson. Yet he credits his leadership skills to his time spent as a skipper.
NOWHERE TO HIDE
“Having skippered a boat in the Volvo Ocean Race and having done it well is probably the biggest achievement I can learn and benefit from for the rest of my life.
“When you are aboard, you don’t have an office to hide in or a job title that separates you from someone else. You are part of a team and they know exactly what you are good at and what you are not good at. It is a very naked environment where you just have to do a good job, and if you don’t it is very obvious and you won’t survive.”
And when it comes to the day-to-day race strategy, management and planning, Frostad has a self-confessed hands-on role, keen to be involved in both the detail and the bigger picture. Marrying commercial insight with sporting prowess, he was instrumental in pushing forward the new one-design boat introduced for the 2014-15 and 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Races.
Acknowledging the need for change and improvements during the global financial crisis, the driving force behind the new boat came from the significant changes required regarding the event’s financial set-up rather than from a design perspective. “It was more of a consequence of another goal that we had,” explains Frostad.
Struggling to secure large sponsorship deals, marred by too much damage to boats during the races, and facing unsustainable team costs, the only way forward was to make some “radical changes” he says. But with adjustments comes progress, not to mention a 50% reduction in team expenditures.
“By going to a one-design boat we also achieved a lot of other positive effects,” Frostad explains. “It increased the boats’ reliability as it made them stronger. It became more interesting for new companies to join the race because they realised they could at least start with the same tools as everybody else and not be heavily disadvantaged.
“We were also able to make it more interesting for women to compete – the previous boats were much too physically demanding. And we could improve the onboard media equipment, thinking about TV requirements before we designed the boat rather than afterwards. It was a tough process because, as in all sports, people are used to things happening a certain way and they don’t like to see changes, but today everyone is very happy.”
The results have been astounding with a dramatic decline in breakages and much jostling among the teams to win each leg, making for an excitingly close race. This in turn has resulted in a spike in spectator interest, as well as improving the race experience for the public as a whole.
Having lifted the event out of financial stagnation and revived its competitive appeal, Frostad believes the future of the race lies in global expansion, as well as building on its media potential.
“The big investment that we’ve made in China this year is now starting to come to fruition,” he says. “We have a fantastic following in the media in China now, which is something we will have to continue to work on because China is so important going forward.
“As regards new race legs, we’ll be focusing on China and South-east Asia, and potentially the Middle East, too. The rest of the world will remain pretty similar, although the next edition will see us heading to the UK with Cardiff as a leg – we haven’t been in the UK since 2005-6, so it’s about time we went back.
“But I think the biggest changes in future races will focus more on the communications and media side,” he adds. “We’re becoming more of a live event where the public can tap into the boats directly from their phones and iPads and receive real-time updates. I think that will continue to evolve with the help of faster satellite transmissions coming from the boats, then we just need to find a way to make the content compelling for the audience.
“And I hope in future that we will see teams coming from Brazil, Italy and the UK, which would help to nurture interest in those markets.”
Now a recreational kayaker, as well as enjoying the odd bit of skiing, since hanging up his sails Frostad lives the race vicariously through the teams. But he remains inspired, invigorated and also humbled by the event, the sport and the life lessons he has learned along the way.
“One of my big hobbies at the moment is to collect quotes because I think there is always something to learn from that,” he says. “It’s quite simple but it can make a difference. I’ve met a lot of great people who do great things, but the definition of what is great changes throughout your life – at the beginning it might be sport and then later on it can be humanitarian cases, so it is always changing and evolving with life.”
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