Is the ebullIent David Witt just what the Volvo Ocean Race needs? Or is he a throwback to another era? Helen Fretter met the controversial Scallywag skipper to find out
“I am a dinosaur,” David Witt tells me. It’s a gift of a quote from a man who has been painted as out of touch, misogynistic, and a whole lot worse.
Actually, the Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag skipper is talking about the routeing and navigation software the Volvo 65s use, how they need the technical expertise of navigators Libby Greenhalgh and Antonio Fontes because Witt is not what he calls a ‘techno-yachtie’. He can work that stuff, he admits, but is not really into it.
How curious that the skipper of a yacht competing in the Volvo Ocean Race is more comfortable admitting he’s not an expert on the navigation technology than he is being labelled as old-fashioned in his attitudes. Do today’s Volvo Ocean Race teams really need to be so anodyne that they can reveal weaknesses on the water, but can’t show any character for fear of being found flawed?
Controversy has dogged David Witt and his Scallywag crew ever since they made their last minute entry into the race in the summer of 2017. Then CEO Mark Turner promised big characters and engaging stories. Witty, as he’s known on the boat, delivered from the outset.
The plain-speaking Australian first ruffled feathers when he commented on the different crew numbers allowed for women sailors. “We’re going with seven guys,” he was quoted as saying on the Volvo Ocean Race website. “I just don’t think the rule is a good fit, and I don’t think the dynamic will work. It’s hard enough to win the race, the last thing we need is to be part of a social experiment.”
The backlash was fierce: Witt was characterised first as sexist, then as a hypocrite when Scallywag quietly signed Annemieke Bes from rivals AkzoNobel. (Bes had actually sailed with Witt numerous times on Ragamuffin.)
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Witt has always vehemently maintained that he was misquoted. In Alicante he told me he’s always sailed with women, but didn’t support the imposition of a rule. He was clearly taken aback by the reaction, telling me that his daughters had been trolled on Twitter. It had, he said, put him off doing much on social media.
Before the race start Witt was bullish about his team’s chances of a podium finish, but on the long second leg down to Cape Town the Scallywags were off the pace. A dejected looking Witt commented to the onboard camera: “It’s getting a bit embarrassing. We’re not used to having our heads kicked in.”
In a bid to lighten the mood they made a video for Facebook, the ‘Breakfast Show’. It famously featured a sketch with Bes, the sole woman on board, as ‘Dr Cloggs’, being asked how the team could best deal with a scrotum rash the skipper was suffering from.
This time the backlash got serious, with some accusing Witt of sexual harassment. Others felt that the ‘lads banter’ culture made yachting look out of touch. Complaints filed by viewers outside of the Volvo Ocean Race led to both Witt and navigator Steve Hayles facing a Rule 69 misconduct hearing.
The hearing found that there was no offence, and no misconduct, but the impact on Witt and his team was huge, not least in tens of thousands of dollars spent on legal fees. Hayles, who was a big presence on the boat, stepped off. The whole episode got very close to ending the campaign.
In Cape Town Witt was fired up, keen to tell me his side of the story (and Bes’s, whose views weren’t sought until the final hearing), even if he couldn’t speak publicly. In their virtually empty team base – Scallywag was then running with a skeleton support crew, with little PR management – he talked passionately about the impact the hearing had made.
On the next leg, Cape Town to Melbourne, Witt was much more circumspect. In the onboard footage Scallywag revealed little, including the fact that their Leg 3 navigator Antonio Fontes had broken his arm. It was, Witt says, a deliberate policy.
“The last thing I needed was to put the team in any more controversy, so I tried to take a bit of a step back. We get a lot of people follow us on Facebook, and they were all saying: ‘This is crap, this is boring. Where are you?’
“So, we decided we’ll be what we wanna be. From the outset, we always wanted to be 100 per cent open and transparent and honest. We decided in Melbourne, bugger it.” It was time to be themselves again.
So who is the real David Witt? Forty-six years of age, he started sailing aged eight with a typical Australian progression from Flying Ants to Cherubs, before moving into the 18ft skiffs. Witt was a huge force to be reckoned with in the 18s, and was still racing the class competitively last season. Contemporaries say he was unrivalled in his ability to keep the overpowered skiffs on their feet in big breezes downwind.
He was known as a big personality in the class, but says that although he has always spoken his mind, “I didn’t really get in too much trouble. But I think if half the 18ft skiff fleet were in the Volvo Race they’d all be in trouble too. It’s a completely different culture.”
He trialled for the 2000 Olympics in the 49er, but lost out in selection to Chris Nicholson, now watch leader on AzkoNobel. So Witt decided to focus on offshore sailing and rugby, his other big passion.
In 1997 he sailed a leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race on Innovation Kvaerner, skippered by Knut Frostad. That was his only experience of the Whitbread/Volvo until this edition, although he tried several times to put together an entry.
A learning experience
The experience influenced how he races today. “That taught me I either wanted to have my own team or a team with the right sort of vibe. I didn’t really like the set-up, so that bit turned me off – but the race excited me for sure.”
A stalwart of the Australian big boat scene, Witt raced around 20 Sydney Hobarts and ran Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffins for many years, including 100ft and 90ft maxis and a TP52. “I definitely took two things from Syd,” he quips: “Never pay full price for anything, and never give up.”
Sailing with people who are talented sailors, but mates, was another big part of the Ragamuffin ethos that has carried into the Volvo campaign. “You need to enjoy it. This [Volvo] race has massive highs and lows emotionally, and if you can’t enjoy the moment there’s no point.
“The team I sailed on with Knut, you almost weren’t allowed to enjoy it. This was back in the Nineties but the view back then was if you were laughing and joking, you weren’t being professional enough and I think that’s a massive misconception. I think a lot of teams are like that now. Part of the reason why we’ve stood out a bit from the crowd is because we are so different.”
Some of the Scallywag difference is down to its backer, the man Witt calls ‘SH’. SH is Lee Seng Huang, executive chairman of Sun Hung Kai & Co, who bought up the Ragamuffin campaign – skipper, boat and crew – in 2016 despite having little experience of the maxi scene. Things escalated quickly, with the Volvo entry announced in May last year.
Sun Hung Kai & Co is a massive investment group that manages around $15 billion worth of funds. But the relationship is very much between Huang and Witt – this is not a campaign run through boardroom meetings. “He knows me well and he knows what the team ethos is,” says Witt, “They’re our friends, and he knows everything that goes on. Good and bad.”
Sun Hung Kai’s loyalty was rewarded handsomely when Witt and Scallywag delivered a fairytale victory into Hong Kong in Leg 4. With Libby Greenhalgh at the nav station for Leg 4, some race commentators had a field day – the skipper who refused to take female sailors sees his team’s fortunes reversed after recruiting a woman?
Witt says there were other factors at play. “There were two massive changes in the team. One is we’re not running around worrying about what other people think, about our performance or anything. We used to sail around trying to make sure we didn’t come last. As soon as you do that, you come last. So, now we just do what we think is right.”
The second change was how they made strategy decisions, with Witt crediting old friend and now crewmate, Grant Wharington, as having a big input into Leg 4.
It would be understandable if Greenhalgh, a driving force behind the Magenta Project campaign to increase the number of women in professional sailing, had had second thoughts about joining the Scallywag crew. She says she and Witt had “a strong conversation” before she joined the boat. The last thing either of them wanted was for the dynamic between them to fail.
Instead they picked up the team’s first ever win, driven by a brave navigation decision at the Solomon Islands (although controversially it was later revealed race control warned the boat of a nearby reef).
Presumably she’d not be there if the she felt she wasn’t being listened to? “I think one of the most refreshing things about this boat,” she says, “is that it’s an open platform. You can share your experience or knowledge or thoughts on any aspect without it being ‘That’s not your area’. That, for me, is also a really good thing because with Team SCA I was really in a box; I was the navigator, didn’t get involved in sailing really.
“That’s something Witty is a good advocate for. He’s like: ‘Right, everyone on this boat is a good sailor in their own right, everyone should be engaging, pushing forward.’”
It’s no doubt the Leg 4 win has changed things for Witt and the Scallywag crew – fans accosted him every time he walked through the Hong Kong race village, and the team base was seething with supporters every day. But success brings a different type of stress, and Witt seemed almost more weary as the hero than the underdog.
He admits the team was underprepared for the shoreside element of the travelling circus that is the Volvo Ocean Race. But if he were offered a fully funded campaign, with months of optimisation and strict training regimes, would he take it – or would he still prefer to do it his way?
“If SH asked me, yes. If anyone else asked, probably not. But who says that’s what it takes [to win]? Having two years to prepare and proper data, that’s exactly what it takes. Having a personal physio every day when you get off the water, I don’t think you need that to win the race. I think that makes the sailors precious.”
Whether the Volvo Ocean Race needs skippers like Witt is another question. Ian Walker, winning skipper of the last race, thinks it does. “He’s good for the race, he’s a character.”
Libby Greenhalgh says: “Everyone talks about the Volvo needing to have more characters, and he’s almost being taken down for it. No offence to some of the others, but we can watch Mapfre and Dongfeng talk about 0.1 and 0.05 per cent differences, and for the people you are trying to engage in our sport it’s pretty dull.”
Witty says he’s just being himself. Certainly he’s pretty unedited and makes it easy for others to draw a picture of him as a controversial character.
He also says he doesn’t really care about what everyone else thinks – a claim that doesn’t always sound very convincing. But he’s raced around the world with some of his closest mates and won his home leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. Why should he care what anyone else thinks?
David on selecting his team
“Blokes I want to go war with, blokes I would stand in a trench with, blokes who would have my back in a bar fight, they’re the guys I want to sail around the world with.”
David on the ‘Breakfast Show’ video
“When I finally saw what went to air, I thought it’s a bit awkward, if you want to view it that way. But when you look at the raw footage, there’s a whole bit cut out where Bessie’s laughing her head off and giving it back to us.”
David on crew numbers
“I thought being lighter was better and having seven people [was better]. I was wrong. The last bloke who never made a mistake, he was nailed on a cross.”
David on Alex Gough’s MOB
“He got a bollocking. It was a fatherly bollocking. It’s a silly thing to do in a team environment and he’s a kid. I don’t yell and scream, and I don’t have that sort of leadership. So when I do get a bit angry at somebody they take it seriously.”
Postscript: This profile was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Yachting World, before the Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag crew member, and long time friend of Witt, John Fisher was tragically lost at sea in the Southern Ocean during Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil. #ForeverFish