Xabi Fernández, the second-time skipper of Mapfre, remembers well the worst moment of the 2014-15 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. It was in Cape Town, at the conclusion of Leg 1, and in the preceding hours they’d been passed by Team SCA. As they berthed in the basin, the sting of finishing last was especially sharp.
“I remember docking and talking about how this last position would be very expensive for the whole around the world,” says the Spaniard, who is embarking on his fifth Volvo Ocean Race. “We had to remind ourselves and our sponsors that it was not the end of the world, and for sure we would be getting better.”
By the fourth leg of the race, from Sanya, China, to Auckland, the Spaniards were a noticeably better team and won their first and only leg. “It showed that we could win and get on the podium, but as it was, we needed more time.”
That first-leg disappointment, he says, was a byproduct of starting the team less than four months before the race start. Between getting a crew and understanding the new Volvo Ocean 65, they were behind from
the beginning. But not this time. Fernández is far more confident given they’ve been active since early in the year, have several returning crew members, top sailors from previous teams, and an all-star navigator in Juan Vila, who won long ago with illbruck.
“I think the last race we had to accept that it wasn’t going to be a good one when we came in so late. We were unprepared and paid for it around the world. We changed some things, started to improve, and we were fighting for the podium at the end.”
From that strong finish, he says, they now have a proper starting point, and by bringing aboard top sailors from other teams, including watch captain Pablo Arrarte from Team Brunel, and performance analyst Neal Mcdonald, they are much further ahead than any of the other teams. They’re sufficiently funded, and have been testing and training with a full new-sail inventory, using their time to fine-tune the boat.
Other teams see them as one of the clear favorites alongside Dongfeng, but Fernández doesn’t accept the honor. “I don’t like that role,” he says, “but I’m happy because we have been able to do things properly.”
Fernández’s primary motivation is to win the race, and this time, he’s looking forward to sailing with a mix of sailors, including the two designated females — Team SCA’S Sophie Ciszek and Olympian Támara Echegoyen — as well as 49er gold medalist and America’s Cup-winning foil trimmer Blair Tuke. Convincing Vila to join is a coup that will shore up the navigational shortcomings of the previous race.
“The boats are basically even, and everything will be so close that making the right decision at the right time will be critical, to seize the moment to tack or jibe and take advantage of something will be very important. Juan can do anything on deck; he can drive and trim, and he’s much more complete than people think.”
“The boats are basically even, so making the right decision at the right time will be critical, to seize the moment to tack or jibe.”
Sailing under the banner of Spain’s largest insurance company once again, with several return crew and a top-shelf navigator in place, Team Mapfre is a pre-race favorite.