There is one team in the current edition of the Volvo Ocean Race that stands out from all the others, although perhaps not for the reasons it would really want to.
Ever since the entry of the Hong Kong-based Sun Hung Kai Scallywag was confirmed last year, well before the start of the eight-month race around the world, the team – and in particular its skipper, Australian David Witt – has never been far from controversy.
Witt is a newcomer to the Volvo Ocean Race but he is no stranger to skippering professional yachting campaigns, having previously skippered and run the 100-foot maxi Scallywag for Malaysian billionaire businessman Seng Huang Lee.
Having convinced Lee to back a Volvo Ocean Race campaign (a decision made easier no doubt by the race announcing a Hong Kong stopover at the end of the fourth leg of the 11-stage race) Witt – naively some would say – declared he would race with an all-male seven-man crew.
This strategy flew in the face of the perceived wisdom of the other six skippers who all opted to race either with seven men and two women, or, in the case of the Turn the Tide on Plastic, five me and five women.
Witt justified his choice prior to the start of the race in Alicante on the grounds of saving weight on board by carrying less people, food and clothing. He was famously quoted (misquoted he told me) as saying that he didn’t want to be a part of “some sort of social experiment run by Volvo Ocean Race”.
After struggling to stay with the fleet during the pre-race warm-up and qualifier series of races, Witt changed tack and recruited (some would say headhunted) Dutch Olympic bronze-medallist Annemieke Bes) from rival Netherlands entry team AkzoNobel.
He has since hired another female sailor: British navigator Libby Greenhalgh who stepped on board in Melbourne, Australia for the fourth leg of the race to the team’s home base in Hong Kong.
Witt’s previous navigator, veteran British sailor Steve Hayles, left the team in Cape Town at the end of Leg 3 after a social media outcry over alleged sexist remarks on what was intended to be a funny video sent from the boat during Leg 2.
The video, which appeared on Volvo Ocean Race’s raw feed for several hours before being taken down after complaints from some prominent female professional sailors not competing in the race, featured a spook phone in show (The Steve Hayles Breakfast Show) chaired by Witt, with a bearded Bes as the pretend Doctor Clogs, and included a reference to rubbing ointment on someone’s scrotum to clear up a rash.
Witt survived a Rule 69 jury hearing but said the case had cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend.
The next bit of Scallywag-related controversy took place in the final 2,000 nautical miles of Leg 4 when crew member Alex Gough had to be retrieved from the water after falling overboard while clearing a tangled sheet. Witt and the rest of the crew rescued the hapless Gough – who was wearing just shorts and a black t-shirt when he fell while balancing on one of the boat’s outrigger poles.
A video of the incident on the team’s Facebook page (@scallywaghk) was shared and commented on hundreds of times with many of the comments understandably negative about the lack of safety on board.
Given his now tattered reputation Witt could be forgiven for regretting having got involved in the Volvo Ocean Race in the first place. However, the Aussie skipper could yet have the last laugh.
As I write this month’s column the Hong Kong team have a nearly 100-mile lead on the fleet on Leg 4 after an inspired corner cutting move called by Greenhalgh took them swiftly from the outhouse to the penthouse a few days ago.
Should Witt manage to pull off a Volvo Ocean Race leg win against some of the world’s best ocean racers in his team’s home port then he will likely justify the millions Lee put into the campaign in one fell swoop.
By Justin Chisholm
International Sailing Writer