At the age of 25, Mark Towill raised around 20 million dollars to put together a sailing team. His intention was to compete in one of the most gruelling sporting endurance events in the world: the Volvo Ocean Race. Three years later, he did it again, co-captaining a team of eight people on a 45,000 thousand mile voyage across some of the world’s most inhospitable oceans, against the clock. Except this time, Mark wasn’t content to just race. He also had something to say.
Having witnessed first hand the declining health of our oceans, Mark went to incredible lengths to make his second attempt at the VOR embody everything sustainable. He took on the challenge of not only competing at the highest level of his sport but doing it in a way that embodied an environmentally conscious mindset.
An added complication: The VOR is dangerous. People have lost their lives attempting it. To traverse some of the most remote and perilous seas tests the competitors and their boats to their absolute limits.
We spoke to Mark about what it’s like to undertake the journey of a lifetime, and how it became an opportunity to help highlight solutions to many of the key environmental challenges humanity faces.
FFL: Hi Mark. How are things? Are you currently in Hawaii?
Mark: Yes! I was thinking of going for a kitesurf after this, actually.
FFL: Ah, nice! I’d quite like a chat about kite surfing, but let’s jump straight to it: you recently captained a boat for the 2018 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR).
Mark: That’s right.
FFL: For those that might not know, can you describe what the Volvo Ocean Race is
Mark: Sure. The VOR is arguably one of the most challenging sporting events in existence. It’s a nine-month sailing marathon around the world. This last race covered 45,000 miles spanning four oceans, calling at 11 ports. It’s the highest level of competition in ocean racing, and it attracts the world’s best sailors. During the race, we’re out on the ocean for anywhere between two to three weeks at a time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re in a small space with eight other people. It’s a high-stress environment and in very uncomfortable conditions for long periods of time. You're forced to deal with things that you may not experience on land. On a human level, it’s a test of endurance, both physical and mental.
FFL: Sounds... lovely.
Mark: Ha! Yes, there are some positives too. It provides an opportunity to see the world and touch some corners of it that most people won’t see. And from a commercial standpoint, it provides a tremendous amount of exposure. In the last race, we took a really strong stance on sustainability. Our mission was to be the most sustainable team in the race, and we sought out partners who shared our values, which is why one of our co-title sponsors, Vestas, is the world’s biggest producer of wind turbines.
FFL: It seems like it’s one thing to do the VOR, but then another thing entirely to do it in a way that not only promotes sustainability but incorporates it into every aspect of how you approach and undertake the race.
Mark: I grew up in Hawaii and was always connected to the ocean, being very aware of issues about its health. I studied environmental science and economics in college, all the while pursuing my passion for sailing. This was my second time doing the VOR. The first time was just about competing, but one of the things that stuck with me was that it’s an incredible global platform to spread a message. I felt like I wanted to do the race again so I could implement everything I’d learned on the sporting side, but also to use that global platform to talk about something that really mattered to me: sustainability. So when Charlie [co-captain] and I set out to put the team together, we wanted to find partners in the sustainable space. We partnered with 11th Hour Racing pretty early on, which then lead us to Vestas.
FFL: Aside from the actual time spent racing, the VOR also consists of a lot of work off the water. How does life off the boat work during the event?
Mark: It has three phases to it. Firstly, we have to practice what we preach. We tracked our carbon footprint through the whole campaign so we could become the first carbon neutral team in the history of the race. On the boat, we were tracking our water usage and our waste consumption. Also, we didn’t use any single-use products. Off the boat, we would source accommodation we could reach on foot or by bike so as not to use cars, and do other things like source local foods. Another element was interacting with the media and the race spectators to spread a sustainable message. We also worked with the race to facilitate a number of ocean summits throughout the race.
FFL: Ocean summits?
Mark: They were like a big conference on ocean health, and there were seven of them in total. So for something that wasn’t really talked about it in the 2015 event, there was now two teams - us and a team called Turn the Tide - talking about it for 2018. The amount of change we saw was amazing. But the coolest part of the whole program was a grant program. At every stop, 11th Hour Racing offered at £10,000 grant to a local no profit or NGO working on a sustainability-related issue in their area. For example, in Cape Town, they were having huge issues with drought and water issues, so the group we worked with was really focused on improving water quality.
FFL: How much trash did you encounter out there in the open ocean?
Mark: Currently, it’s all about the microplastics; tiny pieces of plastic that you can’t see but are present in that first meter or so of water. On the Turn the Tide boat [competing boat], they took water samples all over the world, and they found that there’s microplastic in the water everywhere. Aside from that, we saw all the typical shit you think you’d see; all the nets, crates, logs, and fishing gear. We saw debris in the Southern Ocean, maybe 3,000 miles from land, in areas where’s there’s little shipping traffic and no commercial fishing. But the concentration of marine debris increases exponentially when you get into coastal waters.
FFL: The physical and mental demands the VOR puts on you must be extreme. What are some of the toughest aspects?
Mark: The toughest part is typically the Southern Ocean, sailing from Cape Town to Melbourne. The sea temperature was two, sometimes one degrees Celsius, with an air temperature around the same. It’s a big challenge. We live our lives in these four-hour cycles, so you’re on shift for four hours, then sleep for four hours. When you do a big maneuver, it requires the whole crew. In the southern ocean, we were jibing once an hour for 36 hours. Basically, no one gets any sleep. And that, when combined with the conditions, really wears you down physically. And once you're worn physically, then that’s when you start to wear mentally. Then, tempers get short, people lash out. It’s how you respond in those moments that’s important. That’s the real test of a team in a lot of ways. When it’s sunny and beautiful and you’re winning then, yeah, that’s always easy. But when it’s really hard, it’s how you deal with it that counts.
FFL: When you’re jibing at 1 am in the Southern Ocean and the temperatures are freezing, are you not terrified? Because if you lose concentration and fall in, there’s a high chance you won’t be found...
Mark: Here’s a good statistic for you. When you’re halfway between the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and Auckland, you are so far from any other human that the closest people are the astronauts on the space station. For sailors, rounding Cape Horn is like climbing Everest. It’s one of those lifetime achievements you dream of doing. But there are no ships down there, and it’s a very remote part of the world. So when you’re jibing down there, yes, it’s super intense, but the process itself takes about 25 minutes, at which point you might need to do it again. So you just don’t really have the time to look round and be like, “Oh shit, I’m scared”.
FFL: What are the highlights? Why do it?
Mark: So far I haven’t made it sound great, have I? (Laughs) It’s some of the best sailing though. You get to go downwind for thousands of miles. It’s some of the best racing, too. You wake up, the boats already going. You just put your gear on and you’re already out there. There are other times where it totally sucks and it’s miserable. And sometimes it does suck, but there are these moments that stick with you, and for everyone, they’re a little different. All the really uncomfortable or less than ideal moments fade away. That’s what keeps you coming back.
FFL: That’s what makes this competition so good. You have to go through the darkest moments of your competitive career and come out the other side, looking ahead.
Mark: Definitely. I have a lot more grey hair as well.
FFL: A lot of sailors seem to talk about the transformative effect the race has on them personally. Do you feel that’s something you’ve been through? Was the person who got on the boat at the end different from the person who got on at the beginning?
Mark: There were two really pivotal events that defined the whole race. The first one was in Hong Kong. This event hit me very hard, personally. I was the skipper of the boat, and being in charge you feel that responsibility. To be totally frank with you, I don’t think I’ve had the proper amount of time to digest it all. The incident [a collision with a small fishing vessel in which there was a fatality] happened very quickly, but then time sort of slowed down and we had to miss an entire leg of the race. I had to come home because I was basically in shock. I had to go through that whole process, and then find the strength to keep going; to put the boat and the team back together. It’s what I’m most proud of in many ways, how we responded to these moments of crisis as a team because we could have been down and out. Then the second incident...
FFL: When the mast broke.
Mark: Yup. When we got back on the water in Auckland, there was no easing into it, and it was straight into the Southern Ocean leg, rounding Cape Horn. We were trying to get back onto the podium. That’s what we were going for. And we were achieving it. Then, the mast falls over. We were stranded near the Falkland Islands. That was another moment where the race was almost over for us.
FFL: Did dropping out ever cross your mind?
Mark: I don’t think anyone on the team wanted to drop out, but we weren't sure if we were even going to have continuous support from our sponsors. We were stuck on one of the most remote islands in the whole world with very little connectivity or communication. The boat was badly damaged.
FFL: Did you just have to straight up ask for more money from the sponsors?
Mark: Charlie [co-captain] and I actually had to leave. We got on the one commercial flight a week that by sheer coincidence left five hours after we arrived on the island. So we flew 36 hours to Brazil to sit down with the sponsors to convince them it was worth it to keep going. We were fortunate that they were willing to support us. Then it became a game of logistics. We had a boat without a mast and a whole sailing team that had just gone through the Southern Ocean stuck on this remote island. Eventually, we turned a lamppost into a mast and were able to get the boat to Brazil to fit a proper mast and rejoin the race.
FFL: That's incredible.
Mark: I think the resilience we were able to display as a team - to overcome adversity on two big, separate occasions - certainly changed me, personally. I still haven’t taken the right about of time to fully digest it all to be able to tell you with full reflection as to how it did change me. I’m certainly stronger for it I think, and have a lot more awareness and experience to make decisions in trying moments like that.
FFL: How can sailing become more of a sustainable sport, in general?
Mark: I think often we tend to focus on too many of the negatives when talking about the health of our planet and oceans, and as a result, people get frustrated or despondent. They’re like, “It’s easier to not think about this”. I think the easier you can make it for people to change their behavior, it’s increasingly likely that change will happen. Give people positive reasons to change, not negative ones. If we do the VOR again, we’ll have to build a boat. That isn’t great for the environment, but it’s necessary to do the race, so if we have to do that, let’s see how we can do it in the most sustainable way we can. Everything from powering the boat yard with sustainable energy down to what type of resin we use could set a standard for how people build boats in the future, and hopefully be easy for people to get on board with. Our mission wasn’t just to be the most sustainable team in the race, but also be competitive and go for the podium. We wanted to show that sustainability and elite competition aren’t mutually exclusive.
FFL: I love that, we couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Mark.