A five-time Volvo Ocean Race veteran and passionate ocean conservationist, there isn't much Irish sailor Damian Foxall hasn't done when it comes to sailing.
Having won the trophy in 2011-12 with Groupama, he jumped onboard Dongfeng for the latter stages of 2014-15 – and races with Vestas 11th Hour Racing in 2017-18.
His mission? To help the team – led by Charlie Enright and Mark Towill – to make a big impact both on and off the water. The campaign aims to lead sustainability through the Volvo Ocean Race, and part of that saw 11th Hour Racing facilitate a race-wide Sustainability Training day in Lisbon, which was attended by over 100 sailors, shore crew, stakeholders and industry experts.
Hi Damian! The Sustainability Training was a great event and a unique thing to see an entire sports organisation come together in this way with one goal. You must be really encouraged by the way that this has been embraced across the board…
Absolutely, and this is just the start. One of the girls from our team said it really well – we’re here to do our very best to win the Volvo Ocean Race, and also here to be the most sustainable team in the event. As well as doing all of that, we want to do something that is much bigger than this event, or the sport, and genuinely leave a legacy, and an event like today’s is a great start. We have a worldwide platform and we’re privileged to interact with. What a super opportunity.
The Race has outlined a renewed sustainability focus for 2017-18 – but sustainability isn't a new topic. What’s different this edition?
I think every industry has its challenges and opportunities, and this is a fantastic opportunity for the Volvo Ocean Race and the wider sport. As professional sailors, we spend our time largely at sea – this is the longest sporting event from start to finish in the world, and we spend most of that time on the ocean.
We also have a huge logistical operation getting from one place to another, and that throws up its own challenges. Previously, the Race has promoted some specific initiatives, for instance the Save the Albatross campaign, or focusing on plastic in the ocean, but in 2017-18 the event is really integrating the notion of sustainability and everything that means into the heart of everything we do.
That means shrinking our carbon footprint, looking at how and where we buy materials from, which suppliers do we choose and how can we help them to be more sustainable in their own lives.
There are huge challenges, but some great successes as well. For instance, One Design is still a pretty new concept in this Race, and this is the second edition of the Volvo Ocean Race in the very same boats. Imagine the positive impact that has on our plastic and carbon footprint – we’re using the same boats as we did last race, and that’s something that I believe we really need to look at throughout the sailing industry as a whole.
The theme around the Volvo Ocean Race this year is ocean plastic pollution. It’s about looking at the plastic footprint of the event, the stakeholders, the teams and the individuals involved, but part of the programme is actually to look at how can we create a positive plastic footprint. We can consume, but we can also recycle, refuse, educate, and pick up – and after the sustainability training on Saturday we organised a clean up through the village in Lisbon, which many of the sailors took part in. I think that’s important – it’s all very well sitting down for two or three hours and learning about sustainability, but it’s not until you get hands on that it really makes a connection.
You’re racing with Vestas 11th Hour Racing in 2017-18, one of two sustainability-focused campaigns – but this is something that affects all sailors, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. You can’t do what we do without being touched by the beauty and importance of our ocean, and its health. We’ve all been aware of that from the moment we started sailing or interacting on the water, whether it’s as kids or adults, and most importantly we recognise that we really do have a role to play as athletes, as top-level sport teams, and as a global event, in promoting the importance of ocean health and ocean literacy worldwide – and the Volvo Ocean Race is a fantastic platform to be able to achieve that.
You’ve competed in every edition of this Race since 2001-02. How have sailor attitudes toward sustainability changed over the last decade and a half?
I think it’s at the front of everyone’s minds a little more than it was. We’re all more aware, and our children are even more aware than we are of the importance of the environment and the effect that we’re having on it. Of course, we’re looking at ourselves as athletes and representatives of our sponsors and teams. We’re very aware not only of the challenges, but also of the responsibility we have to promote best practice, to lead through positive action, and to communicate a positive and clean future for all of us.
That starts small – refusing a straw or a plastic lid on your coffee cup in the morning, and making sure that you’re drinking water from a sustainable source and not from a single-use plastic bottle. They’re very simple lifestyle changes but they have a huge impact. We expect to save millions of plastic bottles on this edition by providing drinkable water in the Race Villages as an alternative to single-use plastic bottles. That’s a small step that, when implemented on an event of this scale, can have a huge effect.
You’ve raced under many campaigns, and won the race back in 2011-12 with Groupama. How pleasing is it for you personally to align with a campaign that shares your passion for ocean health?
It’s a fantastic opportunity. As an athlete, we’re privileged to follow a lifestyle that most people dream about – to be able to make a living, and to be able to focus 100% on your sport and your search for excellence – but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty egocentric activity.
It’s key to inspires younger people, and to be able to use our work as a way of promoting something higher and more important such as ocean health is a fantastic opportunity.
It’s great to join Mark and Charlie with Vestas 11th Hour Racing, and to see that the Volvo Ocean Race is engaging not just in a couple of sustainability projects but actually integrating it into the whole ethos of running a global event to a very high and sustainable standard.
Three weeks until the Race departs Alicante – how much are you looking forward to see this programme evolve as we go around the world?
Actually, we were just talking with the Onboard Reporters, about the specific themes that we’re going to be focusing on as we go around the world. Obviously, ocean plastic is a central theme, but there are so many opportunities to talk about – biodiversity, marine mammals, the impacts of land masses and watersheds on ocean health, and education and how we interact with schools and other groups as we go around the world. It’s going to be a really exciting adventure, and a fantastic story to be a part of, living and breathing. I can’t wait.