Volvo Helm Heroes

We’re featuring a couple of stories today about the people of Yacht Racing. Here is a great article from the Volvo Ocean Race about what it takes to drive one of these boats for extended periods, and what makes a great helm. 

It is said a good helm is worth a couple of knots of boat speed. A great helm can fill a trophy cabinet.

What does it take to be great and which helmsmen in the Volvo Ocean Race over the years qualify for the Great Helm Hall of Fame?

Ask the current crop of Volvo crew and the treasure chest fills quickly, mostly with sailors from their own teams.

But ask enough people and a clutch of names keeps on appearing, all of them masters of the new generation of boats which suggests either memory problems beyond ten years or the belief that these boats have created some truly extraordinary new talent.

“There are a small number of people who have the skill set required to be great helmsmen,” said Green Dragon navigator Ian Moore who rates himself as a poor driver.

“It is all about an ability to make the boat go quicker for longer but that actually requires a unique combination of experience, skill and flair.”

“Even if you are a great dinghy helm you could not get on one of these boats and sail at night for instance unless you are Ben Ainslie. But generally speaking, it takes around two years to learn to drive these boats.

“You need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time and most of the good ones are very clever and able to quickly process all the data that is coming at them for two hours straight. Sounds weird but they also need to have big strong driving muscles because it is physically demanding.

“Someone like Neal McDonald can drive for three hours but there are not many like him which is a shame because I reckon he, or any great helm for that matter can add around 5% to a boat’s performance.”

Experience counts

There is no doubting the value of experience when it comes to making your mark, says Magnus Olsson, who should know, having been involved in seven events

“You have to be able to anticipate what lies ahead and you can’t have too big an ego because you need to back off when you reach the limits.

“If you are experienced you have a better idea of when to start a manoeuvre depending on the waves or the sea state, though sometimes that can be instinctive. Few people have that. Good drivers need good trimmers. A good driver is useless if you have bad trimmers, so teamwork plays an important part in this.”

Olsson named Paul Cayard and McDonald as the helmsmen who stood out from the crowd for being ‘quite brilliant’. Their names were uttered countless times in our dockside straw poll.

Erle Williams has also earned his place in the hall of fame after knocking the socks of the fleet in 2005-2006 as helmsman on Pirates of the Caribbean, his third round the world race.

Others on the list include:


  • Tim Powell (Dolphin & Youth 1993-94, Silk Cut 1997-98, Team Tyco 2001-02, Ericsson 2005-06)
  • Craig Satterthwaite (1997-98 Swedish Match, Pirates of the Caribbean 2005-06)
  • Gordon Maguire (Rothmans 1989-90, Winston 1993-94, Silk Cut 1997-98, Team News Corp 2001-02)
  • Jeff Scott (Fisher and Paykel 1989-90, Yamaha 1993-94, America’s Challenge/Toshiba 1997-98, Team News Corp 2001-02, Premier Challenge 2005-06)
  • Brad Jackson (New Zealand Endeavour 1993-94, Merit Cup 1997-98, Team Tyco 2001-02, ABN AMRO One 2005-06, Ericsson 2008-09)
  • Stu Bannatyne (New Zealand Endeavour 1993-94, Silk Cut 1997-98, Illbruck 2001-02, Movistar 2005-2006, Ericsson 2008-2009)
  • Stevie Cotton, (Yamaha 1993-94, Toshiba 1997-98, Team News Corp/SEB 2001-2)