Eddie Warden Owen interview: The offshore boss who changed the RORC’s fortunes

After an enviable professional sailing career, Eddie Warden Owen has a rare perspective on the world of racing, as Elaine Bunting hears

Whether at the windswept finish of the Rolex Fastnet Race, or in the wood-panelled rooms of the Royal Ocean Racing Club in London, Eddie Warden Owen is one of the most familiar faces in offshore racing. The genial and popular Welshman, who cheerily admits to being “naturally aggressive and highly competitive”, has a special purview of more than a half century in competitive sailing and, as CEO of the RORC, has shaped participation racing in events such as the Rolex Fastnet Race and the Caribbean 600.

From a boyhood of club sailing in Holyhead in Wales, he was part of the boom in dinghy racing during the 1960s and 70s. His talent, fitness and drive took him into the British Olympic sailing team, then on to race J/24s, big boats and the Admiral’s Cup, before he was propelled towards the international match racing circuit and three successive America’s Cups.

Warden Owen’s generation was the first to make a living entirely from professional yachting. Today, as CEO of the RORC, he helps to shape participating in the sport through the club’s international racing calendar.

Naturally gifted

As a teenager, Warden Owen was sports mad. His father, a carpenter and shipwright, was one of the founding members of the Holyhead Sailing Club, where members had built and raced a fleet of GP14s. Young Eddie, and his elder brother David, more or less lived at the club. David was, says Eddie generously, “the more naturally gifted. I applied myself, that’s all, and I wanted to do something with it.”

It was not until his brother David was in his early 20s and had earned enough money for a car from his job in the merchant Navy that the two began travelling to competitions. After graduating, Eddie trained as a PE teacher and began working in schools near Birkenhead.

But he was already questioning his career choice after winning the Welsh Games in 1969. That victory led to him being selected the following year for a competition called the Finnfinder, in which ten sponsored Finns were raced at ten clubs round the country.

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The winner of each round was then invited to the Finnfinder final in Torquay, raced at the same time as the Finn Nationals. Warden Owen won, and was presented with a brand new Finn with Boyce spars and Musto sails.

In 1971, the two Warden Owen brothers entered the GP14 Nationals in Plymouth, then a hotly contested fleet. Again, Eddie won. “That led me to believe that I could do something different,” he recalls. Noting the result, the well-known yachting journalist Bob Fisher gave him some advice. “He said to me: ‘Look, you should go for the Olympics.’”

In that year, the 470 was introduced as an Olympic sailing class, and Fisher introduced young Warden Owen to Seahorse Sails, which was looking for someone to campaign a 470 for them. So he left teaching, and swapped Wales for Suffolk to learn sailmaking.

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Warden Owen competing in the Finn

So began an Olympic campaign for a Games that the British sailing team never got to compete in. In 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The British government supported the boycott but left it up to individual sports associations to decide whether or not to compete. The governing bodies of equestrian sports, hockey, shooting and sailing decided not to send a team.

Despite having been strong contenders, Warden Owen’s – and many others’ – Olympic prospects were extinguished. “For me, it had been six years of my life, but for Chris Law, who had been a realistic medal possibility since 1972 [in the Finn class] it was much longer. It was tough, but it only came home when the Olympics came to Weymouth in 2012 that I realised how affected I had been by the whole thing, and it brought back those memories I’d forgotten about.”

It left Warden Owen in a kind of limbo. He’d left teaching and gone into sailmaking on the basis of competing in the Olympics. Now what?

He decided to move to the south coast of England and was swiftly invited to join racing crews. He stepped up to J/24s, the hot one-design keelboats of the Eighties, and a kingmaker class for contemporaries such as Ken Read, John Kostecki, and Terry Hutchinson. So good was Warden Owen that he was undefeated National Champion for four successive years and runner up in both European and World Championships.

His success in J/24s brought him to the attention of a keen racing yacht owner, Graham Walker. Walker invited Warden Owen to race alongside Harold Cudmore on his yacht Indulgence, a relationship that lasted for many years and paved the way for Admiral’s Cup campaigns throughout the team event’s heyday in the 1980s and 90s.

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Skippering Indulgence. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

A proper job

In 1985, Graham Walker decided to back a 12 Metre campaign for the 1987 America’s Cup in Australia. He’d recently bought the White Horse whisky brand and named his challenger White Crusader. Cudmore headed up a two-boat campaign based in Fremantle with Chris Law and Warden Owen.

The British team was forced out in the round robins of the Louis Vuitton Cup, and it was to be another 16 years before a British team entered again.

In 1987, he got an invitation to compete in the Congressional Cup in Long Beach, California. The event was tantamount to a world championship of match racing competition, and the main pathway to America’s Cup racing. “It was a big deal,” says Warden Owen, “and we went there and won.” On the way to collect the trophy he beat Russell Coutts and Rod Davis, among others. “Winning that put me on the world stage.”

Thanks to the experience gained in Fremantle and his Congressional Cup win, Warden Owen had earned a toehold in the Cup world. He went on to be a part of four subsequent Cup campaigns: as coach to Team New Zealand in 1991/2; to the Spanish team in San Diego in 1995 (where he and his wife, Sue, had their first son); again with the Spanish in 1999/2000 in Auckland; then Italian team Mascalzone Latino in 2002/3 and for the Spanish team in Valencia in 2006/7.

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1991 Admiral’s Cup on WIII. Photo: Beken of Cowes

In between, EWO, as he is often referred to (or, from the old days, the nickname ‘Blodwen’), was always busy as tactician in the leading classes: TP52s, Swans, Wallys. But in 2008 he found himself at a crossroads.

“I said to Harold [Cudmore]: ‘I think I’m going to have to get a job.’ I was older than most of the owners. Harold knew they were looking for someone to run the RORC and said. ‘You’d be perfect for it.’ So I spoke to Chris Little, the commodore at the time, and he just said: ‘Interesting.’”

Races new and old

After the failure of the 2003 Admiral’s Cup and the cancellation of the 2005 event, the RORC decided they could do with Warden Owen’s profile and ability to open doors round the world, and that is what they got.

His first new event as CEO of the RORC was to launch the 600-miler known as the Caribbean 600. The idea of the race was put forward in 2008 by RORC member John Burnie and Antiguan rigger Stan Pearson. Burnie and Pearson believed there was a challenge equal to the tactical battles of the Fastnet Race or the Sydney Hobart to be had in the tropics in February.

In the first year the race made a loss, but publicity snowballed and thereafter it grew year by year to become a fixed and popular part of the racing calendar.

He also oversaw a merger between the RORC and the Royal Corinthian YC in Cowes, giving the RORC a south coast base. What he was not able to manage was the revival of the Admiral’s Cup the club so dearly wanted to see.

Conversely, the Rolex Fastnet Race has increased its allure, attracting record breaking entries and professional classes such as the IMOCA 60s and VO65s that blaze their own comet tail of renown.

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Warden Owen with famed coach Jim Saltonstall advising crews the 2018 RORC Easter Challenge. Photo: Paul Wyeth

The 605-mile race from Cowes to Plymouth is the original offshore race on which the RORC was founded by 1925, and fundamental to the genome of ocean racing. It was a formula no one was clamouring to alter, so when it was announced last year that the next two races in 2021 and 2023 would finish in Cherbourg there was an outcry among members and non-members alike.

Most knew nothing of the decision until they read about it in a press release and many are still very upset by the change, which they view as a betrayal of the race.

More sanguine voices argue that Cherbourg has the wherewithal to put on a worthy show in a way Plymouth can neither afford, nor be seen to splurge on. Judgement must wait until crews next year have experienced the new format race for the first time.

From his perspective, Warden Owen says: “We will always still get critics. I’m a traditionalist and it was a pretty hard decision from my point of view.”

But he points to the waiting list of 150 yachts for the over-subscribed race in 2019, and says that the package of support offered by Cherbourg versus “Plymouth’s lack of interest over the years” was conclusive.

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Photo: Paul Wyeth

Club life

Disputations among strong-minded individuals come as part of the job when working for any club, and chequered reviews of these passionately felt issues will one day be a part of EWO’s legacy at the RORC.

But he is looking forward to what members want to do in future. Will sailors want more day races? Will the boom in short-handed racing continue? The RORC, an institution as much as a members’ club, is part bellwether, part trendsetter.

“We will ask people what they want and put on what they want,” Warden Owen says. “I get the distinct impression that people don’t want to do long races other than destination races.”

If other sports are indicative, the next generations want to test themselves and have more meaningful experiences. But beyond the swing towards endurance races and bucket list events, Warden Owen foresees a need for revival at a local level. “I think developing club life is what is missing,” he suggests. “We professionals have done a good job for ourselves more than for the sport. Our system has created medals but not done so much for club life, and that is how things started.”

It is always worth remembering that going faster or getting more technical doesn’t necessarily make a sport more enjoyable. Warden Owen’s own satisfactions have come full circle. He looks forward to racing back in Wales on the 20ft Seabird, Scoter, which he shares with his brother. The Seabird is one of the oldest one-designs in Britain, raced only in August at Trearddurr Bay, near Holyhead, and the brothers regard their restored boat as a ‘family heirloom’.

On a summer race, nearly two dozen Seabirds may turn out in the fresh, clean breezes of the Irish Sea, and Warden Owen relishes its familiar simplicity. “We race together, we really have a lot of fun and I cherish it,” he says.

“I’ve always said: ‘Aren’t I lucky to be sailing and lucky to get paid for it?’ Sailing is a joy, and so it should be, and the secret is to try to make it fun for everyone.”

Career highlights

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Warden Owen was 470 UK National Champion from 1977-1980. Photo: Alastair Black Archive/PPL

  • 1971/73/76 GP14 National Champion
  • 1977/78/79/80 470 UK National Champion
  • 1979 505 Pacific Champion
  • 1980 470 UK Olympic Representative, Fireball National & European Champion
  • 1981 12 Metre World Champion
  • 1982/83/84/85 J/24 UK National Champion
  • 1987 Navigator and back-up helmsman of White Crusader, the British Challenge for the America’s Cup
  • 1989 Skipper of Indulgence, Admiral’s Cup winner
  • 1991/2 Coach to Team New Zealand America’s Cup Challenge
  • 1993 Skipper of Indulgence, British Admiral’s Cup Team, winner of the Fastnet Race
  • 1995 Skipper of Mumm A Mia, winner of the Admiral’s Cup for Italy. Skipper Team Mobil, Ultra 30 class
  • 1999 Coach to the Spanish America’s Cup team
  • 2002 Coach to Mascalzone Latino America’s Cup Challenge
  • 2006 Coach to Desafio Espanol, Spanish challenger for the 2007 America’s Cup
  • 2008 Appointed as CEO of the Royal Ocean Racing Club

First published in the October 2020 issue of Yachting World

Content extracted from https://www.yachtingworld.com/features/eddie-warden-owen-interview-rorc-ceo-128803