In this interview with team AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpont, the Dutchman opens up about his earliest sailing memories, his transition from Optimist sailor to professional yacht racer, why he chose the Volvo Ocean Race over the America’s Cup, how he hand-picked his crew, and what it’s like to be a first-time skipper leading a Dutch crew in the Volvo Ocean Race.
What can you remember about your first ever sailing experience?
My earliest sailing experience came when I was so young I can’t remember it precisely.
I grew up sailing on the sea in the Netherlands with my family, virtually from when I was born. My birthday is in January, so I wasn’t as lucky as my brother and sister, who were born in the spring and summer and so were taken on my parents’ boat – a Sparkman and Stevens 36 – when they were about two weeks old. Growing up, I remember we sailed as a family as often as possible – virtually every weekend and all through the summer holidays.
What is it about sailing that continues to captivate you?
Sailing is truly unique as a sport. It can be as physical as you want to make it – the top end of sailing is very physical – but at the same time the tactics and strategy are like a chess game.
Then there’s the fact you are playing against nature as much as your competitors, which means the game is always changing. Each time you race, the sea is always different, the wind and the waves and the sky are always different – that’s what makes yacht racing so compelling.
I think the other aspect that sets sailing apart from other sports is that you can’t just step off the field of play when things go badly. When you are running a marathon, if things get tough, you always know you have the option to step over the fence and stop.
In yacht racing, you don’t really have that option. You have to see the adventure through with your crew – whether you are racing two miles or two thousand miles – and those adventures can be very addictive.
How did you make the transition from cruising with your parents and siblings into the world of professional yacht racing?
I don’t think I ever had a clear vision of becoming a professional sailor or an Olympic sailor. For me growing up, racing against my friends was just great fun – and it still is, by the way.
But the Whitbread Race and the Volvo Ocean Race have always been a big deal in the Netherlands. There have been lots of Dutch teams taking part over the years and I remember having the posters on my wall as a kid of Philips Innovator and some of the other Dutch campaigns.
Holland is quite a small place, so we would regularly see the guys from those campaigns in the harbor or out on the water training. I remember going with my dad to his office on a Sunday to get faxed position reports. I would take them to school and pass around my friends during lessons.
I had Whitbread stickers all over my Optimist dinghy and my parents brought me to a couple of the starts. I was fascinated with the idea of racing around the world and I dreamed of taking part myself one day.
So, when I got the chance at the age of 21 to try out for ABN AMRO 2, I jumped at the opportunity. That campaign was when I really got exposed to the top end of the sport. I made some lifelong friendships among that crew and it opened some doors that led to my America’s Cup career.
What made you turn your back on the America’s Cup in favor of the Volvo Ocean Race?
The Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup are two very iconic events and it is hard to choose between them. They really are completely different. Each has its own history and its own unique charm and appeal. The difference between offshore and inshore racing is like the difference between mountain biking and road cycling.
In an ideal world, you would finish one event and go straight on to do the other, but things rarely work out that way.
I was all set up to do my third America’s Cup with SoftBank Team Japan, but when the opportunity to lead a Dutch team in the Volvo Ocean Race presented itself, I knew what I wanted most. Plus, the opportunity to inspire a new generation of ocean racers in the Netherlands was very attractive to me.
The other thing is that the Volvo Ocean Race has a certain human factor to it that makes it very special. It creates unique bonds and relationships, both within the teams and between the competitors. I have to admit, I was missing that after eight years or so of America’s Cup campaigning.
What sets the Volvo Ocean Race aside from other top sporting events?
I think the Volvo Ocean Race is incomparable with any other sporting event, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the length of the race – it lasts for eight long months and has ten legs that can be up to three weeks at a time.
Then there is the team aspect. There is an intricate balance of relationships between the sailors and the shore crew, as well as with our families, who must deal with us all committing ourselves 100 percent to the race.
No other event demands so much of the competitors – racing non-stop for weeks on end and somehow at the same time managing to eat, sleep and generally exist as a human being. The pressure of the race is intense and unrelenting and you often have to rely heavily on your crewmates to keep yourselves going.
Tell us a bit about how it feels to lead a Dutch Volvo Ocean Race campaign.
It is certainly a special honour to lead a Dutch team in the Volvo Ocean Race. It’s a race that has a special legacy in the Netherlands and it feels like every Dutch man and woman knows something about it. It’s an extra responsibility that we all feel as a crew to make everyone in the Netherlands proud of this team.
How did you approach the task of choosing your crew?
Picking a team for the Volvo Ocean race is a huge challenge. The introduction of identical boats makes having the right sailors even more important than ever.
Before you can think about which individuals you want, however, I think you need to be very clear in your mind what kind of team you are trying to build. Is it going to be a top-down structure where the skipper decides everything? Or a horizontal structure with shared decision-making? That choice forces you to define the skill sets and personalities you need in the crew.
I knew I needed some experienced sailors who have done the race multiple times and have vast experience to call on. These are the guys who know what it is like to race the boat in 50 knots of wind, but also have the patience required to cope with four continuous days of no wind at all.
You need to be able to constantly adapt to continuously changing circumstances, so it is also very important that you have people who can approach problems from a different angle and communicate well with each other. You also need people who are performance and data driven and can make decisions based on what the numbers tell them.
And it doesn’t hurt to have people who have the raw talent and instinct to get the boat sailing fast in any conditions.
Was it a drawback to be a first-time Volvo Ocean Race skipper?
When you are a new campaign you are taking on some established teams, often with years of experience of racing together. We started from scratch with this campaign and as skipper I felt a huge responsibility to create a team with the right assets and the right people, so that the world’s best sailors – people I respect so much for their abilities – would look at it and want to be a part of it.
If you compare it to football, for teams like Ajax or Real Madrid to attract the best players requires more than just a good salary. The top players want to feel there is strong chance they will get to play in the Champions League final.
Talk us through the line-up of sailors that you chose?
I’m so happy to have the experience of our veterans – Chuny Bermudez, Brad Jackson, Joca Signorini and Jules Salter – with 18 years of hands-on Volvo Ocean Race experience between them.
However, the energy and commitment and desire to win this race that comes from our base layer of younger sailors is also very important. People like Luke Molloy – who I have known since racing with him on ABN AMRO 2 – Nicola Sehested and Brad Farrand with their fast multihull experience, and then Annemieke Bes and her years of Olympic campaigning experience.
How are you enjoying the skipper role and how would you describe your leadership style?
I enjoy the fact that the ultimate responsibility for the success of the campaign comes down to me. That is a considerable pressure, but I welcome it and use it as inspiration. I very much see the skipper’s role as taking care of the crew and creating an environment where they can each perform to their maximum potential.
I have experienced many different skippers in my life – from very strong and sometimes dictatorial leaders, to some skippers that were very open and surrounded themselves with people with specialist skills. I don’t see someone’s skills a threat to me, rather as an asset to help make the team stronger in certain situations.
I have always felt most comfortable in teams where I could do my own thing and was able to make my own mistakes. I think that approach encourages people to give that little bit extra.
In the modern-day Volvo Ocean Race the crew that can consistently make good decisions will rise to the top. Achieving that means empowering everyone on the boat with the confidence to do what they think is right and not be scared of making a mistake.
I see my role as a skipper largely as a facilitator, helping to create that sort of environment and I really enjoy that aspect of the job.
As a new team do you feel at a disadvantage to the teams who did the last race?
As a new team, I believe the most important thing is that we are always developing and improving, from now until the very end of the race. That relates to the way we interact as a crew, the way we sail the boat, the way we deal with success and failure. In every aspect of what we do, we need to be stepping up our performance as we go through the race.
I don’t have any illusions that at the start we will be faster than any of the crews from the last edition – probably a little slower. But I have faith in the group that I have around me – on the boat, on the shore and all the partners we are working with – that during the race we will find ourselves a performance advantage.