Opening up my computer late morning on the Tuesday of the Newport Stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race, I saw an email from WindCheck. “Hmm, Zep looking for June” (Coop’s Corner), I thought. When I opened the email the tone resembled that of a cable from a late 1930s Dashiell Hammett “Whodunnit” and read, roughly: “WindCheck invited for interview and sail on Brunel tomorrow STOP can you go STOP answer needed by 1400 today, Anne.”
Team Brunel’s success in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 is due in large part to the guidance of their Sports Psychologist, Anje-Marijcke van Boxtel. © Stephen Cloutier/PhotoGroup.us
First thought: “Yup, of course.” Second thought: “Whom do I have to reschedule?” Fortunately, I have really great customers and clients who put up with this kind of last minute “Ah, I have to go sail on a Volvo boat when I am supposed to be helping you put on your sails. Can we change your date please?” from me with good humour. Within the hour, I was set up with a rescheduled Wednesday, media credentials and parking pass.
After arriving home late from a coaching session in Connecticut that evening, I sat down to do some more detailed research on the Brunel crew from their website. One detail caught my eye: they have a woman as Team Sailing Coach. Not even the ladies on SCA have a woman coach. “I’d better talk with her,” I thought.
Wednesday dawned sunny with a brisk and puffy nor’wester, suggesting some decent sailing to be had during the outing. Robbert-Jan Metselaar, Brunel Media Coordinator, met me at the entrance to the team base and offered me coffee. At the coffee bar was Anje-Marijcke van Boxtel. In my usual retiring and shy fashion I said something like, “Ah you’re the coach. I wanted find you.” Not missing a beat, or even spilling the sugar she was putting into her coffee, she volleyed back, eyeball to eyeball with a 500-watt smile, “Well, here I am. Who are you?” I explained who I was and that I wanted to speak with her about being the coach for the VOR team with by far the most Whitbread/Volvo races under their slickers. “I am the team’s Sports Psychologist,” she corrected me.
“Wow,” I thought. That made perfect sense to me. After watching the race all the way to Newport I have been wondering how the crews, and particularly the skippers and navigators, handle the stress. Imagine being in the middle of a 7,000 mile leg and seeing half the fleet around you after two weeks at sea. They do not even need to look at the ranking/position updates because they can see each other on AIS. I have been wondering if the sailors are going to have some kind of VOR version of PTSD from the stress levels.
Think about this for a minute. If we have any kind of racing background, we have had races that were close. In any one-design event, a Vineyard Race, or even a Wednesday night race or Laser race we have experienced close finishes. In last year’s Ida Lewis Distance Race, for instance, the Class40 with the Prout kids aboard finished, after 150 miles and some 22 hours, just 15 seconds behind a Class40 sailing DH. But in the VOR, on the leg to Brazil the spread was something like 75 seconds between first and second. My math is not up to that percentage calculation, but that spread of time might just as easily be the spread in the Block Island Race, 230 miles or so, not 7,000 miles.
With the extraordinarily strict one-design approach for the boats, including not only hulls but sails, rigging, hardware, tools, on-board spares and crew bag size, there is precious little left for tweaking extra speed out of the boats. They all get the same weather and the top sailors can do the weather calculus. SCA has Libby Greenhalgh, a formally schooled meteorologist as part of the crew. What is left? The people. That this is obvious to Andrew Cape, a Senior Ranking Member in such global races and the Aussie navigator on Brunel, as shown by his remarks on his team’s personnel page: “The next race will be won by the people.”
Mental coaching is a fairly well used card in the deck of many successful teams and individuals. It is, however, remarkable by its absence in the general competitive sailing population. The absence of wide use of mental training in sailing is reinforced by Anje-Marijcke’s comment that I have been the only sailing writer to speak and now write about this aspect of the race. And of the seven boats, Brunel is the only team with such a coach.
Consider for example what Anje-Marijcke spoke of as the “Power Gap” on Brunel. In the stern you have Bekking and Andrew cape with a combined 13 Whitbread/VOR (including this edition) between just these two sailors who are in their early 50s and have worldwide respect, relative fame and vast experience. At the other end of the power spectrum you have the young’uns.
Rokas Milevicius, 29, from Lithuania, and Louis Balcaen 27, from Belgium, are obviously skilled enough as sailors. Otherwise they would not be on the team. Rokas was the Lithuanian representative in the Laser Class at the London Olympics. But merging such disparate experiences and ages into the mix to establish a cohesive team is key. On one hand, you have (and must have as the leaders) the concern of Bekking and Cape for the performance and well being of these relatively inexperienced (in VOR terms) sailors. And the new guys must harbor a sense of great fortune and performance pressure – the “I don’t want to let the team down” thought process. Added to this is a layer of nationality, cultural and language combinations. Brunel has two Dutchmen, an Aussie, a Kiwi, two Spaniards, a Dane, a Belgium and a Lithuanian. The boat’s common language is English, but it might be like a lobsterman from Maine talking with a Texas rancher – it is English, kinda.
Another layer, of course, is the personality of each individual. Being a “celebrity,” giving interviews or being photographed on a regular basis is not something everyone can adapt to easily. Some people are forward, at ease in diverse communities, and confident while others, well not so much. Perhaps not shy, but just not valuing such activities as much as the next guy. And all of these characteristics we have vary with the amount of strain, fear, fatigue, nutritional aspects, frustrations, disappointments, and so on. While it is certainly possible for regular sailors to build cohesive teams over time, such teams do not have the time constraints of the VOR nor the kinds of stresses the VOR imposes on people.
Brunel Skipper Bouwe Bekking specifically asked Anje-Marijcke to be part of the team. So, what does she do? First, in December of 2013 she got all the guys together and had each of them tell a story about the best team experience they had, and then the worst. From this story time, she asked them to highlight, on a big white board, what these stories said about the values of each storyteller. Then she got the guys to all step back and find stories where there were common values. From this she was able to construct, with the team, a base core of common values produced by the team so that each individual was certain that the guy next to him was on the same wavelength. One can see how this might be a good thing at 0230 in the middle of nowhere, when it’s blowing 50, with ugly seas, rain and being cold, wet, tired, sore, hungry, anxious, if not scared, frustrated and all the other emotions that sailing can bring forth in us. Knowing, with no shadow of a doubt, that the bloke at your elbow is on the same “team” might possibly be the performance jump needed to overcome the stalemate of the sameness of the boats.
I have long maintained that there are infinite parallels between sailing and life. In both cases you are dealing with forces that are difficult – if not most of the time impossible – to control, so they must be managed. As the skipper and leader of a team, the job of managing all the variables falls to Bekking. It’s to me obvious to me that he sees and understands the value in the smallest detail being important, and in the case of the crews, the largest potential performance gap.
If you did not make it to the Race Village in Newport, there was an area near the docks with large square fabric towers for each team with their pictures (and sponsor brands of course). Underneath their picture, each team member had written a quote. Bekking’s quote reads: “Know yourself, know each other.”
Oh, the sailing? Perfectly fine.
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.