Hi Simeon - first of all, congratulations. You must be delighted...
Hi, and thanks! Yes, it’s an absolutely exhilarating feeling to get to this point. It almost feels that the race has already started, in the way that, one minute, you’re thinking about going for it, and the next you have a group of guys around you all working towards it - and then confirmation that it's actually happening. It’s especially nice because I have the best sponsor I could possibly wish for - not only from a technical point of view, but also as a company with a great team culture and spirit. It’s a pretty cool start!
Well, you've already won one mini race - you're the first team to officially enter the 2017-18 edition!
(Laughs) Well, I haven’t thought about it that way to be honest. It’s personally a huge opportunity for me and I’m exhilarated to start right now. It’s great to be the first team, and it will mean a little bit more preparation time. I’ve also been quite heavily involved in SoftBank Team Japan in the America’s Cup World Series, so it’s a double feeling - I can honestly say that they’re one of the most inspiring groups of people I’ve worked with in the Cup. This opportunity was always in the background but you never really know if it’s going to happen, and then all of a sudden it moved pretty quickly.
Have you always dreamed of being a Volvo Ocean Race skipper?
Oh yes, for sure. It might sound a bit cheesy, but I remember the first time my parents took me to the start of the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1993-94, and my hero at that point was Dennis Conner. I remember him on Winston, sailing by, and I was yelling at him, and he waved back. I was hooked - I thought, wow - this guy, the skipper, he’s a true hero. And then I actually got to do the race onboard ABN AMRO TWO in 2005-06, which was a huge experience for me. It was a very dramatic campaign and a very good introduction to professional sailing - and when I finished I remember promising myself, I need to do this whole race again, and next time, I need to win it. But I never really thought I’d get an opportunity like this. I’d have loved to do the next race as a crew, but to be in the Netherlands now, to do this for a Dutch team and to take the skipper role as well is a huge honour. I’ll do my utmost to win the race with Team AkzoNobel.
As you mentioned, you debuted in the Volvo Ocean Race in 2005-06, and then you stepped away from the race for almost a decade… did you think you’d do another?
If I'm honest, I’ve always looked at opportunities to get back into the race. After ABN AMRO we had some opportunities to go and join the America’s Cup - but I actually decided to go to university. I spent half of my time sailing professionally and half studying. Then, in 2007, there were some initiatives in the Netherlands to get a Dutch team going in the Volvo Ocean Race again, which I was very much involved in, but they didn’t make it anywhere. I’m an engineer and at that point the America’s Cup was the ultimate playing ground for technique and innovation. When I came back to the Volvo Ocean Race last edition for a couple of legs, I saw that working in the America's Cup had equipped me with so much experience - in working with big teams but also having an eye for detail and marketing. I feel very lucky that I had the Cup years, especially with such great teams, but it’s even more exciting to get back to the Volvo Ocean Race. It’s been said many times by some huge sailors, but this race has something special about it, something incredible which draws you back in. It's a very true statement.
72 hours ago you were doing 40 knots in Bermuda with Softbank Team Japan - and now you're suited and booted in The Hague. How easy is the switch from athlete to businessman?
Well, it's different - but it's very enjoyable. To be honest, I believe that it's kind of necessary nowadays, and sailing isn’t alone in that. In a lot of sports, you carry the values of your sponsor. Even as a sportsman it’s very important to choose who you want to partner up with, which team culture fits you the best. I’ve learned that a lot in my career. I enjoy that aspect - the companies want to participate in this incredible race, and they look for someone who can carry that forward for them. I had to put all my business and focus towards getting this over the line, but it’s more than worth it to get an experience like this.
How proud are you to give the Netherlands at least one boat to cheer in 2017-18 - this nation is obsessed with the Volvo Ocean Race...
Absolutely. I think it’s great news. In Holland, everyone has a little boat or canoe or a surfboard in their back garden. The country is very much related to the ocean and to water, and the maritime industry, to which AkzoNobel is also very much connected. The popularity of the Volvo Ocean Race has been proven by the stopovers and the entries in the past. The Dutch public love the romance and adventure, and the stories which are written by every team in this race - it’s a great thing to follow - and I hope that we have more than one campaign from the Netherlands. There’s a lot of interest and it would maximise the opportunity for all of us. It’s nice that we have a new generation of Dutch sailors and shore crew to work with - as AkzoNobel is very much a global company, we will have an international team, but for the Netherlands it’s a great opportunity for the public and particularly the young people in the industry to connect with us.
What are your thoughts on the new route? It looks pretty epic...
I love it. I seriously love it. The new route actually looks pretty similar to the one I did in 2005-06, except this time we go all the way up to Hong Kong and China, which will be really cool. I think this route is what the Volvo Ocean Race is all about. The hardcore sailors and the fans are delighted with the way the route looks now. They’re all very physical, tough legs, and I understand it’s the longest race ever - around 45,000 nm. All the big capes are in it. It’s going to be unbelievably challenging and exciting, I couldn’t wish for a better race. And of course there's the added bonus that we get to finish the race in our home port of The Hague.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Well, I think it's always very hard to talk about yourself. I can tell you what I aim for - in all the teams I’ve been in that have been really successful there's been a group of guys who can be very confrontational, but never lose respect for each other. One thing I do know is that you can’t win with a group where everyone agrees with every decision you make. I feel very responsible, and I will very much push to compile a group of guys who have a lot of respect for each other. I learnt a lot from Seb Josse - he always said it's important to avoid the peaks and the lows, and focus on the task at hand. That’s a leadership style I admire.
That's very much what Ian Walker said last edition too, and it worked out well for him...
Well, they’re very wise words, from someone who has done the race many times. In my experience as well, of course, consistency is key, so is a group of guys who work together, but particularly in this race, with many miles offshore, the reliability of the boat is a huge factor. We have to take care of the boat and get good guys around it. I have no doubt that the other teams who enter the race will be unbelievably high profile, so of course it would be stupid to say that we're going to end every leg in first place. But that’s not to say that we don’t work for that. We’d like to finish in The Hague and be in good shape to take the trophy there.
This will be your hat-trick edition. What is so special about the Volvo Ocean Race?
What makes the race so unbelievably special for me is that to do well, and to be able to win, you need within the team such a level of trust and respect and determination to get to that goal. It’s a very unique event in any sport because you’re 2,500 miles offshore and the only guys who can help you are the guys around you. That gives the event a very human touch, and at the same time you’re in the most deserted rough places on Earth, where you push to the limit and basically you're battling like it's the last 100 metres of the race ...for 30 days in a row. That makes it the most incredible event to me.
Go on, stick your neck out - can you win this race?
Of course! The ambition for every skipper is the same - first of all, come into every harbour safe. Next, be the first one there.