Bouwe Bekking prepares to race around the world... yet again

He is competing in the Volvo Ocean Race

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Sinking, near-mutiny, hard days and glory days, even death, Bouwe Bekking has seen them all. In nearly 30 years of racing around the world in yachts that are anything but comfortable he crosses the start line for the seventh time on Saturday still with an appetite to win and still entranced by a life at sea.

Well, when things are going well, and the weather isn’t knocking seven bells out of both the boat and the crew, and it isn’t either freezing cold or breathless sultry hot,

For Bekking, it goes back to 1985 when he was invited by Dirk Nauta to join the crew of Philips Innovator in the Whitbread Round the World Race. “I was watch captain and co-skipper,” he says with a chuckle. There was no pay and you provided most of your own kit. It was an adventure and, at 22, he was younger than both of the under-30 crew he now has on the 65-foot Brunel in the Volvo Ocean Race. They have both, he says, been picked because they can do the job and both of them know a lot more than he did as co-skipper.

“We didn’t have a clue about what we were letting ourselves in for,” he admits. “Now we just look at whether they are good enough.” As skipper he has to be able to sleep and to do that he has to have confidence in the ability of everyone to achieve optimum performance from the boat, day and night, weeks on end. “In the old days it was merely a question of the skipper saying “he’s a nice bloke and he can sail.”

Still, “we sailed the heck out of the boat despite being told by Dirk that I only needed leather boots for the leg through the southern ocean to Auckland. I didn’t have proper sea boots because it was supposed to be all downwind. So I sailed all the way with wet feet but, what the hell, we did it. Nowadays the so-called youngsters probably know more than the skippers knew back then.”

Everything may be different now but Bekking feels he is carrying on a tradition of Dutch involvement in what is the premier crewed round the world race, not least of the double win achieved by Conny van Rietschoten, whose first Flyer and winner in 1977-78 is berthed in the Alicante harbour which houses the 2014-15 fleet. “There was not a single Dutchman in the last race, and we know the interest is there, but it was seeing what Conny did that made me say ‘that’s what I want to do’.”

He has a kindred spirit in his sponsor, Brunel, an Amsterdam-based company with 109 offices in 40 countries which sources specialists to work on oil and gas rigs around the world. Their participation inspired an extra pit-stop in Scheveningen on the final leg from Lorient to Gothenburg.

What Bekking has appreciated is that all competitors having as near as possible identical boats has meant less time spent looking for equipment advantage and more time looking for performance advantage. But “once the wind is stronger and above force six to seven there will be massive differences in performance. If somebody has it wrong he can quickly go three to six knots slower than a rival and then there is the question of how hard can you push the team in these conditions.

“I think everyone will push really hard. But it’s not just the boats it’s the people. It is how strong they are mentally. We know that Telefonica should have won the last race easily then all of a sudden they lost it between the ears, making stupid mistakes. In this race the mental part is as important as the physical part.”

Bekking acknowledges that, with a smaller crew this time, he has to delegate more responsibilities but he still believes in a hierarchy and a clear decision-making role for the skipper.  He has had to make some difficult calls over the years and thinks he now has a different perspective, is less prone to hasty decisions. “Maybe 20 years ago I was more likely to be angry if something went wrong; we still want to win, we want to beat up the competition, but if we can look each other in the eye at the end and know we have sailed to our best ability that is also important. And it’s easier to find your next job with a win under your belt.”

That decision-making came under most pressure in the 2005-06 race on the Spanish yacht movistar. First, there had been a big heart to heart in Ushuaia at the tip of South America. “I think that has been completely misunderstood. I’m not angry about it because that is the way journalists work, but it was not a mutiny. That is completely wrong. I just pulled the crew together and said if there is a real problem then either you or I go but the whole crew stayed with the boat.”

Then the keel failed on the transatlantic leg to Portsmouth. Bekking had to order his crew into the liferaft and the yacht sank, vindicating his decision. They were picked up by the crew of ABN Amro 2, itself badly rocked by having lost one of their own crew, Hans Horrevoets, overboard and then recovered his dead body. “I think, in a way, it was a good thing for them as we interacted on the boat instead of they having to sail the boat back to England with no other focus. We were able to talk like friends.”

These days, Bekking is certainly more mellow, but he remains in charge with the benefit of a 30-year perspective which means having trust in the people he has picked. “I am way more relaxed and I know what to expect. I still ask myself why I am out here again, and there will be several days when we are being hammered by 40 or 50 knots of wind, but it’s the same for the other teams and the game is just to stay ahead of them and to do that I have to keep pushing myself. If you don’t have fun, you are in the wrong place. I don’t want to retire, I like it.”