Simeon Tienpont is towering, strong and square, with a chiseled face that has yet to reveal the wear and tear of thousands of hard miles at sea. But give it a year. With the stress of leading the Volvo Ocean Race’s most high-profile campaign, the Akzonobel skipper from the Netherlands, now only 35 years old, will surely be sporting a few new gray hairs.
This isn’t Tienpont’s first Volvo, however. At the outset of his professional sailing career, he prevailed through a cutthroat selection designed to man ABN AMRO’S under-30 team in 2005. With ABN AMRO Two, he and wide-eyed peers benefited from training alongside the pro-laden ABN AMRO One, and even set the race’s 24-hour monohull record on the opening leg to Cape Town.
Tienpont’s first lap of the planet, which included the devastating death of one his teammates, parlayed into a pro-sailing career that led him to Oracle Team USA, where, as the AC72’S foil trimmer, he tucked an America’s Cup feather in his cap. Afterward, he transitioned to a career of grand-prix crewing in the Med, but the itch to lead a team was nagging.
Nearly 200 boardroom pitches later, he found himself at the headquarters of Akzonobel, an international paint and coatings company spread across the world. The company was looking for a platform to rally its employees for a cause, and as luck would have it, Tienpont came knocking at the right time.
“I gave myself a date of May 2016,” says Tienpont about his search for a sponsor and the six months of negotiations that followed. “I said I wouldn’t do the race if I didn’t have a contract signed by then.”
By June, he had his team, the race’s first official entry, but a massive to-do list. One of his first orders of business? Get a new boat. It was a strategic move to buy more time and build a sailing team. He trialed a younger sailing team before eventually seeking out “adult supervision” from Brad Jackson, a six-time race veteran, and one of his mentors from the winning ABN AMRO One campaign.
Waiting for a new boat came with a trade-off, however. While a few other teams were putting miles on their refurbished hulls and refining crew selections, Tienpont left Jackson in charge and stepped away for a short stint as an America’s Cup grinder with Softbank Team Japan.
“We are at the stage now where we are really starting to move forward with the campaign, with the new boat, the team, and some proper testing and sailing,” said Jackson in June, only four months before the start. “We have a bit of catching up to do because we don’t have a lot of guys with previous experience.”
To balance what can be considered to be an otherwise inexperienced team, Tienpont and Jackson secured an ace with 47-year-old Spaniard Roberto Bermúdez de Castro, a six-time veteran, and one of the best helmsman off Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, the previous race’s winning team. Jackson also brought on board two of his mates from the 2008-09 race-winning program Ericsson Racing — navigator Jules Salter and helmsman Joca Signorini — so there’s enough collective experience to put them among the competitive set.
“Hopefully we have a campaign that works to get faster and faster in every area right up to the finish in the Hague,” says Tienpont. “That’s the cool thing about this race … Joca and Brad remind me that’s how they won on Ericsson.”
So while the challenge ahead for Tienpont is that of the many miles and many stops between Alicante, Spain and the Hague, he’s embracing the skipper’s burden of sharing the successes and potential failures with the Akzonobel’s 47,000 employees. “That’s what fascinates me in this,” he says. “Winning campaigns get straight A’s in all areas, from preparation to creating the right environment and getting the right people with the right attitude.”
“Winning campaigns get straight As in all areas, from preparation, to creating the right environment and getting the right people with the right attitude.”