Susann Beucke is sitting relaxed and in a good mood at the Munich exhibition center. The 31-year-old ordered a rhubarb spritzer and a cappuccino. While her sailing crew, the Swiss team Holcim-PRB, had to deal with a broken mast around 10,000 kilometers away from Brazil on the fourth stage of the Ocean Race, Beucke was doing sponsorship appointments at home.
At the regatta, which takes the five participating teams around the world in seven race sections (so-called legs), the woman from Kiel was on board the boat of the Imoca 60 class on the second leg from Cape Verde to Cape Town. As a trimmer, i.e. responsible for adjusting the sails, she was the first to cross the finish line in South Africa with the 20-metre-long carbon boat, which flies over the water on so-called foils more than it glides.
Her team boss is French sailing star Kevin Escoffier, 43, who won the Ocean Race in 2018. This time he and his crew lead the overall standings again, coming second behind Boris Herrmann, 41, from Hamburg with his boat “Malizia” in the third and longest stage of almost 24,000 kilometers from South Africa to Brazil.
However, the broken mast could shake up the classification. It is still unclear when Beucke’s team will be able to return to the race, a new mast will be delivered from France and the crew is currently in the process of steering their boat into a harbor without a large sail area. But Escoffie announces: “We want to make our comeback as soon as possible.” It is said that the team has set itself the goal of being back on May 21st, the start date of the 5th stage.
These are tough times on the ocean – even without such serious breakdowns. Beucke explains: “A boat like this is simply not built for people.” It’s all about maximum speed, and it has nothing to do with the romance of sailing. There is no longer a steering wheel, the boats are steered almost exclusively by the autopilot. The computer does this better than any human. Is that even real sailing?
Beucke frowns: “That’s a question. You don’t want to stop innovation. It’s just different. I don’t want to hide the fact that it’s a completely, completely different sailing experience than on conventional boats.” The crew now consists of just four sailors, who can be swapped out at any stopover. There is also a media man on board who creates videos but is not allowed to intervene in the sailing events.
There is rarely anyone on deck: “You try to be outside as little as possible. That’s quite unusual, because we do sailing because we need to feel the wind in our hair. That’s very important,” says Beucke. When she was still an Olympic sailor, there was no shelter on board in her class 49erFX, she hung as a crew with partner Tina Lutz, 32, almost exclusively in the trapeze, constantly feeling the wind. She became European champion twice and won Olympic silver in Tokyo in 2021.
After the success at the summer games, Beucke switched to offshore sailing: “It was a blatant step, it’s something completely different. You only look out of a glass hatch. As a result, you no longer have the direct feeling. You have to be an incredibly good sailor to still get something from the little feeling you get from the boat. It’s a bit like a guitar player having to play with gloves on.” Whereas a race for her used to take around 25 minutes, she now spent 17 days and 19 minutes on her roughly 8,500-kilometer stage at sea.
“It was very varied,” she says. Because the Cape Verde Islands did not go directly to Cape Town, the best wind was always sought. Therefore, a wide arc was sailed: “We were 150 miles (278 kilometers, the editor) from the Brazilian coast. We were stuck in the doldrums near the equator.” There is hardly any wind in this low-pressure channel near the equator. “It was unbelievably hot, I had trouble sleeping,” Beucke remembers. The crew shares the uncomfortable cots.
The carbon hull of the boat is not insulated, heating or air conditioning is unthinkable for weight reasons. When the sun burns, the hull heats up – but that changed as we went further south. Beucke says: “We went down the coast to the Southern Ocean with a lot of wind, high waves and cold, we were there for three days.” you can have.”
Another big challenge were the high waves that washed tons of water over the boat. There’s only one reason to get some fresh air: “It’s when you change sails, when you go on the bow. It lasts a maximum of four minutes, but you come back soaking wet.” Because the boats fly across the ocean at over 70 km/h – a radical development.
For comparison: In the so far only German victory in 2002, the “Illbruck” set a 24-hour record when it covered 896 kilometers. This time Team Holcim pulverized the best performance on the third stage with 1102.42 kilometers in one day.
“The Imoca class – these are simply very atypical sailing boats. The development in sailing is becoming so extremely tough that you have to try to somehow make the boat liveable for people. This is only possible through the protected cockpit, which means that we lose a lot of sensors and feeling. But that’s where the development is headed,” says Beucke. A bucket is used as a toilet. In a very small space, food is only available in cans or bags that are filled with hot water from a gas cooker: “Everything on board is minimalist, that’s where you get pragmatic.”
Only Herrmann from Hamburg had his ship built a little more generously. You won’t find a kitchen, comfortable beds or a toilet on board the “Malizia”, but the sailors can, for example, stand upright in the entire cockpit area. Beucke: “It’s no secret that Boris has the most comfortable ship in terms of design. He is the only one who has placed great value on comfort. I was lucky enough to have been on his boat once in Cape Town. I have to say it is very spacious, bright, open and friendly.”
But she also says: “But I think it’s nice when you get into a boat and everything is trimmed for performance. Boris’ idea seems to be getting performance through quality of life. But every sailor is different.” Her French skipper has different ideas: “Kevin, for example, wants to win at all costs. He changed everything to save weight. He probably wouldn’t feel comfortable in a more comfortable boat.”
There is a three-hour rhythm on the water. “But it’s rare that you can keep it. You first check whether anything needs to be done, whether anything needs to be cleaned up, whether there is water somewhere in the boat. It’s not proper to go to bed right away,” says Beucke. If a maneuver such as a tack or jibe is pending during the rest phase, the entire crew has to help: “That means you lose half an hour.” You also eat in your free time. Beucke explains: “Preparing the food takes about 20 or 30 minutes. Everything just takes a little longer because the boat is moving all the time. And you’re handling hot water there, you have to be careful with everything.”
With the stress and deprivation, everyone enjoys little things on the ocean. Beucke says: “On leg two we had the luxury of a shower. Everyone had a liter of fresh water available – but that had to be enough. In the Southern Ocean nobody wanted to take a shower anymore because it was much too cold.”
Why is she putting herself through such torture? Beucke has often pondered this question: “I don’t know what the sailing phenomenon is either. You probably want to find out where is the limit that you really don’t want to do it anymore? I haven’t reached her yet.” The sixth stage of the regatta leads through her hometown of Kiel. Coming from Denmark, the boats have to go around a buoy in the Kiel Fjord, then they continue to the Netherlands for the next stopover.
Beucke says: “Kevin always puts the crew together at short notice. As a resident of Kiel, I would be really happy if I could be part of it again.” Because her dream of offshore sailing once began in the fjord: “I was nine years old when the Ocean Race ended with the victory of the ‘Illbruck’ in Kiel . I watched and thought: Wow, crazy, I would like to be there too.” That could soon be true.