Professional sailor Boris Herrmann: "Success is a series of setbacks that you've mastered and that make you stronger"

  • Professional sailor Boris Herrmann was the first German to sail in the “Vendée Globe,” the toughest single-handed regatta in the world.
  • In 80 days, he sailed around the world – all alone and on his own. In the process, he had to endure extreme pressure and stress. In an interview with Business Insider, he explains how he copes with it.
  • The topic of climate change is also very important to Herrmann. For example, he already sailed to New York with Greta Thunberg in 2019. In the future, he wants to link sailing more with his climate message.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

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He was the first German to achieve what only a few people in the world have done so far: Boris Herrmann sailed around the world in 80 days. For the non-stop regatta “Vendée Globe”, the 39-year-old started on November 8, 2020, in Les Sables-d’Olonne on the French Atlantic coast with his sailing yacht “SeaExplorer – Yacht Club de Monaco”.

Only 88 sailors have completed the race before him, and only nine of them in 80 days or less. More people have been on Mount Everest, more people have been in space. The race is an ordeal: You’re there for almost three months, as always in single-handed sailing, left to your own devices, at the mercy of the water and weather, with no outside help. In an interview with Business Insider, Boris Herrmann tells us what he experienced during the race, what topic is particularly close to his heart, and how best to deal with setbacks.

From child sailor to professional athlete

Boris Herrmann was born in Oldenburg, Lower Saxony, in 1981. He spent a lot of time on his parents’ boat, as a “sailing child.” At the age of 16, he heard about the Vendée Globe for the first time. “Since then, there has been a fascination with the race,” he says. But it wasn’t always clear that Herrmann would one day become a professional sailor.

He first studied economics in Bremen and had already written a few applications for various internships. But he had not yet sent them off. “I wanted to see if I could get the sailing project going first.” The odds were 50-50, Herrmann said. “I had set myself a very short deadline: If it didn’t work out with sailing in five months, I’d send off the applications.”

But the career as a professional athlete is on. There wasn’t that one moment, he said, when he knew he was now a professional. “It was more of a gradual process,” he says. “When the phone is ringing regularly and you’re being approached for different teams, at some point you think, okay, this is what I want my career to be.”

What is the Vendée Globe?

The Vendée Globe is considered the toughest single-handed regatta in the world. The race has been held every four years since 1992. The goal is not only for participants to sail around the world alone – but also to do it in 80 days. The race starts in the French port city of Les Sables-d’Olonne. The sailors have to sail over 24,000 nautical miles (about 44,448 kilometers) around the world – without outside help and without setting foot on land.

“I expected it to be easier for me,” Herrmann says. “You can’t prepare yourself psychologically at all for what’s coming up there.” Only 88 people before him have ever sailed this tour – “and they’re not trained coaches, either.” So you just have to see how you cope, he says.

The pressure of doing so is enormous. “In the 80 days, you have very intense emotions in both directions. You experience both extremely positive and extremely negative emotions that alternate very quickly,” the sailor says. You’re alone with yourself all the time, he says, and you’re under an extreme amount of stress and time pressure.

During the 80 days, Herrmann experienced the seasons eight times as he sailed through different climate zones. He constantly has to adjust to changing conditions, he can hardly sleep and has very little to eat. At the same time, however, everything he can muster is demanded of him in terms of strength. “The experiences of three years are compressed into three months,” he says. That’s a lot for the soul. He first has to process it.

What remains after such an extreme experience is deep exhaustion. It can take six weeks to six months to “get your head above water again,” as the sailor puts it.

Not all sailors who start at the Vendée Globe on November 8 will reach the finish line this time. This year, various participants suffer from rudder damage, water ingress, or failure of the on-board computer. Herrmann also has to struggle: on January 27, just 90 nautical miles from the finish line, his yacht collides with a fishing boat. Herrmann remains uninjured, but his ship is damaged. He can only sail at reduced speed and eventually finishes in fifth place.

But no reason for gloom, he thinks. It is important to view setbacks positively, he says. “You should always realize that success is a series of setbacks that you have mastered and that makes you stronger,” he says.

Those who take on great things need the right attitude. “You need the right attitude and desire to deal with such challenges. Then you can take them on and solve them constructively, pragmatically, and looking ahead.”

With Greta Thunberg to New York

Herrmann has another passion besides sailing: the climate. A laboratory is installed onboard the “SeaExplorer” that collects a wide variety of data: Co2 content, water temperature, and salinity. He later makes the data available to climate researchers. “The problem is that you can’t see climate change directly. It is a development that takes place over a longer period of time. True, we see the consequences of climate change, such as forest fires, coral reefs disappearing, or fields of algae on the ocean. But the significant aspects, like warming, microplastics and ocean acidification from Co2 uptake – we don’t see that.”

Back in 2019, he showed how important the issue is to him. Back then, he sailed the young climate activist Greta Thunberg, her father, and her cameraman to New York with zero emissions. “It was a great experience, spending time with Greta was a lot of fun,” he recalls. “She’s not only humble but totally clear.”

For him, the climate is not, at its core, a political issue – but a scientific one. “Science now clearly shows certain relationships, and they are non-negotiable: If we continue like this, we will die. That’s very difficult for politicians – and most of us – to deal with,” says the sailor.

During the tour to New York, Herrmann also ate a partially vegan diet, as Greta is a vegan herself. “That was very tasty! However, I didn’t want to start any experiments and change my diet before the Vendée Globe. I might take that up in the future.” For the race, Herrmann had about 130 kilograms of provisions with him. For his main meal, he had freeze-dried food in bags twice a day, which he prepared with hot water. For breakfast, he ate muesli or porridge, and also had fresh fruit and vitamin tablets with him.

“I want to become more active in the field of climate change”.

And what’s next for a sailor who has achieved what Mount Everest is for mountaineers? “Of course, the big step has now been achieved for the time being. But with this goal achieved, there is now room for new goals. For example, I want to link sailing more with our climate message and become more active in the area of climate change,” he says. He also continues to race. He also wants to race again in the next Vendée Globe in four years.

Asked for advice he would give his younger self, Herrmann replies, “Believe in the good, it can happen. Follow the dream, take it seriously, and importantly, it can really come true. Try to really realize your goal and not lose sight of it. Accept the challenge with joy – it will work out eventually.”

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