Tom Kneen, talks to Andy Rice about putting together a winning crew. He and his crew won the Rolex Fastnet Race this summer, taking the IRC overall trophy.

Despite only having come to offshore racing six years ago, Tom Kneen has proven a fast learner. He’s also done things his way, steadfastly holding to his preference to sail with friends rather than surrounding himself with professionals, all part of his own way of creating a winning crew.

“My goal is to have a load of fun and surround myself with lovely people that you enjoy being with. When you’re offshore, and you’re trying to make the boat go fast, you’re not thinking about the balance sheet or what’s going on at work. It’s a good escape from normal life,” Knees says.

Kneen did make an exception to his ‘no professionals’ rule by accepting Dave Swete’s ‘try before you buy’ offer to take him along for the Rolex Middle Sea Race. That unpaid outing proved successful, with Swete gelling so well with the Sunrise ethos that the Volvo Ocean Race veteran has been a vital part of the programme ever since.

“You don’t win because you pay people, in my view,” says Kneen. “You win when everyone’s working together as a team and everybody’s focused on the objective and making a real contribution. That’s much more important.”

Here are his tips for creating a winning team environment.

The wider team

It all starts with the idea that the team is wider than the athlete. I’d say that 80% of winning in offshore racing is done before you leave the dock, the race itself is only the final 20%.

Tom Kneen and the Sunrise crew. Photo: Paul Wyeth/RORC

The preparation is absolutely crucial and you need to have the support onshore, the admin, the boat maintenance, the yard, and a boat captain that you really trust. It’s about making sure the boat is lifted at the right time to be cleaned properly, to make sure everything that needs replacing has been replaced in time, and so on. You need people on the crew that really drive the programme along for you.

More than talent

Apart from Dave Swete, I’ve chosen not to sail with professionals. One reason is budget, but it’s also because I believe professional sailors are difficult to manage. The atmosphere can get too competitive and too stressful.

I’ve chosen to sail with a young team with a good mix of boys and girls on board. We’ve got engineers, students, lawyers, people who run their own companies, and that creates a completely different environment to a professional campaign. I want people along where we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Article continues below…

We have some on the crew who may not be the best sailors but they contribute to the atmosphere on board. When everyone’s cold and wet and it all feels a bit grim, someone cracks a joke and they raise the spirits. In that moment they’ve made a real contribution to boat speed.

Mission statement

What’s your mission statement? You need to make sure everyone shares the same objective. For the Fastnet it was to try to win our class, IRC 2, and if we happened to be fortunate enough to be in the right place, then winning the Fastnet Race outright would be amazing, but not really expected.

Only now, a few weeks on, is it starting to sink in what we achieved. But the objective that goes without saying on board Sunrise is that it must be a lot of fun. Life is too short to do anything that isn’t healthy and positive. If there’s someone on the team that is disruptive or rude or creates an atmosphere or whatever, they just get kicked out.

Have serious fun

There seems to be a widely held belief that you can’t have fun and succeed. And the reason is that most people succeed by paying professionals. It’s a professional’s job to succeed, and if they don’t succeed, they’ve failed – whereas if we don’t succeed, it doesn’t affect us in the same way.

But none of this would happen without having a core of people on the team who have put in an unbelievable amount of effort, giving their evenings and weekends to focus on the tiny details and make important decisions about technical aspects of the boat, the sails, the rig and so on.

Rest is important

A lot of people assume you have to be on the rail all the time, but I can’t survive on that because I’d be so knackered I’d just be completely hopeless. We prefer sleep.

Sleeping on deck

We run a slightly unusual watch system that allows a lot of sleep for everyone; we do four hours on, four hours off, except that we rotate two new people on deck every two hours. So, you sleep four hours, and then you’re on deck for four hours but you change your companions halfway through your watch. This always keeps things fresh.

The design of the boat works well for us too, because when you’re lying in the windward pipecots you’re directly underneath someone hiking on the rail. You’re providing pretty much the same righting moment except that you’re getting some proper rest. And being rested is what helps you think straight for the big decisions you’ll need to make during an offshore race.

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.
Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.