The click on the clock
'Always consistent, always there, always doing the same thing every single time' – this is the mantra that United States SailGP Team flight controller Hans Henken lives by aboard the American F50
American Olympic campaigner Hans Henken was at a 49er regatta on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca earlier this year when he got a phone call from United States SailGP wing trimmer Paul Campbell-James asking if Henken could be available to try out as a reserve flight controller on the American F50 catamaran.
Henken – who had previously been a part of the US team during SailGP’s inaugural season under its then-skipper Rome Kirby – says he was surprised to have been called upon to fill the role.
“I was surprised because there's a lot of great athletes already on this team – and elsewhere in the United States – that could do this job. I was excited for sure, but I wanted to make sure that it was right for what the team wanted, and it was also right for what I was doing with my own campaign.”
Having checked with his 49er crewmate Ian Barrows and their coach Mark Asquith, Henken agreed to the trial which took place prior to the SailGP Season 3-opening regatta on the Great Sound in Bermuda.
Prior to stepping aboard in Bermuda the closest Henken had come to flying an F50 had been ‘a few hours’ in the darkened surroundings of the SailGP simulator.
Back then he described his first few days of training with the team as being: ‘both exciting and super challenging”.
“Every position in this boat is high intensity and have their own key moments where you have to be on it all the time. For the flight controller it's all about consistency.
“My first day, I definitely put us in the water a lot. Second day, I continued to put us in the water a lot. So, I'm learning along the way, but having a blast doing it, and this team is fantastic.”
With primary flight controller Rome Kirby out injured for the Bermuda event Henken raced in his place and has filled that role aboard the American boat at the other five Season 3 events since.
If you were wondering what qualifies a person to take on the flight controls of a foiling F50 catamaran, then the fact that Henken has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford University, and is – along with Barrows – ranked fifth in the world in the 49er class, may give you some clue.
That said, Henken told me that his high level engineering expertise only goes so far in helping fly an F50 around the SailGP racecourse.
“It plays into understanding the physics and how all the systems work. I come from an engineering background so I like to understand how the hydro and the actuators and the electrical system all work – all that interests me.
“In my role as a flight controller when I push a button to select a certain function, or move the flight control pilot wheel, I understand how that relates to the boat. That gives me a greater ability to understand how to fly the boat better.
Nevertheless, Henken maintains that you don’t need a master's or bachelor's degree to be an F50 flight controller.
“To do what I physically do on board and for flying the boat what you need is a quick reaction time, good depth perception, and you need to be able to focus really hard, intently, on what you're doing all the time – and be really consistent about all that.
“I think consistency is what is most important. The more often that you're able to fly the boat on the edge all the time and be right there, the faster the boat is going to go.”
It wouldn’t be a story about SailGP if reference was not made to the importance of effectively analysing the fleet data which is shared with all the teams. Henken paid tribute to the work done by the American’s coach Philippe Presti on helping the sailors get the most from this resource.
“Philippe does a fantastic job of coaching us and leading us through all the data on our manoeuvres and those different areas in the race that we need to improve on.
“He highlights the things we're doing well on by singling out our best manoeuvres and asking us to analyse what went into making this one or that one really good. That way we can zone in on continuing to do those things well.”
Identifying mistakes is an important part of Presti’s debrief/analysis sessions but according to Henken it is a case of discovering what went wrong, finding a solution, and then moving on.
“Understanding how to spot and correct mistakes is important, but not dwelling on them is also key to the confidence-building process. Our team communication kind of just builds from there. It starts in the debrief room and then kind of filters into each of our roles throughout the day.”
As a seasoned Olympic campaigner – he is targeting representing the United States in the 49er at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games – Henken knows more than most about adopting a professional attitude to his sailing.
That, above all else, is what Henken has tried to bring with him to the American SailGP syndicate.
“Part of my role in the Olympic campaign is to be just super organised; to have the logistics side of things kind of nailed down and have a clear routine. I try to be as consistent as possible – both on and off the boat.
“Having no ego is a big part of the job. It is important too to not be afraid to ask questions. If it’s clear that if you don't know something, you have to speak up. You can't be afraid to say ‘I don't know what we're talking about’.
As well as integrating with the sailing team Henken also spends time with the shore team – who, he says, ‘has the real job, here’.
“They are making sure the boats are able to go sailing every day, fixing all the mistakes. Like when I break the fairings or when I broke a wand on my second day of sailing, they jump on the boat and fix those things.
“I do a lot of my own rigging on 49er because as Olympic campaigners we don't have a shore team and we have to do it all. So I know a little bit, but it's been good to learn from the SailGP guys by talking to them and helping them as much as possible, as well.”
Back on the F50 Henken says his overriding goal is always to fly the boat as consistently as possible.
“I'm just trying to be ‘the click on the clock’. Always consistent, always there, always doing the same thing every single time. I let the rest of the team make the really hard decisions. I say that with a bit of a smile on my face, because on these boats, every decision is hard.
“At the end of the day I can trust my teammates. Everyone on the boat is a fantastic sailor and they all have their role to play. I know that if I play my role really well too then it all falls into place, just fine.”