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Ollie Heer: "Now I have my back to the wall. Inside I feel a lot of pressure.

In a previous life he was Alex Thomson’s boat captain and so Zurich’s Swiss German skipper Oliver Heer is no stranger to unexpected adversity and the occasional accident. But whilst the renowned British ocean racer Thomson, third and second in successive Vendée Globe races, helped Heer make the decision to pursue his own dream of having his own IMOCA project and taking on the Vendée Globe, now with six months to go until the solo round the world race Heer has his back to the wall.

A rigging failure early on the Transat Jacques Vabre last October forced him to retire into northern Spain. And the damage to his Vendée Globe qualification chances was doubled as he could not then participate in the Retour à LA BASE thereby seriously jeopardising his chances of being on the start line in Les Sables d’Olonne in early November.

Indeed to get his qualification back on track it is now essential he finishes the Transat CIC, the solo race across the North Atlantic which starts Sunday off Lorient and heads to New York. And so whilst he might be living a little bit of a nightmare right now with the sword of Damocles hanging over him, his hopes are high, he is super positive, and dreams of arriving across the finish line, against the iconic Mahattan skyline on the 10th of May which is his 36th birthday.  

But meantime he will have to repress his competitive urges and make sure he completes the course.

Ollie I guess the disappointment of having to stop the TJV and miss the Retour à La Base hit you hard? It was such a shock, I don’t think I’ve ever been that low and disappointed. In that moment it happened and in the couple of days afterwards, I just knew how important it was and that there was nothing I could do. I knew I made the right decision to stop and not continue the race but I was absolutely gutted. You have those moments where you think….. ‘Why, why am I doing this?’ Sailing is always about problems, especially offshore sailing. You  constantly face problems. It’s about trying to find the positives amongst the negatives, that’s something I learned from Alex (Thomson) as well. Trying to find the positives and so I told myself, we will be the first ones in the shed, the first ones in the winter refit. We will have more time, we are less pressed. And so I just had to spin it around, at least in my head. We’ve done lots of work on the boat.

But the net effect is you are having to struggle to make the qualification, along with a few others?

Yes, early on I was on track to have a comfortable place. But now I have my back to the wall. That’s why, inside, personally I feel a lot of pressure. Although no one externally puts any pressure on me, I feel a lot of pressure. I know if I do these two races I’m good, there’s very little that can happen. It’s just about the miles, I need the miles. Subconsciously, it weighs on your mind and I think it also influences my style of sailing. Especially with this Transat CIC it’s a trade off I have to do between giving it all, sending it, sailing fast, and knowing that I have to make it to the finish. So far, until now, I was always sailing as fast I could, but with this race now I spoke a little bit with my mental performance coach and it was ‘try to be happy at 90%’. With the current selection of the Vendee it’s not about the result it’s about the miles, getting the boat to the finish line and collecting the miles. I just have to be happy getting the position report and seeing a similar boat next to me doing one knot more and not saying ‘ok let’s shake that reef out.

So, best case what are you looking for? The dream scenario is arriving to New York on my birthday, or even one day before! I don’t want to be stuck in the fog, 300 miles offshore of New York on my birthday - let’s put it like that. I’m very much looking forward to going sailing again. Having missed out on the Retour à La Base, I haven’t been sailing for a very long time now. And because I missed out on doing the Retour à La Base I haven’t done any solo sailing last year. The last solo sailing was the Route du Rhum. (November 2022) I genuinely enjoy sailing solo. Actually in fact I enjoy solo sailing more than I enjoy sailing double handed, so that’s why I’m very keen to go out there and just spend a lot of time just the boat and myself.

Meantime you have upgraded the boat a bit?

We’ve got ourselves a new roof over the cockpit, the old one was slightly damaged with cracks everywhere in the composite so we had to replace it anyway. We thought we might as well replace it and make it a little bit bigger, a little bit wider and a little bit it taller - just by about 15cm more headroom - because I’m quite a tall guy and that makes a world of difference. We got some new solar panels we’ve done an electronics upgrade with Pixel sur Mer so a good pilot. And we have new sails too from Quantum. Now it’s time to go sailing and I’m actually genuinely happy to go out, looking at the forecast it might be a forecast that suits me.

Tell us more about your mental coach, I guess considering how down you were after the TJV it’s be a source of help?

My mental coach is a German guy, Dr Wolfgang Jenewein. He’s a very famous and successful executive leadership coach. He also coaches some athletes. For instance, he coaches Sebastian Steudner. He’s the world record holder for the biggest wave ever surfed. It’s interesting, I don’t know how many sailors use mental coaches. I saw what a difference it made to Alex. It makes a difference when you are in a crisis, it gives you some tools to deal with the crisis you have, because everyone can face a crisis. I’ve done that since the very beginning, well at least for a year now.


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