A thin Spanish breeze skitters over the northwestern Mediterranean as evening slowly fades into night’s cooler comforts. Ashore in beautiful Barcelona, the evening’s bustle is reflected in the myriad lights that are sparking to life, but aboard the IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss, U.S. sailor Ryan Breymaier and his Spanish teammate Pepe Ribes are living by the time-honored ocean-racing adage that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Sails are smoothly trimmed to answer the wind’s subtle shifts, and each gybe and boathandling maneuver is performed with the utmost care and precision, despite the fact that Team Neutrogena—Hugo Boss’s closest competitor—is a good 10 miles astern. From my front-row perch on a spectator boat, seated next to Breymaier’s wife, Nicola, it’s obvious Breymaier and Ribes aren’t taking any chances with what looks like a near-certain win in the inaugural IMOCA Ocean Masters New York to Barcelona Race—provided, of course, the wind holds.
Winches and rigging groan as Breymaier and Ribes double-time their efforts on the grinding pedestal in order to furl up Hugo Boss’s massive Code-0 headsail. Next the two sailors close-haul the mainsheet before Breymaier carefully swings Hugo Boss’s stern through the breeze, completing the light-air gybe without overstanding his turn. The finish line is roughly a half-mile ahead, directly off Barcelona’s iconic W Hotel, and judging by the scene in front of me, both sailors are ready to hear the race committee’s gun. Wind-blown, sunburned faces spackled with several days’ worth of unshaven stubble roam the cockpit, while wave-battered, half-peeled livery stickers hang limply from Hugo Boss’s topsides, and her storm-tested sails fly from a carbon-fiber stick that almost snuffed the team’s adventure en route to the starting line.
The gun fires and two loud victory cheers ricochet across the water as a RIB speeds alongside Hugo Boss, delivering some victory suds and the first fresh food the two sailors have enjoyed in 14 days, 2 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds. Twenty minutes later, Breymaier and Ribes are waving burning flares as Hugo Boss triumphantly motors into the Port of Barcelona, the only tall rig in sight. It is the first time an American sailor has ever won an IMOCA 60 event. A crowd, several hundred strong, erupts into multilingual cheers as the two skippers hop onto the dock. They stop briefly to collect Ribes’s young son, “Pepe Junior,” before climbing to the stage to replay their adventures for the crowd, most of whom would be hard-pressed to differentiate a halyard lock from a hydraulic keel ram.
“A transatlantic race isn’t long enough for you to relax. You have to be 100 percent all the time, especially the way [the race organizers] update the position reports every 15 minutes,” an ocean-spent Breymaier told me just before his post-racing press conference. “It was brutal!”
Worse yet, as taxing as the position-reporting may have been, Breymaier and Ribes faced the challenge of never having sailed double-handed together before the race’s start—a set of circumstances that resulted when Alex Thomson, Hugo Boss’s full-time skipper, elected to miss the race to be with his wife for the birth of their second child. Also, the team dropped their rig at the top spreader during their transatlantic delivery, forcing the two sailors to swap out what would have been their training time for an extensive repair job that was barely completed before the race start.
Still, for Breymaier—who has long worked in a support role for a variety of top IMOCA 60 skippers—the opportunity to raise his international profile as he seeks funding for his own Vendée Globe dream was too good to pass up—provided, of course, he and Ribes finished strongly.
“I didn’t think we’d win,” said Breymaier, who is quick to point out that co-skippers Marc Guillemot and Morgan Lagraviére had been leading the New York-to-Barcelona fleet aboard Safran when they were forced to abandon racing a few days before the finish due to a medical emergency. “I figured that if we got the mast fixed, we’d have as good a chance as any, because at that stage [the rig] should be 100-percent... But what put us on the back foot was that we didn’t know the sail crossovers or how the boat goes. We had no routine together, and we were hand-steering, three hours on, three hours off, for days. We were lucky to have managed it at all.”
Nonetheless, judging by Breymaier’s extensive sailing resume, his attention to onboard detail, and the 165,000 miles he already had to his record, I couldn’t help wondering how much “luck” really had to do with his recent victory—and how much of it was the not-so-simple confluence of preparation and opportunity colliding at the right time, for the right people.
Portrait of the Sailor
How did an American sailor get asked to stand in for one of the world’s most famous solo skippers? In Breymaier’s case, the answer boils down to a learn-to-sail-for-free poster that was taped to a soda machine at St. Mary’s College in early September of 1993. Breymaier, then a first-semester freshman, was focusing his considerable mental and physical prowess on winning lacrosse games—a sport that suited his 6-foot 3-inch, 215-pound frame just fine. But as he was stuffing quarters into the soda machine, a romantic notion sparked his imagination, and a few days later Breymaier found himself joining St. Mary’s offshore sailing team. An upperclassman from the team who lived across the hall fortuitously loaned Breymaier a copy of Glen Sowry and Mike Quilter’s classic Big Red: The Round the World Race on Steinlager 2, and the hook that would dramatically alter Breymaier’s life trajectory was baited, taken and set.
“I was meant to be on the lacrosse team,” recalled Breymaier with a chuckle, “but I went to two practices and never picked up a stick again.” St. Mary’s allowed Breymaier to keep his modest lacrosse scholarship, despite his poor attendance record, and the lacrosse team’s unexpected velocity header matriculated into a big lift for the offshore sailing team. Back then, St. Mary’s owned approximately 15 donated keelboats—including Challenge America, Steinlager 2’s sister ship—and Breymaier quickly found himself running bow during races and delivering the boats to various regattas, often singlehanded. While Challenge America’s topsides were white, not red like Steinlager 2’s, it was easy enough to imagine peeling kites at 0200 hours, deep in the wind-blown fury of the Southern Ocean—a place Breymaier would visit almost 20 years later.
“I was muscle for the first few months, but I lived on the boat the summer after the first year, and I helped with a major refit. It was a massively elevated learning experience. I was very lucky!” says Breymaier, who eventually graduated from St. Mary’s with an economics degree, but freely admits pouring exponentially more time and energy into learning to race sailboats than studying.
Come graduation Breymaier did the right thing and got a “real job.” But a one-year stint as a mortgage banker convinced the newly minted graduate that his future lay offshore, and books like Big Red convinced him a career as a professional sailor was an attainable goal. A crash pad in Annapolis, a rigging gig and a spot on a competitive 50-footer were the next logical steps, as was crewing in various distance races, including the Newport-Bermuda Race, the Chicago-Mackinac Race and numerous Pineapple Cups.
Breymaier got his first exposure to the European sailing scene when he participated in Cowes Week 2001, as well as several classic fall Mediterranean regattas. Given the international sailing scene’s self-perpetuating nature, and the fact that offshore experience typically begets more miles, it comes as no surprise that Breymaier befriended the crew of a Swan 80 based in southern France, and was soon invited to join the boat for some offshore adventures, including his first two transatlantic passages.
Returning home, Breymaier found that his rigging services were also in high demand among some prestigious American-flagged big-boat programs, including Blue Yankee, Windquest, Sjambok, and—on the international stage—Playstation and Amer Sports. Even more encouraging, he was soon getting calls from grand prix teams to assist with foredeck work, both offshore and sailing around the buoys in the States. Breymaier’s career was quickly snowballing, even as he prepared himself for a sailing-obsessed ex-pat life on the Continent.
Key to this jump was his work with the Swan 80, which not only provided a fantastic platform for Breymaier’s first serious offshore experiences, but enabled him to do some mission-critical networking. One of the crew worked as a boat captain for Roland ‘Bilou’ Jourdain, the celebrated French IMOCA 60 skipper, who eventually became Breymaier’s employer and mentor. Equally important, the Swan 80 led Breymaier to meet his future wife, Nicola, in 2005. “I rolled down to the boat one morning and saw her sitting on the bow, drinking her tea, and that was it for me!” the clearly still-smitten Breymaier jokes. “We were married six months later.”
An interesting disconnect arises when you ask Breymaier about his fascination with the Vendée Globe, the so-called “Mount Everest of sailing.” While Breymaier maintains he doesn’t have a Vendée Globe obsession, his actions since finishing the 2010-11 edition of the double-handed Barcelona World Race (BWR) suggests otherwise.
Most sailors follow a well-defined path to the international solo-sailing circuit, starting with the Classe Mini and progressing into Class 40s before making the quantum leap to the IMOCA 60 class. Then, for the few who seek even bigger adrenaline highs, maxi-sized trimarans and distance-racing records await.
Breymaier, however, has plotted his own decidedly American course to the IMOCA 60 circuit, starting in 2007 with a gig working for Jourdain’s Veolia Environment campaign as a rigger prior to the 2007-08 BWR. “Jourdain is a great, forward-thinking guy,” said Breymaier. “When I started working for him, I barely spoke any French, but Bilou and his team spoke English around me, and they taught me French. They really helped me to make opportunities to get involved.”
By 2009, Breymaier was racing aboard Veolia Environment in the team’s crewed-racing program and big wheels were starting to turn. Come the spring of 2010, Breymaier was named co-skipper, along with Germany’s Boris Herrmann, of the IMOCA 60 Neutrogena, which the two raced in several European events before taking on the 2010-11 BWR. “I certainly wasn’t prepared for the Southern Ocean,” admitted Breymaier. “It was an incredibly eye-opening experience to realize the power of the wind and the water.”
Despite the fact that their boat was built in 2004—several generations before most of their better-funded competition—Breymaier and Herrmann were one of only two teams to finish the grueling 27,000-mile race without stopping for repairs, and their fifth-place finish out of a fleet of 15 convinced Breymaier he was capable of more. “I didn’t move to France to seek out Vendée Globe opportunities,” insisted Breymaier. “I went there to work, to prove myself, and in doing so, I got some more opportunities to get involved.”
Nonetheless, within a month of finishing the BWR, Breymaier—at Bilou’s coaxing—had mentally committed to the Vendée Globe, a “work-in-progress” goal that he and Nicola have pursued since 2011. “Given the right boat, I can definitely win the Vendée Globe,” Breymaier said five days after winning the New York to Barcelona Race.
Interestingly, Breymaier’s original vision for racing offshore involved hot-bunking pipe berths with a full crew, not singing alone in the cockpit at 0200. “I wanted to do the Volvo Ocean Race,” said Breymaier. “But I never got a response from the race or the teams, so I turned my attention to the IMOCA class. I always wanted to go ocean racing, I was attracted to the technical aspects of the boats, and I often found myself sailing alone or shorthanded.”
But not always: according to Nicola, her husband has also sought out some high-profile crewing opportunities. In the spring of 2011, Breymaier began sailing with Bilou aboard Veolia Environment’s MOD70 trimaran as the team’s boat captain and bowman, winning the Fastnet Race by just three minutes. After that he successfully parlayed his Fastnet win into a berth aboard Musandam Oman Sail’s MOD70 as both a technical consultant and a racing sailor for a transatlantic run, which the team completed in a blistering-hot five days and 20 hours. Then, in 2012, he immersed himself in the double-handed Class 40 circuit—racing aboard Mare for an Atlantic Cup win and a second-place finish in the Transat Québec-St. Malo—before joining skipper Giovanni Soldini and seven other crewmembers aboard the modified Volvo Open 70 Maserati for a record-setting 47-day 13,225-mile run from New York City to San Francisco.
“I try and do things in a relaxed and logical manner,” said Breymaier of his fundraising work and his career. “It’s not always easy, but I try not to jump at the first opportunity. I wait for the good opportunity.”
As of this writing, a “good opportunity” to launch a 2016-17 Vendée Globe campaign had yet to present itself—despite Breymaier’s best efforts—and he was moving on to a new still-classified sailing project, with his mind’s eye now fixed on the 2020-21 Vendée Globe. Still, he wasn’t ruling out any possibilities.
“I’m a black sheep in a field full of white ones,” Breymaier admitted, describing his status as the lone American skipper on the IMOCA 60 circuit with a legitimate shot to win. Dockside wisdom among IMOCA 60 skippers also maintains that a properly run Vendée Globe campaign requires a two- to three-year design/build-and-preparation cycle, a process that Breymaier will need to carefully time if he wishes to put together a truly competitive program.
Still, while plenty of sailors would find the complexities of balancing a sailing career with the four-year Vendée Globe cycle and the continuing scarcity of sponsorship resources more than a little stressful (think the Olympics), Breymaier holds true to his mantra of staying relaxed, logical and patient. Indeed, he’s realistic about the still-dawdling global economy and about the odds of landing a proper sponsorship as an American skipper.
“I’m happy to help inspire other people,” said a reflective Breymaier. “It’s really cool to give people an escape from their nine-to-five job, and if I can translate what I’ve done into opportunities for other young [American sailors] coming after me, I’m all for it.”
Fair enough. Still you can’t help wondering: what if this guy actually managed to find the sponsor to make his dreams come true? It could make for a hell of an interesting sailboat race.
Special thanks to Isabel Genis, Andor Serra Merckens and the Barcelona City Council for their help in bringing SAIL to beautiful Barcelona, Spain, for the finish of the inaugural IMOCA Ocean Masters New York to Barcelona Race.