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Niklas Zennström: my love for sailing

Skype has become a household word, a piece of communications software that’s changed the way we make phone calls forever. It was invented by a young Swede, Niklas Zennström, who when he’s not doing brilliant things in the world of high technology, is a dedicated sailor and owner of Rán, one of the hottest boats of the 2009 season. We bumped into him at the dockside and wouldn’t let him go without a chat.

When and how did you start sailing?
I started sailing when I was 7 years old. My parents worked as teachers so we spent the entire summer holidays cruising around one of the most beautiful sailing venues in the world, the Stockholm Archipelago, the Swedish coast and the Finnish archipelago. I also used to race on dinghies. I stopped  when I got focused on studies and business but I never stopped cruising. A few years back I decided with my wife to pick up racing again with bigger boats, and it has snowballed from there.

What’s your most loved boat and what aspect of sailing do you like best?
That is like asking someone which of your children do you love the most. The new 72-foot Rán 2 is the one I love the most for the moment because it’s a fantastic boat to sail, very powerful, but it’s also a boat that I have conceived from the beginning working with the naval architect Rolf Vrolijk, the interior designer, the project manager, and many people from the Rán team lead by Tim Powell. It has been a real team effort. I think that’s why it’s performing so well. I guess the best aspect of sailing is winning! What is great with sailing is that it has so many different aspects, from planning the design of the boat, the sails, the team, race strategy, tactics, driving and trimming. Driving a big planing boat like Rán in heavy downwind is a very powerful experience.

Sum up sailing in three words, please…
Freedom, nature, competition. 

What does the name Rán mean?
In the Viking mythology Rán is the goddess of the sea. She captures sailors in her net but if you wear gold you can give it to her and she will protect you.

How important is teamwork to you and how do you build your crew?
Sailing is a team sport, at least on these Grand Prix boats. We are 17 to 21 people and when you sail short circuits in heavy wind there is a lot of coordination in the starts and in the roundings! In order to have a successful campaign you need to create a team rather than a crew. When we built the boat we involved several people from the team already in the briefing, and as the project progressed more and more of them got involved. I think if you ask anyone with a Rán T-shirt they’ll talk about her as “our boat”. The team was put together two years ago for the Fastnet Race and it’s not that much different to putting together a team for a start-up, a group of talented engineers working in a successful team. In the world of technology, we say that Division One people look for Division One people. I think that’s true in sailing too. I feel that it’s important not to have any prima donnas aboard, just team players with well-controlled egos.

What’s your best sailing memory and what is the regatta of your dreams? 
Cork Week and Cowes Week last year were fantastic because the TP52 fleet was highly competitive and conditions excellent. In 2008, we also won the Round The Island Race in which 1,900 started – it’s one of the most prestigious events but also one of the most difficult to win. The two races I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid are the Fastnet and the Sydney-Hobart. Two years ago, we had to pull out of the Fastnet with technical problems, but this year we’re in both and I can’t wait to get to the start line. 

Has sailing ever inspired any new business ideas in you? 
Not directly, but when you’re in an offshore race, you spend a lot of time looking at the sea and thinking.  It’s important to step back from the world of work and reflect. It gives you a clearer vision. I often go back to the office after a race much more inspired and full of energy. 

Do you think there’s any comparison between the highly competitive technology market and the world of competitive sailing? 
Right now, yes, the world of racing and the superyacht industry are very high-tech. In yachting they use a lot of new technologies to give themselves a competitive edge, to innovate and to make a quick entry onto the market. It’s all about risk-taking and risk management.

Have you ever developed a software product for the nautical world?
No, I haven’t but I have the privilege to have Steve Hayles sailing on Rán as navigator and he is quite busy developing custom software. I just can’t keep up with him. There are times when he’s even rewritten programmes between races!

What lies ahead in your sporting future?
This will be quite a busy season as it’s full of major events, culminating in the Sydney-Hobart, and we’re already thinking about next year.  Apart from the sailing, I’m also involved with my old basketball team back in Sweden as a sponsor. And the aim there is to win the championship one day!

Carla Anselmi

(Yacht Capital, n. 8/2009)

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