The Season 3 signing of Hans Henken, who joins the US team as flight controller alongside Rome Kirby, sparked immediate interest among the SailGP fandom. Henken’s entrance was described by international commentator David 'Freddie' Carr as a 'massive move'. But anyone thinking that 27-year-old Henken is a fresh face to the SailGP circuit is mistaken. Henken is an old hand.
Back at the start of SailGP’s inaugural season in 2018, Henken was approached by then-CEO and Driver Rome Kirby and asked to try out for the team. Henken took to the water against 15 other sailors and was selected after a week-long trial of fitness testing and sailing on AC45 foiling catamarans which are, according to Henken, ‘as close as you can possibly get to an F50 without actually sailing the boat’. He was asked to step into the role of flight controller but due to conflicts with his Olympic 49er campaign, was unable to attend much of the crucial F50 simulator training ahead of the first season. He stepped into a grinder role instead, and sailed with the US team for the whole of the first season.
Although he was asked to return for Season 2, COVID quickly derailed SailGP’s plans and this disruption, combined with Henken not making the final selection for the 2020 Olympic Games, meant he began to reconsider his sailing ambitions entirely. “I started looking for an actual job,” he says. Having previously attended Stanford University, majoring in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, Henken has future ambitions to move into ‘making rockets’. “I thought maybe that was the time to transition out of sailing and into the workforce and take a different direction.” He informed Kirby he was stepping away from the team and even secured an internship at rocket and spacecraft builder SpaceX.
But like a boomerang, sailing came back. A sailor named Ian Barrows asked Henken if he would be join his campaign for the 2024 Olympic Games and Henken decided to give his Olympic ambitions another chance. “I decided to go through another year of pushing hard for the Olympic sailing to see if that’s where I want to be going,” Henken says. After finishing fourth in the 49er World Championships last year, the pair was preparing to compete in the Princess Sofia World Sailing World Cup when the phone rang again. It was US wing trimmer Paul Campbell-James on the hunt for sailing talent as part of Spithill's Season 3 strategy to increase depth across the team. “I was really taken aback to be honest because there’s a lot of talented sailors out there, especially from the United States,” Henken says.
For the second time, Henken was asked to step into the flight controller role and debuted in the position at the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix after just four days of training on board. Training time is limited in SailGP due to the necessity to ship the F50s to and from events throughout the season, with no down time in-between. “Time on the boat is incredibly precious and it goes by very fast,” Henken says. “You’re out there for four hours and it goes by in the blink of an eye.” As a result, Henken had no choice but to embrace the ‘intensity of being a flight controller’. “There’s a lot of concentration needed, a lot of quick reaction time and you need to have good depth perception - that’s really important.” But, he adds, ‘by no means do you need to be an engineer’.
Despite this, his background in aeronautical engineering does have its uses. “I know exactly how foils work and exactly how the boat works so it’s really easy for me to look at the data, understand what’s it’s doing and adapt it towards the performance side of sailing,” he says. While he disagrees that this gives him a racing edge, he concedes that it does give him ‘a lot of potential’. “I understand how the systems work so there’s not a lot of lag time there, but I’m up against an experience deficit that I need to overtake quite quickly.”
In his efforts to overcome this deficit, Henken complements the US team culture of ‘being open and willing to let mistakes happen and learn from those mistakes’. However, he says, the F50s are ‘fragile’, and once a mistake has been made there are ‘high expectations you don’t make it again’.
Reflecting on the Season 3 opener in Bermuda, Henken says he was ‘always going to make mistakes’ in his racing debut as flight controller. “I was given the space to learn, adapt and move forward so that gave me a good baseline to figure it all out.” The sharing of performance data between the teams is key in his efforts to get up to speed, he says.
During Bermuda, Henken says he regularly ‘stayed up way to too late’ analysing the data of competing flight controllers including Australia’s Jason Waterhouse and Great Britain’s Luke Parkinson. “I’m really analysing what their targets are on ride height and what they’re doing with their rudders, and taking that information and trying my best to imitate it.” At this point, Henken says, ‘there’s no point reinventing the wheel’. “They’re doing it incredibly well and it’s a matter of copying the best in the world, getting really good and then starting to push hard on the advancement.”
The US team ended Bermuda with a 3-7-7-6-2 racing record, sitting fifth in the overall leaderboard. Henken highlights ‘great moments of boat speed and good moments around the racecourse’ but says the team left Bermuda with ‘key targets’ for the United States Sail Grand Prix in Chicago later this month. One of these key targets is finding greater consistency in the race starts. The starts, Henken says, are the ‘most dynamic part of the race’.
“It’s the part of the race that no-one is really bound to any set play - the race all plays out and finishes based on how well you’re able to make the first move.” In his role, this means understanding ‘when the boat needs to be foiling, how soon to get foiling and keeping at the right height throughout the start’. “To be really in sync in the final minute of the pre-start and to be in the perfect spot in one of the perfect positions at mark one - that’s the holy grail that all SailGP teams are looking for,” he says.
The United States Sail Grand Prix | Chicago at Navy Pier takes place from June 18-19.