At just 26, Switzerland’s Sébastien Schneiter is the youngest Driver to take to the SailGP racecourse. If that wasn’t enough, he’ll be leading the newcomer Switzerland SailGP Team to battle against SailGP’s battle worn titans, including Championship defender Australia, the US and Great Britain. As the first event of Season 3 gets underway in Bermuda, SailGP catches up with Schneiter to talk racing tactics and why he won’t be holding back.
Schneiter was just nine years old when he took to the water, following in the footsteps of his father who sailed on Lake Geneva. It didn’t take long for the flame to catch. Soon enough, Schneiter was racing Optimists before graduating onto Lasers as he followed ‘the classic path of the dinghy sailor’.
From there, he moved into the 49er Class and represented Switzerland at two Olympic Games. Racing and skippering the youth-focused Swiss Team Tilt, he chalked up 12 National Titles and was twice named Swiss Junior Sailor of the Year. It was through his involvement with Team Tilt that Schneiter first heard about SailGP when the league launched in 2019. “We thought ‘wow - this is made for us. This is our ultimate goal’,” he recalls. And so the work began. “We started trying to find sponsors and extra funding and the right time to come onto the circuit,” he says. “It’s been two years now since we’ve been working on that and we are proud to reach that step and start sailing in Bermuda”.
When it came to team selection, Schneiter's goal was to race with the original line-up of Team Tilt. But plans changed when Swiss sailing syndicate Alinghi announced it would challenge for the 37th America’s Cup in 2024, taking a ‘big part of the team’ with it. The result was a ‘challenging winter’ where Schneiter and team CEO Tanguy Cariou, another Team Tilt alumni, were sent back to the drawing board.
“We have a lot of good sailors in Switzerland but it’s still a small country and there’s not unlimited resources so it’s a bit of a challenge having another big team using a lot of Swiss sailors,” Schneiter says. “It’s been a very challenging winter to come and be ready with a solid team but I think right now we’re actually in a better position that we were supposed to be.”
With a limited pool of homegrown Swiss sailors, Schneiter has looked beyond the country’s borders to recruit a stock of experienced international sailors, including grinder Richard Mason, who previously raced with the British team, flight controller and New Zealand native Jason Saunders and wing trimmer Stuart Bithell MBE, another Brit who also happens to be a double Olympic medallist. From here, Schneiter hopes to ‘build every year with more Swiss sailors’. “The goal is that in two or three seasons, we are able to be really competitive with a full Swiss team,” he says.
When it came to making team selections, Schneiter says personality and ‘making sure we could work together as a group’ mattered just as much as skills and experience. Bithell, he says, is a ‘calm character’ with ‘good communication’ while Saunders is ‘very focused and driven’. Mason meanwhile is ‘bringing lots of experience’ and training up the team’s Swiss grinders. “I think with Stuart, Jason and Richard we’ve found three guys that are really good team players and are keen to give their experience back and make sure the Swiss newcomers are learning.”
All three also had to fit into Schneiter’s vision of a democratic team of equal footing. The team, he says, is ‘low ego’. “It’s not like there’s one person who is the rockstar of the team,” he says. “I’m not an Olympic champion, I’m not an America’s Cup winner. I’m young. I want to be a leader but I don’t want to be the king.” When it comes to his age, Schneiter is open that he has ‘a lot to learn’. Instead of heaping on the pressure, Schneiter believes his age ‘takes the pressure off’, giving him and the team the freedom to make mistakes ‘as long as we learn from them’.
This acceptance is key to his racing strategy for the season which, he emphasises, will not involve any holding back. “We’re going to try and push as much as we can and if we make some mistakes that’s also part of the game,” he says. They will of course ‘be careful’ to avoid contact and damage to the boat but they ‘will not be shy or afraid of giving the other teams a bit of a fight’. “Our only chance to be able to beat them is making sure we are pushing hard and taking risk because otherwise we will just be sailing behind the fleet,” he says.
Winning is certainly on the agenda for Season 3. Schneiter’s ambition is to begin winning races in the second part of the season and even ‘fight for the podium race to get through to the top three’. “We’re not aiming to be there every event,” he says, “but if we were able to win two or three races throughout the season that would be a strong start for a new team”.
In the meantime, Schneiter is thankful to be able to race alongside the ‘big names’ that adorn SailGP’s racing circuit. “It’s like a dream to be able to race all these legends of sailing,” he says.