ALICANTE, ESP – Since we broke the news early this morning that Simeon Tienpont (NED) prevailed last night before the arbitration panel in the contractual dispute with with his sponsor, AkzoNobel, both sides have been tight-lipped about what is actually is going on. This, no doubt, on the advice of their respective lawyers, and while urgent meetings with the reinstated skipper, the sponsor, crew and shore team took place in Alicante.
As promised, Sailing Illustrated has been checking all day with sources in Europe, New Zealand and the USA who are close to this sad (for all involved) situation. Having followed this saga closely all week, even we are surprised and taken aback by what we are learning.
At the outset of the 2017-18 VOR, AkzoNobel contracted with Mr Tienpont's management company, STEAM Ocean Racing BV, to manage their entry and team. They paid his company €15 million for the campaign. The team quickly decided to build a new yacht, at a cost of €2 million, the only new yacht of the seven in this edition. The other six are refurbished yachts from the 2011-12 race, and all seven are virtually the same whether new or old. That was just the start of money being spent in questionable ways, or so said AkzoNobel.
Simeon Tienpont (NED) returned as skipper of AkzoNobel today, but we hear that four of his key crew have left the team.
When the Volvo crew rule was issued that encouraged teams to add at least one woman to each crew outside the normal crew limit, Simeon at first declined to add a woman. AkzoNobel were not happy given that their company, and the country in which they are based (NED), are strong advocates of inclusion and diversity. Mr Tienpont eventually relented and brought on Dutch Olympian (2008 Beijing, women's keelboat) Annemieke Bes. But a dispute developed between Annemieke and Simeon as to how many legs she would sail, and a few months back she left the team. In the meantime, two more women were signed up, Olympic Gold medalist (2016 Rio, 49erFX) Martine Grael, (BRA, 26) and Emily Nagel (BDA, 23).
Because of continuing financial problems and the need for more sponsorship funds, a British sports marketing firm was brought in along with a French financial manager to "assist" Simeon and his management company. Rumors continued about crew and shore team salaries going unpaid, and more, until finally last Friday AkzoNobel declared Mr Tienpont in breach of contract and took control of the team, excusing Simeon from his dual roles as CEO and Skipper on the eve of last Saturday's Alicante In-Port Race. A member of the crew, navigator Jules Salter (GBR, 48) and a three-time VOR veteran, skippered that race.
Sailing Illustrated has learned that relations between the crew and Mr Tienpont had become so strained that a letter was recently sent to AkzoNobel, signed by most or all of the crew, asking that Mr Tienpont not continue as Skipper/CEO. And after Simeon was fired last Friday, this rather strange post appeared on the team website, ostensibly from the remaining shore and sailing team members.
Earlier this week another member of the crew, six-time VOR veteran Brad Jackson (NZL), was promoted to skipper replacing Tienpont, and Rome Kirby (USA) was added to the crew. Rome raced in the 2011-12 Volvo with his Newport, RI neighbor Ken Read who skippered PUMA, won the 2013 America's Cup as the youngest member of ORACLE TEAM USA, and was a reserve for OTUSA in their unsuccessful 2017 defense of the Cup in Bermuda.
Earlier this week Rome, along with the remaining members of the crew, signed new contracts with AkzoNobel, negating previous contracts with STEAM Ocean Racing BV. (Your Ed. has also learned that Rome, prior to joining Akzo this week, had been contracted as a reserve to Vestas 11th Hour Racing, the Volvo team led by Americans Charlie Enright and Mark Towill – inasmuch as OTUSA, Rome's former Cup team, lost the Cup and appears not to be going forward for 2021.)
By Thursday, finally all appeared to be settling down for the beleaguered AkzoNobel team in anticipation of Sunday's start of Leg 1 – until the decision by the arbitration panel this morning reinstating Mr Tienpont.
Simeon immediately flew back to Alicante armed with new contracts to re-sign the team with his STEAM management company. However, one hears that fully four team members declined to sign new contracts: Brad Jackson, Jules Salter, veteran VOR racer and AkzoNobel watch captain Joca Signorini (BRA), and Mr Kirby. They are all mates and said to be loyal to Mr Jackson, who, indeed, had recruited Kirby to the team earlier this week. Without doubt, they are four of the top sailors in the 2017-18 VOR. Assuming this is true, and they don't change their minds Sunday morning, losing them is another serious blow to AzkoNobel.
We also hear that Mr Tienpont plans to start the 1450nm Leg 1 to Lisbon (via the Madeira Islands) tomorrow with only seven crew, using some shore team members who qualify under the Volvo safety and miles-at-sea rules, and who were previously listed as reserves.
Speaking of safety, and given the considerable angst and turmoil of the past few weeks, especially the last eight days, you have to wonder about the fitness – physical and mental – of the remaining Akzo crew. Assuming the foregoing is how this continues to play out on Sunday, and that they go to sea with Simeon back on the wheel and without veterans Jackson, Salter, Signorini and Kirby (who we hear will return as a reserve to Vestas 11th Hour Racing), it's likely to be a challenging race to Lisbon, to say nothing of the full 45,000 miles around the planet.
But then one also hears that AkzoNobel are considering what other legal remedies they may have vis-a-via Mr Tienpont and his management company, so this sorry contractual saga may be far from over. Time will tell, and maybe AkzoNobel will give us some answers tomorrow, since they certainly didn't give us any today.