Michael Illbruck: "I love competing against the best sailors in the world, driven not by an engine, but by nature!"

Michael Illbruck is not only the leader of the team “Pinta” but also an amazing sailor himself. He has an impressive amount of regattas, victories, trophies and awards.

And it could not be any other way, especially if you were born in the family of great Wilhelm Gustav "Willi" Illbruck. He gathered one of the most successful and important teams in the history of sailing, awarded with the most meaningful German sailing award Silberne Lorbeerblatt in 1994. He not only made a huge contribution to the development of sailing but was a truly devoted sailor himself.

“Pinta” now as we know it – the work of Illbruck-father. However, it would not be so famous without Michael, who was leading the team during one of the most important campaigns – victorious Volvo Ocean Race.

On the internet we can probably find technical data, results, short news, and protocols, rather than actual stories from people about how was it. It is mostly “start-finish-award ceremony” but we desire memories, thoughts, feelings, and insides of the whole process.

Last year Michael Illbruck successfully returned into sailing and won the Melges 20 World Championship, after participating in the VLN Endurance Championship Nürburgring for years.

After being strict and serious onboard, he turns into an attentive, delicate and frank person, who is ready to tell all the stories.

So, we offer you not the ordinary question-answer interview, but rather Michaels reminiscence about sailing in the Illbruck family, about Pinta’s moments of glory, and about his father, of course.

…Yes, I’m my father’s son. He was in the Navy, and he learned sailing in the Navy. My grandfather also. So, we’ve been on the water, always. Our family has a long history of sailing. Not races, but sailing.

My father started to sail in 1969. He built a one-tonner in aluminum, which was a revolution back then, at shipyard in the Netherlands. And then he tried to find out whether the boat is fast. So, he asked: “How do I find out if this boat is fast?” And the answer was: “You have to sail the race”.

And then my father started too. Sailed his first regatta in 1969. And since then he was so fascinated by the sport. Dedicated. And then it continued. And the first big success we had was in 1983 – we won the Admiral’s Cup, ’84 – the Sardinia Cup, and then many followed: the Copa Del Rey, so many…

And we won One Ton Cup in 1993 and 1994. We still have that cup. I mean, we won it two times, and the cup is actually in my office!

…It was much more than just a hobby. For my father the yacht racing was the way to get away from the company, to get his mind into a different world. And he was always a team man. He was always a team man. And he was… Dad was the first guy on a big boat who said: even though I own the boat, I don’t drive it. He was part of the crew. He said: if somebody else could do this better, then he should do that. Today it’s normal, but back then it was a real revolution. When my dad said: there are people that can do this better, and let’s find the best people for the position, and then we go.

Russell Coutts, John Kostecki, Rod Davis, Richard Clark… I think many, many, many very-very good sailors in today’s sailing world have been on “Pinta”.

My dad said: if I wanna win something, I have to get the best sailors in the world on the boat, not necessarily German sailors. You have to have the spirit. It’s good to have an international crew.

So, that was his way to perform better. And he did this with a lot of respect to the sailors. Of course, they all got paid, everybody gets… But it was never about the money. If was about the deep respect towards the sailors, and the whole crew, of what they were doing. And always to try to do your best. And I think that came back from the sailing world, from the sailors too – they appreciated this openness, this respect to them, and they felt very comfortable.

That is still today. That’s the underlying philosophy.

…We did so many Fastnet races. We did Sydney Hobart too… Remember one. It was a huge breeze, а big storm from the south. And we were beating… We had to beat into the wind for 3 days. It was horrific. And then we were, in our class we were really very-very good, far ahead. And then I remember that we did not go: the wind was dying, towards Hobart, and we went offshore and everybody else went inshore. And we were sitting like a duck outside… It was impossible! We had many of these moments, I cannot pick one. I mean, in sailing there is so many moments that are special.

And when I sailed with my dad, it was not like a father-son thing – I was a bowman on “Pinta”, so I just had to do my job, like he had to do his job. And I grew up with a father that was basically a crewmate. The relationship we had on the boat also transferred into the company. We had always a very trustful relationship.

…Yes, I start at Optimist, but then, of course, “Pinta”-sailing became important, and I was always there. In the early days of “Pinta” I was not a good sailor. But every regatta with my father I did was amazing.

…I do remember 1992-93 - Admiral’s Cup, One Ton Cup. My dad was still very active, and he was the man that basically drove the program. And I was not so much in the sailing, I was a lot in the company. So, I drove the company, my father drove the sailing. Yes… there is a company behind it!

And in 1997, he was 70 years old, he said: Mike, you have to do this. And, of course, I grew up with sailing on “Pinta”, so it was natural. And then I continued with the foundation my father has put together, and with all the people, with John Kostecki, with Ross Halcrow, and Don Cowie…

In 1997-98 we - my father and I - decided to do something totally different. We said – let’s go around the world, let’s do the Whitbread!

It was my first very big project in sailing. Obviously, we were not long distance sailors. Never. Before that the longest we did was the Fastnet race, and that was too long. If you do the One Ton, if you do IOR sailing, eventually you get tired… So, then we had to do something different. And then small team - my dad, Ross Halcrow, John Kostecki and I - took the decision to participate in Whitbread 2001-2002 (change to Volvo Ocean Race during campaign). And our approach was first of all - if we start to do this, we wanna win this.

…We started a Illbruck Challenge campaign in 1997, and it was almost a 6-year commitment. And if you spread across that, and what it did for Illbruck, for “Pinta”, it was enormous worldwide. So, the return on this was tremendous. In the sailing world, of course, Illbruck is a name. But even outside the sailing world, up until today, when I talk to people “Illbruck” they recollect. It’s a big reach…

We had a base camp in Galicia – in the northwest of Spain, Finisterre. And it had a two-boat program in the beginning: we used ex-EF language и EF Education. Then we built a boat with Farr Yacht Design and Killian Bushe. And it was a big… It was flying to the Moon… And then landing on the Moon, of course! Seriously. When we arrived in Kiel… 35,000 miles around the world. Back then the Whitbread was really deep south. And it is tough…

Today it’s a tough race, but back then it was… with these boats it was very different. And we said in the beginning, just for ourselves: if we do this, we wanna win this. There is no other reason to go around the world just to… We didn’t have this Olympic thought of: yeah, go around the world and just participate. It was never in our mind. Which doesn’t mean that to judge people that go around the world for the purpose of going around the world… They have their own thing and a different approach.

…John Kostecki was a skipper, he was leading the team, and we had a steering group… We were very close… And Ross Halcrow was in it, and so many other people. I mean, there were the people – the designers, the builders, and…to the cook… It was an incredible experience. Yes, and it’s not just the 9 months of sailing. It’s a lot more.

…I remember that very well. I mean, we went around the world, and we won that race, and we smashed the 24-hour monohull world record. As I said before, it’s like landing on the Moon. That was my moment. I mean, not that I live in the past. I mean, this is long gone. But you know, when God is going to take me and say: look, this is your time now, what have you done? And then I would tell him: I have tried it. If there were some impossibilities, I tried it. And nobody can take this away from us anymore. So, in that sense, it’s pretty amazing.

…What about America’s Cup campaign? My father was always against an America’s Cup campaign. And he was fully right. Yes, we built a boat – Germany-68. And then we know: if we do campaign, we need sponsorship… So, we didn’t get the sponsorship, so we cut the program. It was the best thing to do. And then we gave the boat to Team New Zealand. It was a training, testing boat for TNZ. I hope that it helped them.

Do I watch AC? No. One thing the America’s Cup does now – it gets non-sailors attracted to the sport. Period. And my God – isn’t that fascinating?! It’s fascinating. But it’s not for me. What I’m doing now is much better.

…What about another America’s Cup campaign? No, no, no. First of all, because I don’t want to spend the money on that. And second, where I am now, with Melges 20 and with many different boats, many different things, it’s the best sailing ever. I love the small team. I love we’re 3 on the boat. I also have to learn. I’m part of this whole thing. If I do something is wrong, the whole thing goes wrong. And the boat is so much fun. And, seriously, it’s the best sailing I’ve ever done. And I love it! Because it’s pure.

I don’t wanna sit on an 80-foot whatever boat, or a 100-foot boat. That’s not for me. I’m not saying that everything else is bad. But for me, for Frederico and for John – we love this! Melges 20 sailing is incredible.

…I respect them both very-very much. I love to sail with them. And they, especially John, and now Frederico also, know me very well. So, they know where I’m wrong, and where I’m good. And the attitude on the boat is always to get better. There is never an attitude on the boat “ah, we are heroes!” Never. Never. Ever. It’s always, always – how do we get better.

As Frederico always says: it’s a journey… It’s the trip that counts. And maybe tomorrow we have a bad day, and on Sunday we have a bad day, and, you know, we have that, but then we learn from this… Now I’m in an incredible learning mode. I love that!

My crew understands me absolutely. They are wonderful. Actually, they are wonderful. I’m blessed, fortunate to sail with these guys. Not because they are only good sailors, but just their personalities.

…We did Melges 32 in 2007/8. And then I had 6 years of not sailing. I did car racing. I went GT car racing. Totally different. It was a challenge, actually. But now I’m so happy to be back in sailing. But I have to say that car racing made me a better sailor. Because of the concentration. I can keep my level of concentration up forever.

And Melges 14 – it’s a gym, it’s a training session for the Melges 20. We have two boats and we sailed them in Sardinia. In a big breeze. It’s so much work. I was low in the water. Capsized. It was a complete disaster. But I love it!

…I like to be with the elements… I mean, in my career I went from big boats to small boats. Now I’m sitting on a Melges 14 and Melges 20 seems to me a big boat. And I saw a regatta of Melges 32 and thought it is a maxi-boat.

…I like to go around the buoys, not just cruise… Yes, I’m a terrible cruiser. I’d see no sense in going from Porto Cervo to Saint-Tropez in a sailboat. It’s better in a motorboat! But here, I want to go around this. And against other people. On the water, competing against the best people in the world, driven not by an engine, but by nature. In nature. It is awesome! It’s freedom!


Interview by: Lina Kholina
Photo by: Marina Semenov