Valeria Kovalenko appeared on the sailing horizon all of a sudden, almost out of nowhere. As a kid, she never sailed in rivers, lakes or seas on the Optimist, never mastered sails setting in her youth. She never even saw the sea because she lived quite far from it.
While I was sitting in a café with this focused and restrained girl, fragile at the same time, I could not imagine that she is the helm of a sailing boat. And that it has been only three years since she stepped on the deck.
However, a lot has happened during these tree years. Valeria and her crew became prize winners of the National Sailing League in 2016, won the Monaco Sportboat Winter Series 2016-2017 and Radio Monte-Carlo Winter Series 2017.
Valeria, you’ve managed to achieve so much in so little time, started participating and winning in high-level competitions. When was the first time you sailed?
I traveled a lot when I was a child and teenager; Moscow for me is the third country and fifth city I live in. I was born in Tashkent, then I lived in Luhansk area in Ukraine with my parents, later in Samara and Moscow. I never knew much about sailing, I didn’t even know it was an Olympic sport. In 2015 I went to a sailing school with my friend, but it wasn’t interesting in the beginning. I liked a lot how Pirogovo yacht-club looks like! It had everything, like on a pretty picture. So I decided to go and check it out.
After that you started to be at the helm?
It happened accidentally. I started training on eM-Ka Class boat and immediately participated in a race. Sadly, our first regatta ended quite tragically, we destroyed our boat. But sailors that I was racing with told me to move forward. They cheered me up and said that the worst thing already happened. My first season (summer 2015) on I was racing in Pirogovo in this class.
Did you have a theoretical course?
I graduated from sailing school “7 yachts” in Pirogovo. After racing all summer I was thinking about participation in the Russian Championship. I met with Alexander Bozhko and we raced with one of the teams in the Russian Championship. Considering my 3-month helming experience this first racing was not too bad.
Did you like to be at the helm in the race?
A lot! I wanted to continue being on the water at the helm, but it was September and the season was over. I wanted to continue racing and accidentally found out about Melges 20 Class. They had Winter Series! Together with Alexander Bozhko and Igor Lisovenko, we decided to participate in the Act 1 on the Melges 20 Winter Series.
It was an unfamiliar class of yachts for you, wasn’t it? Were you scared?
Yes, it was quite a reckless decision. I had too little experience in helming, mostly trained on calm waters. In Monaco the wind and waves are absolutely different. Melges 20 is an amazing yacht, but quite complicated and made for professional racers.
Complicated in what way? More nimble?
It is extremely sensitive to any movements of the helmsman. Beginners always have a sufficiently large amplitude of movements. Melges is a racing bolide. To race it well you have to have some experience. You need to enjoy the race, the speed, and I couldn’t do it. I was a little afraid of speed and huge waves, the wind was around 20 knots that time. Racing that boat was a bit too early for me, it became clear on the first day of the regatta.
And what about regatta in Monaco itself, did you like the atmosphere?
Everything about it was new to me: European atmosphere of racing, the organization of the regatta, fast yachts. I wanted to try myself in regattas more and more, so we applied to participate in the Russian National sailing League. Starting April 2016 we raced in National League and Championship in Italy, after that Radio Monte-Carlo Winter Series in Sochi.
What classes are you racing now?
Before start of the National Sailing League in April 2016 we switched to J70. It has less speed, but it is more stable. It’s easier for a Corinthian helmsman to steer; it can forgive the big movement amplitude.
How did you come up with an idea to start at the helm? Some people say you need to go through all stages on the boat, to be the bow for example.
My opinion about it is a bit different. I think being at the helm is easier sometimes. If helmsman does something wrong it can be fixed with sails, for example. To be a good sailor and to maintain sails properly you need to do it for your whole life. In our team, it all depends on how we work together. I cannot say someone is doing more than others, but our results are good because we fit well together.
Why, in general, do you need all these races? Isn’t it nicer to just sail and enjoy it, without aiming for records? You want the results to be high; did you do any sports when you were a kid?
No, I’ve never done anything like that. When I was younger I jumped with a parachute several years. But I did not set up a sports goal then for myself, I just enjoyed skydiving. In sailing I had an experience in a large crew on the non-sport regattas. But sailing as a sport and set up sports goals and do it with the team is much more fun and interesting.
And why is it so?
Oh, it’s just my personal experience. I understand people who do offshore regattas, the Caribbean for example. It’s beautiful and fun and you get tons of nice photos. But for me, speed and ‘drive’ is when there are 50 yachts on the starting line. These regattas are more active than regattas with huge yachts. Probably it’s just a stage in my life. I know a lot of skippers with years of experience, who love offshore regattas and ocean sailing more than close racing. I guess I did not grow that far yet.
I know you have been piloting an airplane. Is there a difference between steering a yacht and a plane from your point of view?
Yes, I was flying. I have 25 hours of flying time on Russian Yak-18. But we had a minor accident and plane fell. I stopped flying after that; I guess it is fear. Both with skydiving and flying a plane the price of one mistake can be a life and I’m not ready for that.
And it’s not like that in sailing?
Anything can happen in sailing, but right now it’s what I want to do.
What occupies you the most in sailing right now?
When I started sailing I did not jump with a parachute or flew a plane, not even once. Sailing is the biggest part of my life now, I don’t have time to even think whether I want or not to fly on a plane.
People usually dream about sailing since they were kids, reading about pirates and adventures…
When I was young I had only one dream – skydiving. Maybe I saw some yachts on the pictures but never thought I will be in the sailing world.
So sailing just replaced skydiving and airplanes for you?
I wouldn’t say that, I suppose it brought something new into my life. Skydiving was a hobby, a way of spending free time. Sailing is something else, and definitely not a time for relaxation. It is the sport. The teams we compete with are extremely strong and we need to keep up with that. A lot of time should be spent on training, regattas, and practice.
Do you work with the same team over time or you have some changes?
Our crew is quite permanent. We have tactician and our coach Igor Lisovenko, trimmer and manager of the team is Alexander Bozhko, he is also the creator of the team. If not for him we wouldn’t even met as a team. In different regattas Sergey Avdonin, Egor Terpigorev, Konstantin Nazarenko, Ilya Strakh, Victor Serezhkin, Denis Rozhkov raced with us.
Your team is called ArtTube. Why?
Actually, it was an accident. We had to name it somehow and I had (still have) my huge project. For 8 years already I am the director of the Fund of Modern Art. Three years ago we realized, that when a person comes to an unknown city and he is interested in Art, he might have troubles with finding info about it. Some museums do not have websites, some are outdated. We started a project ArtTube which would give all information about art exhibitions and modern art, from private galleries to state museums all around 15 former Soviet Republics. Our website is one of its kind, it has information in Russian and English about all events in the world of Art. The main idea of ArtTube is to work with different cities and regions, same as National Sailing League organizes regattas in different cities. Now the website is the informational partner of our team.
Do you have any arguments during races if someone did something wrong?
What happens on the boat stays on the boat (smiling). My teammates are strong and famous sportsmen, they are used to racing with professionals. I think it’s hard for them, being with me. As I am not a professional helmsman I make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes even kids, who sailed for several years, stop making them. My team has to be patient with me, learning sometimes takes more time.
I take it you learn quickly? Otherwise, your team would not be racing with you…
Well, that is a question for them, not me.
From an outsider point of view, your team looks quite cohesively, you have good results.
Sure, but any result depend on the team and members of that team. I don’t think I have a lot of influence on that result. I’m just trying to do my part as well as I can. I understand that it is only about hard work, training in different weather and wind conditions, sometimes you have to overcome yourself when it’s scary, hard, cold, etc. But I wouldn’t say a lot depends on me in our success.
So it rather depends on how well the team works together?
That, and how well they understand each other, how they understand the common goal, that all gives the wanted result.
Did you ever have a feeling that you do not want to race at all, in bad weather for example?
Almost never. For some time in the past I could not get enough if racing, I always wanted to be on the water. Last May we participated in races non-stop for two weeks with only flying back and forth. Same thing happened in September when we had three regattas in a row. By the last one, I realized that we all need a break.
So you were tired not only physically but also mentally?
Yes. When it’s raining you really don’t want to go sailing. Last year in Sochi it was raining for 5 days straight. The driver of the speedboat questioned us “Why do you need to go on the water in such terrible weather?”, but we knew the forecast will stay the same and there is no point in waiting for good weather. And we trained during these showers for five days, and next month won the first stage of the National Sailing League, so it was not in vain.
Which race was the most difficult for you in your career?
The hardest was the Primo Cup 2016 in Monaco. The waves were huge, strong wind. It was our first regatta in J70 with 45 other boats or even more. It was the first experience for me in such big fleet. The fleet in Monaco is strong in general, everyone aims for the win. It was hard physically and psychologically. I didn’t have experience in helming with big waves, our crew is very light and we didn’t have enough weight for turning the boat. Because of that, we lurched a lot, were all soaking wet, waves were huge. The distances in Monaco are quite long, for me, it was an eternity before we reached the first mark. We had a lot of other complicated races, but this one was the first. I don’t think easy races exist; the fight is always on no matter wind or waves, in any fleet. If the race is easy that means the rivals are not that strong.
And which race was the happiest?
We were participating in the competition on the Garda Lake last September; our rivals were strong and famous. Some tacticians were from America’s Cup, some won the RC44 Championships. The fleet in J70 Class is powerful in general. We won one race that time, despite the strongest wind. Everyone congratulated us that day, it was amazing. Especially when Paul Cayard came up to us and congratulated personally. It is important to us that people noticed that victory, that they were friendly and could say "Great job, guys, in such complicated conditions you won a race". It was amazing, and we felt like we did something unbelievable then.
Was it a moment of happiness?
Do you have any idols among famous sailors or any other people that you respect?
I don’t have idols in sailing. I think to have those you need to live in the sailing world for quite some time. But I have enormous respect for my team. When I see what they do in races I am continuously surprised. I think what they do is just fantastic! For example, when all boats are standing still and we are moving I think it is magic and superpowers. I think they are amazing. There are a lot of people in the sailing world that I respect sincerely, but if I start naming some and won’t name others, it would be a little bit wrong. So the most important people in sailing for me are my teammates.
Do you think that helmsman needs to be in a good shape? Is going to the gym and exercising a part of the deal?
Of course, you have to have endurance. Sometimes in very calm races with weak wind, you have to sit still, otherwise any movement can disturb the boat and it will stop. With strong winds you have to lurch the boat. It is not the most comfortable thing to do. You have to be fit, but honestly, I do not go to the gym, it’s not my thing.
Running or speed walking can help developing endurance.
On some regattas we, as a team, run in the mornings, I think it is necessary. But I am a bit lazy so it is hard for me.
Sometimes all that is needed on the boat is physical power. And there is a difference between man and woman in it. Do you think that being at the helm for a woman is easier than other roles in the crew?
I think yes, to be a helmsman is easier than to be a bow for example, but some people might say I’m wrong. I don’t understand fully female crews. In physical training for male or female skipper, there is very little difference. Helmsman doesn’t do anything with sails for example. You need to be physically prepared if someone falls in the water for example. What’s more important is that you need to react fast, carefully move around and have endurance. The main thing is to not do sudden moves.
How do you manage to combine your hobby, which became your life, with work?
It’s hard and complicated. I am a lawyer, I studied in Skolkovo Business School, and the best lesson I learned is that time is everything. It’s hard to do everything on time, but if you try hard enough you can do most of it. If you spend time on sailing you turn down something else because you just don’t have enough time. Modern technology saves me now, internet and telephone keep you connected at all times, but nevertheless, it is hard for me.
Do you want to completely devote your time for sailing?
If only we had a sponsor than yes, of course. We need a financial base, with it I would probably sail all year long, travel between regattas and tried different classes. We are aiming for it!
Did you have any crashes and accidents in your sailing history that you remember? What did you learn then?
In the finals of the Monaco Winter Series we were leading the fleet. In the penultimate race of the day Polish team violated the rules and tore out stays and staysail with their spreader. The wind was extremely strong; we looked up and saw the hole getting bigger and bigger. Because of the false start in one of the previous races we decided to continue racing. This whole damage did not mess with our results and we finished second in this race. We still had this shredded staysail during next race as well, but we still won the Series.
Which goals do you set up as a team? What trophies you want to win, races to participate? Maybe Olympics?
Some goals are achievable, some are not, but any goal now has to have a budget. I believe you can achieve anything if you have enough sponsorship, so we need to work on that aspect. Too bad Olympic program does not allow participating with four people. If it would be possible I would apply, but I don’t want to do it without my team. My main goal, for now, is to become good skipper and help the team and not get on their way.
You tried already several classes of yachts, would you want to try to helm a catamaran now?
It is interesting, but to steer a catamaran you need to know how to steer a boat. I think catamarans are more aimed at public and action. It’s exciting to look at, everyone is talking about it. But you need to be good at racing first, have a lot of experience with a large fleet. I think you need to go through all stages and then conquer a catamaran.
What do you think about your failures? You have quite a lot of successful races.
Failures are an experience. Our coach always says that every day is a new leaf. You don’t have to remember that you won or lost yesterday because today might be different. You have to know the reason of failures though, and then you can fix it, work on it. You can’t become successful in sailing fast; I think it is hard work. To be up on the podium in champagne splashes is fun and everyone wants it. But it is hard and you need both negative and positive experience. You don’t have to concentrate on the fact that someone is stronger than you, but you have to figure out why is that so.
Is you trainer, Igor Lisovenko strict with you?
First of all, Igor is strict with himself and with the team. I think it is the fundamental factor of our results and success. If you do not set high goals for yourself then nothing will come of it.
If you will remove sailing from your life what would it be like?
It would be awesome! (Smiling). It would be calm, in dry clothes, with regular sleep, and without night flights.
What is stopping you then?
Which regattas will you participate this year?
This year we are going to participate in National Sailing League in Russia, Italian Open Championship, European Championship, J70 World Championship. Main goal for this season is the best result in the World Championship. It will be in September and we are preparing to be in our best shape for it.
How long are you planning to race? And what distance would you like to try?
I don’t want to make any assumptions now. A lot of my friends in skydiving lived so little, and I think that human life is such a fragile substance; you cannot plan or predict things. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. If someone told me one or two years ago about my life and sailing I probably wouldn’t believe it. I am just lucky with my team.