Thursday, 2 July 2009

VOR: PUMA - Rookie of the Race

Michael Muller onboard PUMA Ocean Racing. Image copyright Rick Deppe/PUMA Ocean Racing.

by Kenny Read (skipper)

PUMA's Michi Mueller won the first ever Hans Hans Horrevoets Rookie Trophy, which was created in memory of Hans, who was lost at sea during the last edition of the race. Here is the nomination that Ken Read wrote for Michi. It is quite long, but there was just too much about Michi that Volvo needed to know!

Michael “Michi” Mueller came to PUMA as a complete rookie and in my mind, personifies exactly the type of sailor that your criteria specifies.

Michi Mueller joined the PUMA Ocean Racing team in the late summer of 2007. He is what you call a “non-roster invite” in baseball terms, someone who you would not normally invite for a tryout. He was the only real wild card on the PUMA boat. I had been looking for an “under 30” who fit the following criteria; big, strong, unflappable; a jack of all trades. When talking to a sailing friend of mine who has sailed on the German America’s Cup team, he flat out said that I had to give this kid Michi Mueller a look. I gave him a late summer tryout and quickly decided to take a chance on him, and this chance that has worked out in more ways than I could ever imagine.

Michi is the quiet man on this boat. In fact, early on in the campaign, he did an interview with Rick Deppe and answered each question with one word answers. It was clear that self promotion was not one of his strong points. What was clear is that this kid was extremely shy, but that didn’t matter on the boat. A boat can be full of egos and Michi could just sat back and not only work hard but over-perform from the very start. With no preconceived notion as to his position on the boat, he started off in the pit and grinding. The pit is very complicated on this boat without hydraulics. Michi handled it flawlessly and without any fanfare. He did his job and did it well.

Over the winter of 2007-2008, Michi arrived two months early to help with the final stages of the boat construction. The rigging department aimed to pre-make all the rigging for the boat and Michi told us he could ‘help out’. And help he did, pretty much assisting on every piece of rope made for the boat. I thought to myself “I didn’t know he could be a rigger”, but that was just the beginning.

Once the deck was on the hull, the winch system was getting put down. Michi essentially said, (in his German accent of course) and I quote, “don’t worry about the winches. I will take care of them.” From original assembly up to today, the winches have been looked after without anyone on the team ever having to ask. Michi works on them, and as a result, il mostro has no breakages to date. They have been proactively maintained by him alone and it is attention to detail in this manner that wins races.

Once the boat began sailing, it quickly became clear that this young German kid was special. He was always looking at things and you could see the wheels turning in his head. The way in which Michi is able to take in a situation and use what he sees is as good as I have ever seen on a boat, which is why he became a great bowman.

When Jerry Kirby made the decision that he could only do part of the race, PUMA needed a second bowman. Michi became the logical choice. I didn’t choose him because he had a great bow pedigree but because there was nothing we had asked of Michi thus far that he couldn’t do. The bow was absolutely no exception. I asked the entire crew the other day if Michi had made a ‘real mistake’ on the bow yet and no one could think of a single example. That is after approximately 30,000 miles of bow work - flawless execution. When Jerry came back to do a couple of the longer legs, Michi stepped right back into the pit role in which he started with absolutely no questions at all. The words ‘team player’ instantly comes to mind when I am asked about Michi. Never a question or a sly comment, he is always there to help get the job done, and done exceptionally well.

On a Volvo team you always hope that you can fill the boat with trimmers and helmsmen. Fast helmsmen. Again, once Michi got his shot, it was clear that there were a few points of sail where he was the best driver on the boat. Tell him to average a 103 true wind angle, Michi averages 103. Not 104, not 103.5, he averages 103 with as high a polar percentage as anyone on the boat. What a luxury. This kid can drive too!!!

On leg one our water maker went down outside of Rio and we still had to cross the Atlantic to get to Cape Town. Again, Michi surprised us all. He began to read all the water maker diagrams and instructions. He and Casey Smith came up with a plan to re-wire a bilge pump motor into the water maker to get the desalination process working again. They were looking at intricate detailed drawings and I asked him how he knew what he was looking at. “I went to engineering school for two years” was his response. Oh, ‘funny’, I thought, ‘how come you never told me that before Michi?!’ From that day on he pitched in with every complex problem on the boat. This became especially necessary when Chris Nicholson, the team’s electrician went down with a knee injury. Michi stepped up to assist or lead every situation with Casey to help keep the boat up and running. He has an engineers mind. You could have fooled me.

His team skills were highlighted on two separate occasions. First, Michi’s first equator crossing. He had been getting ribbed by all the ‘veterans’ that they were going to cut off his ponytail as part of the rookie hazing. Never a word from Michi, but if anything was clear to me, it was the fact that he really liked his ponytail. I asked him prior to the race starting if he really planned to go around the world with a ponytail and he simply shrugged his shoulders and said “sure, why not?” ‘Okay kid…’ I thought.

Anyway, as the hazing began Casey Smith and I got covered with food and ridiculed. Then came the anticipated moment that we had all feared; the scissors came out for Michi. I wasn’t sure if he would turn into a quiet mass murderer at that moment but I remember looking around wondering if the vets had any idea what they were possibly unleashing. Michi, sitting on the side of the cockpit got up and looked around and just said “stop!” He reached over and grabbed the scissors and cut a huge hunk of his own ponytail off and threw it in the sea for his offering to Neptune. To a howling of laughter, Michi just smiled, turned around and started trimming the mainsail again. Taking one for the team brought the entire program closer in that one moment. He was just doing what came naturally.

Finally, Michi became a father during this race. He and his partner Meike were expecting during the long leg to Rio. I sat down with him and asked him if he wanted out for that leg and he said, “I committed to this race and you before we ever decided to have a child and I will not break that commitment.” Besides being the longest sentence I ever heard him utter, I also understood that this was the essence of Michi. Get the job done. He surprises us all with his knowledge and never blows his own horn.

This award is a fantastic addition to the race, awarded in honor of a person who was lost too soon, the type of person who got the job done under the most trying of situations. Michi Mueller is the perfect first recipient of this award. He is the epitome of what this award is all about.

PUMA Ocean Racing
Volvo Ocean Race

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