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Volvo Ocean Race winner Carolijn Brouwer has sailing in her blood

Carolijn Brouwer and ambitious are synonymous. That has got her a long way. She was the first woman to be part of the winning team of the Volvo Ocean Race, the toughest of sailing races. 'Would I take part again? Only for a bigger challenge - as skipper, for example.'

You would think that Brouwer (45) was a regular guest at the Blauwe Schuit while she was studying Latin American Languages and Cultures, but even at that time she was far above the standard of the Leiden student sailing association: she was already sailing in European and world competitions. 

Carolijn Brouwer Volvo Ocean Race
The victory party in full swing (Photo Eloi Stichelbaut).


Brouwer's parents also studied in Leiden. Her father became a geologist - a programme that was later phased out in Leiden - and took his family with him to Brazil. There, sailing really grabbed Carolijn. When she was thirteen, the family returned to the Netherlands. She can still remember in a cold February month seeing people sailing on the Brasem and the Kaag lakes, doing their winter training. She immediately threw aside the hockey stick her mother had bought her and took up sailing again. And she did wel, winnng race after race.  


During her studies, Brouwer was a member of Minerva and lived in a house of female Minerva students in Leiden's Breestraat. 'I was a bit of an outsider, because sailing meant I was away a lot. But my housemates and my year club friends were interested in what I was doing and also showed a lot of respect for me and for sailing.' Ambition takes discipline, so Brouwer made sure she completed her studies on time. 'At that time there were no special arrangements for top sports people as there are today, so I simply tried making agreements with my lecturers.  Some were more willing to cooperate than others.  It took two re-sits for me to get my first-year diploma because I was away when the exams were held.' But she passed.  

Carolijn Brouwer
Study programme
Latin American Languages and Cultures (1992-1998)
Student association
Favourite spot Leiden
'My student house, Breestraat 87. I really liked being there. And there was always someone there when I came home.' 

Carolijn Visser student time
With study colleagues in front of the still existing facade on the Nieuwe Rijn. Brouwer is third from the left in the upper row..

Third Volvo Ocean Race

After she had graduated, her father decided she should have a proper job, and Brouwer had to use all her powers of persuasion to be able to devote a year to sailing. Eventually her father agreed and 'it was the best year of my life.' She became European and then world champion. Then the battle was over, and in 2001/2002 Brouwer took part for the first time in the nine-month, three-yearly Volvo Ocean Race, at that time in a boat with an all-female crew; mixed crews were allowed this year for the first time. She took part again in 2014, again in a female-only boat. Once the decision had been made to allow mixed teams, it was actively implemented: no more than seven men were allowed per boat - a crew of seven is too small - additional crew members to make the numbers up to eight or nine had to be women. 


Brouwer was asked by skipper Charles Caudrelier to join the Chinese Dongfeng team. What makes a person take part in such a tough race? Brouwer: ‘Sir Peter Blake, who took part several times, called it an addiction. Something grabs hold of you. And once you've got racing in your blood, it's there for life. Everyone says, when they leave the boat at the end of a race: "Never again!" But when the next opportunity comes up...' 

Would she take part again herself? 'This was the first time I really felt we could win. But now we have actualy won, competing again doesn't appeal to me in the same way. It would take a bigger challenge, in the form of a different role. Strategician/tactician or skipper. My family aren't so keen on the idea, they're just happy this one's over.' 

That's quite understandable, because, both in this race and the previous one, a crew member of one of the boats fell overboard in stormy weather and was never found. In particular the Southern Ocean leg can be very rough. ‘The race is a challenge and totally exhausting,' Brouwer explains. 'And that's what you're looking for. You are extremely dependent on your team, so teamwork is crucial, even more so than sailing skills.'   

Carolijn Brouwer Volvo Ocean Race
Kissing the cup (Photo Eloi Stichelbaut)

Family reunions at stopovers

The Volvo Ocean Race 2017-2018 consisted of 11 legs, varying from 100 to 7,700 miles. The rest breaks vary according to the length of the legs: the maximum was two weeks rest after a leg of 22 days. How do you fit such a mega-exercise into your life? Brouwer -married and a mother, living with her family in Australia - says that she is always involved with sailing. She often takes part in competitions and can be hired as a coach and as a speaker via the  Speakers Academy. But this ultra-long worldwide sporting event is in a different category. That's why she negotiated with Dongfeng - a major producer of cars and lorries - to have her husband, son Kyle (5) and nanny (her good friend) Petronella de Jong travel to every stopover to spend time with Brouwer. 'In the Netherlands we would have been facing a huge fine for Kyle missing school, but here in Australia they are more relaxed. Their attitude is that Kyle learns more through his travels than in the classroom. Such an opportunity should never be turned down. And we were together for those rest breaks.' 

Coaching young sailors

Does Brouwer, who took Belgian nationality in order to be able to take part in the Olympic Games in 2008, intend to do anything with her degree? It's unlikely. 'You reach an age when you want to convey your sailing knowledge and experience to young people with the same passion and ambition as you once had. That's what I want to do. 'Was there something she learned at university that has always stood her in good stead? 'Definitely. Languages! Besides Dutch and English, I also speak Spanish and Portuguese, a bit of German and quite good French. My French improved during this race because half of the crew were French.'  

And there are some clichés that always prove to be true: you make friends for life at your student association. 'When we arrived in The Hague at the end of the final leg, there were all my housemates and members of my year club Bollos waiting for me. Fantastic!' 

Text: Corine Hendriks
Banner photo: Eloi Stichelbaut

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