Universiteit Leiden

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Voice of the ocean

There are many tributaries to Rosalin Kuiper’s story and they all lead to the sea. The 28-year-old sailor was one of the five-person Team Malizia in the world’s most prestigious sailing competition: the Ocean Race. After Carolijn Brouwer, she is the second Leiden alumna to participate. As a psychology student, Rosalin chose a life as a professional sailor.

Rosalin Kuiper

Rosalin Kuiper was always mad about sports and it seemed as though her future lay first in athletics, then in hockey. She excelled in both. But her hours spent as a six-year-old in a dinghy on the Noord Aa lake near her hometown of Zoetermeer proved to presage her final choice as an 18-year-old. ‘Strange perhaps, because sailing isn’t my parent’s thing at all nor my sporty brother’s.’ What she did inherit is an unbridled optimism and an inner voice that always whispers to her: ‘Look at what you can do.’

European champion

She caught the sailing bug during a backpacking trip around Australia when she found work as a crew member on a yacht in Sydney Harbour. She did not let herself be put off when she shared her plans of becoming a professional sailor and was told: ‘You’ll never make it. You’re too old.’ Back home, her mother gave her the push she needed, encouraging Rosalin – who was already studying psychology – to sign up for former Volvo Ocean Race skipper Roy Heiner’s youth sailing academy: ‘You’ll succeed. I know it.’

Following her heart proved right just one year later when she became European champion in an IRC class. Multiple prestigious sailing races would follow, but she never lost sight of her dream: the global Ocean Race. In October 2022, she finally embarked as co-skipper and technical officer on skipper Boris Herrmann’s Team Malizia.

Things are spartan on board. The four boats compete in seven week-long legs. Four sailors and one reporter share joys and sorrows on the monohull. They don’t come above deck much, instead taking care of navigation and sail positions in the roughly 16 m2 cabin. Members are ‘on’ all the time, assisted by 40 other team members ashore. It can be quiet and grey on the ocean but that is the exception. The wind often wails ominously. Irregular waves pound the hull, seawater gushes over the transparent skylights and the percussion of clattering sails, lines and stays sounds at all times. When the boat finds a strong wind, it goes faster than the waves, regularly tipping over meter-high ones, only to come to a virtual standstill before, with a crash, the wind fills the sails once again. Low temperatures are added to this in the Southern Ocean.

Sometimes the sailors wrap up well and go out onto the deck to add an extra jib or make a repair. But falling overboard could prove fatal. And if they have a brief opportunity to catch some sleep with headphones on, even then rest is usually far away. Rosalin sustained a head injury and concussion when she was launched from her bed when the ship suddenly turned. She was confined to her bunk for five days. (‘I was surviving, relying on my teammates to sail the boat and take care of me.’)

There is no shower, crew members go to the toilet over the side in fair weather and on a bucket in the forecastle in rough weather – while often continuing their work as usual. So after just days, the team members have no secrets from each other. ‘I left as a woman’, Rosalin joked about her adventure in a retrospective on Jinek. ‘And returned a monster.’

‘Every minute is different at sea – the conditions are never the same. You can’t help but learn. That helps me become the best version of myself.’

Formula 1 at sea

‘What exactly do you enjoy about this?’ is not that odd a question then. Rosalin does not have a single answer. She does, however, emphasise in ever-changing terms that she likes to challenge herself, step out of her comfort zone: ‘The nature around you is overwhelming yet lonely at the same time.’ And: ‘Life at sea is simple. You need so little to be happy.’ Or: ‘Every minute is different at sea – the conditions are never the same. You can’t help but learn. That helps me become the best version of myself.’ To: ‘We sail a hyper-modern machine. We push the technical tools far enough to gain those crucial seconds on the competition.’

And she praises the entire team of 45 people: ‘What we do is a bit like Formula 1 at sea: the boat is completely stripped and rebuilt after each leg. I was trained as a technical officer to be able to fully understand that technology.’ No wonder then that Rosalin’s best moments aren’t when she can sit for a moment and admire the sunset while dolphins ride the bow wave. ‘No, we experience the real kick below deck, when we get the boat technically in balance and we’re sailing in strong winds at a controlled 70 kilometres per hour.’

Rosalin on the boat

Not a party animal

Her ADHD also has a part to play: ‘In Leiden, I found it hard to focus on reading. So I got tested and the result was positive. Ritalin proved to make studying a lot easier. I went like the clappers but it also tired me out.’ She still finds it confusing: ‘Why did I, as a healthy and intelligent person, have to pop pills? Is there something wrong with me, or is there something wrong with the design of the degree programme? Shouldn’t society do something about it?’

That there is a connection between her ADHD and her love of sailing is clear: ‘On the water I am focused on that one goal and my head is not running overtime. I live by the simple rhythms of nature and I cannot turn left or right everywhere to follow my impulses.’

So she enjoyed her burgeoning sailing career as a student and got just enough of a taste of student life in her mixed house on Boerhaavelaan. ‘Although with my sporting discipline, I was never a real party animal: I went to the gym at Level near the station every morning. Exercise from six to seven, from seven to a quarter to eight in the pool a few floors up and then on my way to the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. I thoroughly enjoyed it for four and a half years. I still talk to my housemates from back then, but I don’t have any other friends from my time in Leiden.’

Rosalin was given time by the university to complete her bachelor’s degree at her own pace: ‘That was really relaxed. My teachers showed complete understanding. Need to catch up on an exam? No worry. So I never felt the need for the special elite sports programme, even though I went to the sailing school almost every day.’ And sailing star Carolijn Brouwer, who also once studied in Leiden? ‘I’ve never sailed with her but could always talk to her about things.’

Read the entire article in our Leidraad alumni magazine.

Text: Fred Hermsen
: Lars van den Brink

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