Jeff Ayliffe caught up with the formidable Tina Plattner prior to the start of the Odzala Discovery Camps 52 SUPER SERIES Cape Town event in March. This was before the world of sailing would be locked down for most of 2020 – and before we even knew what was coming.
A passion for sailing, horses, life, people and learning
I remember very clearly the first time I met Tina Plattner; it was for an interview during Cape Town Race Week, a few years ago.
Coming from a commercial radio, sports background, I was very aware of her father Hasso Plattner, and what he has achieved. The entrepreneur and philanthropist is valued at a staggering US$ 15.9 billion. Time Magazine in Europe has ranked him #1 on its list of the most important and influential IT personalities.
But, despite her father’s success, within minutes of meeting Tina, I saw the qualities that have endeared her to the South African sailing community. She was ‘just Tina’. A passionate sailor, with an engaging laugh, and the rare ability to really connect with a stranger and make them feel totally relaxed in her company. Since that first meeting, much has happened, and I was looking forward to chatting to her again as I enjoyed the afternoon sun outside the Cape Grace Hotel.
‘Jeff, nice to see you again!’ Tina laughed as she told me that just a day or two earlier, she literally had no voice. But as I was about to learn, with her passion for life, and ability to fill each available hour with value, you learn to adapt to life’s curve balls, such as the flu.
When looking at the debut TP52 season that Tina and her young team enjoyed in 2018, it’s hard to believe that she only really started racing at the Royal Cape Yacht Club in 2013.
She first did some 505 sailing before she and her partner, Tony Norris, progressed to Novice 20 sailing during 2015 and 2016, and then rolled into the 52 Super Series in 2018 and 2019.
About the TP52 campaign in 2018, Tina admits that it was new ground for her and the crew. ‘We didn’t really know what we were all in for. We tried to do some training in South Africa, and it helped that we had some eager people. We had a really good team, a mix of young South Africans and a few experienced people from other teams and other nations to guide us and help us.’ It was a baptism by fire. ‘I think we were all surprised by how much we learned in that first season.’ Despite her easy-going, light-hearted approach, Tina says she still feels the nerves every time she casts off the lines. ‘Even now, every time you head out to that start line your heart just jumps a little higher, a little faster, but the team is amazing. We are all there for each other.’
Building a team with South African sailors
Tina gives the credit to her father for that eager, youthful enthusiasm that surrounds her onboard Phoenix. ‘When my dad first got the boats, he said, “Tina, Tony, please do me a favour. I want you to put a team of young South Africans together. This country used to have amazing sailors. Where have they all gone? Let’s find them.”’ And for the experienced, race-hardened crewmen, she credits Tony. ‘He brought in people like Shane Elliot, James Largier, Paul Willcox and Shaun Pammenter.’ These are all men who understand the heat of battle.
A competitive racing yacht can be a place of high emotion in that heat, and it’s not uncommon for a testosterone-fuelled environment to result in clashes, in situations when a wrong decision or mistake means lost metres and lost seconds.
I wondered if it was another testimony to Tina’s calm presence to hear that clashes onboard Phoenix are rare. ‘We don’t ever get loud and noisy when stuff goes wrong. Everyone puts their heads down, gets back to work, and does their job.’ But she won’t take the credit. ‘It’s not me, no. We usually have a really good tactician, who stays calm. The guys all know that if it gets noisy and agro, it’s going to just take longer to fix. Nobody causes a problem intentionally, and we just work together; we trust one another.’ Tina also gives credit to her shore team. ‘James Largier runs the team, and they do an amazing job getting the boat ready, and just keeping all systems checked and in top shape. We go out knowing that we can trust the boat.’
Taking the 52 SUPER SERIES by storm
In 2018, on the five-regatta 52 SUPER SERIES, she and tactician Ed Baird grabbed a pair of wins in two races at the Zadar event in Croatia. Tina became the first woman ever to win a race as a helmsman of a TP52 in the 52 SUPER SERIES, an incredible achievement in the high-powered, competitive world of TP52 racing. The Phoenix team were also selected the ‘Greenest Team of the Year’ in the 52 SUPER SERIES.
‘I just love learning,’ Tina says, her smile lighting up. ‘Every time I go out on a boat and get back, I feel like I’ve learned something new. I want to talk to the coach, see the video footage and find out what I can do better next time. For me, it’s hard to single out one moment as a highlight. It’s about a whole season, it’s about the good races, and the bad. About picking yourself up after a disappointment, and saying, “Come on, let’s go back out fighting!”’ And who is her toughest competition? She laughs. ‘Definitely my father; we are each other’s toughest competition!’
Plattner vs Plattner
These days, Tina competes with her father on the water, with two identical TP52 boats, but her early memories are of competing in a battle of wills when the family used to take their annual six-week summer break in Germany. Tina’s first love is horses, and when the holidays came, she and her sister were keen to compete with their horses, but Hasso wanted a three-week sailing holiday. Tina laughs again as she recalls spending three weeks in the Baltic. ‘We were freezing cold, on his cruising boat, and not really enjoying life. We were dreaming of being at a horse competition.’ Then she becomes serious. A moment’s silence as if she has been transported back to the Baltic, and that unmistakable bond with her father.
‘I didn’t think I’d ever get passionate about sailing. I think I ended up getting into sailing because I wanted to spend more time with my dad.’ Tina started joining her father onboard his race boats in early 2006, just sitting on the stern watching. And from that position, viewing the heat of battle, the exhilaration of racing started to appeal to the young girl. ‘I really enjoyed that,’ she says, the beaming smile back, ‘but it took me another 10 years to actually take the step to trying it myself.’
The 52 SUPER SERIES season begins in Cape Town
‘Table Bay, with Table Mountain as a backdrop… what a special place! Everyone who comes here says, “Wow! Why haven’t we sailed here before?”’
Tina was enthusiastic about what the series could do for increasing public interest in sailing, something that is always welcomed. ‘The 52 SUPER SERIES is so amazing to watch. I, hope Cape Town will come out in force to watch and support the fleet.’
Hasso was also very excited to race in Cape Town. His first series race win was in strong conditions in Cascais in Portugal, and the stronger the wind got, the better he performed, so he was hoping for a classic southeaster!
But the South Easter stayed away for the duration of the event, taking place in light airs.
Hasso’s Phoenix 11 finished 2nd overall and he was awarded best owner/driver for the event. Tina finished in 9th place overall on Phoenix 12.
What’s up next?
As for her future, Tina laughs when I ask if there was any appeal for a Sydney to Hobart or The Ocean Race. ‘I’m not enough of a sailor. I know where my limits are, I am an amateur, and I’ll always be an amateur.’
Tina’s passion for horses is still as strong as ever, and last year she started competing again in Cape Town in dressage. But she is quick to admit it’s hard to do both sports. ‘My back is not so happy going from horses to sailing, and back to horses. But I love it. I love being busy.’
Her desire to become a vet in order to study racehorse performance was stopped in its tracks as Pretoria University wouldn’t accept a foreigner to study the course. Tina switched focus to human performance and got her PhD in Sports Science. But today, she says she has realised that she is ‘not a good academic’. She is very involved in the family business and running various projects. Among them, the Isisombululo Programme, started in 2003 as a partnership between the Universities of Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal and the Department of Health in the Western Cape, which aims to alleviate the effects of HIV/Aids, and a youth centre in George,
She is also involved in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at UCT, where creative intelligence is unlocked, and future-ready leadership is developed. Early childhood development and ‘edu-conservation’ programmes are also being run in the Congo. Tina’s mother Sabine is spearheading this conservation project.
Without missing a beat, between laughter, and thoughtful reflection, Tina has crossed from horses, to sailing, to a passion for kids in Congolese villages. Success has a drive that allows no idle time. And just like that, she politely thanks me for the chat, and leaves to check on her TP52.
[Profile with a Pro: Tina Plattner]