STANFORD, Calif. – Before coming to Stanford, rising junior and team co-captain Hans Henken knew he wanted to be an engineer.
“I didn’t know what kind of engineering I wanted to do at the time, but I knew I wanted to be able to build something or work with my hands; use mathematics and science to solve problems,” Henken said.
Now fully settled into his aerospace major, Henken shared “it’s great being in class, listening to the professors talk about different ways of solving problems and hearing them mention sailing as an example of an application of the formula we’re studying with a different use.”
Despite studying the science behind how boats sail in the water, Henken does not think his studies give him an edge in competition.
“Sailing is a lot of feel. If it feels good, it usually is good,” he said. “By feeling how tight the lines feel when you’re pulling on them and how the rudder feels when you pull on that.”
Henken relies on these feelings to figure out what adjustments he needs to make to the boat to sail as quickly as possible.
“The real art of sailing is when you know when you’re slow you can change something quickly and get back to speed; knowing when you’re fast is also important so you can replicate that process, replicate that feeling.”
It is Henken’s attachment to this feeling of sailing that drives him to continue to practice, travel repeatedly across the country to compete (so much so that he reaches gold-member flying status by the end of the season), and live the busy life of a student-athlete at Stanford.
“The feeling of being able to race the boat as fast as possible, the joy and the feel of how fast the boat goes down lane or up lane or around the race course, that kind of stuff really gets me motivated to keep sailing,” he said.
Unfortunately, Henken will have to wait to feel the ropes, the rudder and the sailboat glide across the water since he tore two ligaments in his ankle during a training session in early July. Graduating from crutches to a walking boot, Henken is now channeling his focus into physical therapy sessions, hoping to be ready to compete in the U.S. National Championships in late August and the World Championships in France at the end of September.
Prior to his injury, Henken had a great performance in Germany with sailing partner and 2012 Olympian Trevor Moore, finishing as the top American team and placing 15th out of 50 boats.
Even with this extended and unwanted break from sailing, Henken is not worried about losing the all-important feel of sailing when he returns.
“I’d say remembering what to do and being able to perform won’t be that difficult.”
For the Coronado, Calif., native who started sailing during the summer months at the age of four and competitively at 10, the feeling of sailing is engrained in him.
However, before Henken was a world-class sailor with a refined sense of feel, he had to figure out how fast he was sailing in a different way.
“When I’d sail my boat as a kid, I’d lay down and listen to the water hit the edge of the boat,” he said. “You knew you were going faster when the sound was louder and slower when there was no sound at all.”
Now, the much more advanced Olympic-hopeful is passing his knowledge on to others - including his brother and sister - by word and example in the tight-knit sailing community. With Henken’s help, other sailors have improved dramatically, a feat he regards just as highly as one of his proudest sailing accomplishments, which was a third-place finish with the U.S. at the ISAF Youth Worlds (the equivalent of the Olympics for sailors under the age of 18).
Henken has increased his sailing knowledge by trading advice with Stanford teammates. Whether reviewing the photo and video footage of their sails at practice, discussing strategies, or working through each other’s sailing-related questions, the Stanford help each other become better sailors in any way they can.
“We’re all very competitive sailors, we’re all very competitive people, and we all want to do really well,” Henken said. “I think that drive and that push makes us really successful as a team.”
With the goal of winning the collegiate national championship before he graduates and competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Henken is motivated to get back in his sailboat and see, as he puts it, “if I can make the boat go faster than any other person that I’ve ever raced against.”
Henken plans to continue sailing for the rest of his life, and ignore the engineering concepts he devotedly studies in school to instead rely on a much less technical approach to drive his already successful sailing career.
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