Volvo Ocean Race - They call him Johnny and he's made by sailing

A serious looking Gerd ’Johnny’ Jan Poortman onboard ABN AMRO TWO during the Volvo Ocean Race 2005-2006.
Meet Gerd-Jan Poortman – call him Johnny. Aged 38, he has a girlfriend and two young children. He has been sailing since he was a kid, and is now gearing up for the Volvo Ocean Race with Team Brunel. His daily routine is tough, but in a life made by sailing it's just another day at the office.

'I started sailing as soon as I had my swimming license. I must have been six or seven when I got it and my parents bought me an Optimist. It was in a small club in Holland, on a tiny lake. We learned racing from day one there, which was great.

'I was a special kid though – school was difficult for me. I’m dyslexic and it’s hard for me to learn. I needed to get rid of my energy and sailing was just fantastic. I was in the Dutch youth team in Optimist and 420 before moving to an American high school for a year.

'At that point, sailing started to be an expensive hobby and my parents wanted to finally buy a new car. They told me ‘You’re 18 and you have to organise yourself’ so I had to go and sail on big yachts. Luckily I found good boats and went up the ladder a little.

'I’ve been a professional sailor since 1999. I made my first real breakthrough that year, when I was asked to sail for the Dutch entry in the Admiral’s Cup. We won – it was a big win, and a big opportunity. I grew from that.

'I sailed my first Volvo in 2005-06 with the youth team ABN AMRO Two – a major milestone and a big step-up. I sailed another one with Delta Lloyd in 2008-09. We started three weeks before the start with a second-hand boat. It was difficult but we did end up being competitive.

Delta Lloyd bowman Gerd-Jan Poortman trimming the maisail, on leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Rio de Janeiro to Boston during the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09.
'And now I am in Lanzarote training for the next race with Team Brunel. We’re leaving for the Netherlands on May 7 and the three months here have been great. Every sailing day has been a fruitful day of testing. I literally just go from my house to the gym, from the gym to the boat and from the boat to the team’s dinner. That’s my rhythm and you can almost see my track on the road!

'This time though, I’ve got two lovely sons and a lovely girlfriend back home. This is the first time I’m doing the race with a family and it’s a race in the race. I’m very thankful for my girlfriend – I’m here in the sun doing what I love, and I go to bed in the evening after a day of sailing while she stays with the crying babies. It’s a tough time, but she is giving me this opportunity and I’m very thankful for that. They come over often and they love it too – my older son is three years old and he finds it very interesting.

'I’m away lots, and I’m always sailing. Socially, I have to make big sacrifices but it’s the sailor’s way of life. That’s hard, but there are other ways to be a professional sailor. I’m pretty sure that after this Volvo I’ll look for a job closer from home to be with them more.

'But to me, the Volvo Ocean Race is the best sailing race there is. When I became a pro sailor, I didn’t really think of it yet. It was so far away and these guys were my heroes. I remember going to the stopover in Southampton in 1997. I stood behind the fences thinking ‘wow, these guys are gods.’

'Eight years later, I was there, crossing the start line with ABN AMRO Two. And I recognise myself in the young guys onboard Brunel – they are very keen, and you’ve got to break them a little!

'I’m a bowman onboard. I’m involved with the boat handling side of things, organising and managing sail changes, going to the pointy end to do it. I’m also the onboard sailmaker. This time around, the teams are much smaller and us, the eight sailors, have to embrace more diverse roles. That’s what we train for in Lanzarote.

'And at the end of the day, I look back and I’m proud. We started this campaign one and a half years ago with Bouwe Bekking and Gideon Messink, aiming to bring a Dutch team back in the race. Here we are now.

'This is only the beginning though. Every time I go home, I’m both very proud and very cautious. I think of all the work we’ve got to do and I think – let’s go to bed.'

Volvo Ocean Race