Episode 32: Bart Lambriex & Flores van de Weaken – Elite Sport & Sailing at the highest level | Bart Lambriex & Flores van de Weaken – Team Portera

In this episode, Waleed Siraj sits down with the dynamic duo of the 49’er class, Bart Lambriex and Floris van der Werken, who are both part of Team Portera. They have put themselves on the map by winning the World title in the 49er class for the third time in a row, and won silver medal in World Championship 2024. The Dutch duo also won gold in the 49er at the pre-Olympics Paris 24 test event in Marseille, and recently won the Rolex World Sailor of the Year award. These guys are the best of the best.

In this Q&A, we discover more about their journey; where they come from; competitive sailing; how they’ve built an edge and been able to consistently maintain it over the past few years; and how they approach the sport from a competitive level, a mental level and a physical level.


Waleed Q&A with Bart Lambriex and Floris van der Werken


W: Bart and Floris, we would like to know what drives you to race at such a competitive level? What are the obstacles? What are the challenges? What are the barriers? And what can we learn from you – because most of us aren’t elite athletes. As people in corporate jobs or as entrepreneurs, we all face challenges, but these are usually temporary up and downs. We face a challenge, then we overcome it and perhaps we then take some time off. But in your case, you need to be at the top of your game, all year round, year after year, constantly working towards your long-term ambitions. Olympic ambitions, the absolute top ambitions. And we want to learn from you. Can we start with a short introduction about yourselves?

B: We are Floris and Bart and we sail in the Olympic 49er class. The 49er is one of the fastest types of sailboat and we’ve been sailing together in this class for three years now – and we’ve won the last three World Championships. The 49er is an Olympic boat and we have started a four-year campaign towards the Olympic Games in Marseille in 2024. Every year there is a World Championship and that is usually our main event – but for next year, we’re putting everything towards the Olympics. We’ve managed to win the last three World Championships and we’ve done a lot of work throughout that time to really improve. We will continue to do so next year right up until the Olympic games.

W: Let’s go back to three years to your first World Championship. How long had you been sailing together?

B: For two months. Our first World Championship together was just two months into our campaign. We had both sailed in the 49er class for several years previously, and it was after the last Olympic Games in Tokyo that we teamed up. We then had a couple of months’ preparation until the Worlds and we managed prepare well and win it. It was very difficult because we hadn’t had long to work together and we weren’t showing our top level. But we managed to win that week even though it was super close. After that we started working on it a lot more and getting better, and that was necessary to win the next World Championships as well.

W: ‘You were world champions but you weren’t showing your top level’…I understand that sentence and I love it. It shows your mindset – that it’s not about getting a medal but it’s about how you perceive yourselves. What I hear is not arrogance. What I get from that is that you can get fifth place and feel you were performing beyond your own level. Or you can get first place and you can think, ‘I was not at my top level today’.It’s about knowing where you are in terms of the competition and knowing your limits, your strengths and your weaknesses. That’s self-awareness from my perspective. It’s a great quality that we all need to embrace in our lives. That’s my takeaway from that sentence.

F: It’s definitely true. It’s self-awareness. It’s a moment, the World Championship. It’s a week of racing and we were able to compete well that week in a very small wind range, and we knew we still had a lot of weaknesses we needed to tackle.

W: Let’s deep dive into one of the World Championships. Can you walk us through the training regime before it? What kind of training do you do? And then what do you do during the regatta? How do you overcome the ups and downs and any challenges between yourselves? How do you achieve all that?

B: The second championship in Canada is a very good example, in 2022. In 2021, we won the Oman Worlds which was great and we felt like we had over-performed a little bit. Then at the beginning of 2022, in the first regatta of the year – and so the first competition of the year – we ended in 26th place. So that was a very humbling experience.

W: What happened?

F: Well, as we said before we were missing a few skills in some areas, and in sailing it can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. If you’re lacking certain skills and the race puts difficult conditions in front of you, then it’s very easy not to make it into the gold fleet. Usually, we have six days of competition and after three days, the fleet gets divided into different groups: a gold, silver, and a bronze group. In that event, we didn’t make the cut for the gold fleet, which was a very humbling experience. It was also one of the best experiences that I think about from year. I know that sounds strange.

B: I’ll add that 26th place sounds bad but it’s not that bad. You’ve got 80, 90, almost 100 teams doing this almost full time, and they’re working their arses off and the level is super close. So, you might think that at 26th place, there’s a huge gap. But in terms of level, it’s quite dense at the top. If you make a few mistakes here and there it’s quite easy to suddenly be in the middle.

W: And that is the main challenge. Lots of people have the potential to come first in one of the races. The challenge is to get the minimum possible points within a regatta to stay in first place. What I also want to understand is how you identified your weaknesses? How did you talk about your weaknesses after the World Championship? You had been working together or training together for just two months. You didn’t know each other that well. How did you confront your own weaknesses, and how did you communicate about each other’s weaknesses?

F: In order to be aware of your weaknesses, you need to know what it looks like to be the best in the world in all sailing conditions. We started getting a picture of that and we saw that we weren’t matching that picture yet. We could see it quite clearly in certain conditions and we could see it when we looked at other teams that were doing things better than us.

W: In terms of communication, did you chunk it to small pieces and manouvres? For example, let’s talk about beating on the inside or breaching, and then discuss the improvement points?

B: It’s very analytical. You analyse and you go into a lot of detail of where exactly things have gone wrong. The difficult thing is to change it. You’ve got to work really hard on it – we communicate about that a lot.

W: After being 26th, how did that regatta end? How many months were there until the World Championship?

F: We had quite a quite a few months left. The regatta was in April and the Worlds were in August. So there was enough time to work on our weaknesses. The most important thing from that week was that it really showed up the areas that still weren’t world class. We had a good debrief about that. One of our key values is that we always try to be very honest with each other and with our coach, so we’re all working in a very honest way. We had a very good debrief and improved those areas over the year, which got us better results. If you don’t debrief then you let these opportunities go. If you just think, ‘We’ll do better next time’, then you won’t probably won’t do better next time. We value these debriefs and hard moments very much. To find the opportunities they offer.

B: We debrief with our coach Rick, and sometimes the conversations are very hard to have. They get personal because they’re about you as a person not doing something well enough. It can be quite confronting but it’s super important to have these conversations. They make the difference in the end, to take you from mid fleet to the top.

W: Like you mentioned, the difference between boats is quite minimal, and everything needs to be perfect. I was thinking about your story – how you’ve been world champions for three years. I don’t want to call it luck. This is about perfection. It’s not about doing things right but also not doing anything wrong. And that is a different ballgame. Would you agree?

F: I do agree. In the end it’s about making the least mistakes over a whole event. It’s about being at the top of your level throughout the six days of racing. It’s very easy during a week of racing to get one off-day where you get a bit too emotional when you’ve lost a few places. That happens a lot. But you need to stay composed and make the next decision correctly and that’s definitely very hard.

W: I’ll come back to that point when we talk about the last European Championships, because when I was watching you, I saw how you were trying to climb. It didn’t matter where you were, you were trying to climb one piece of the race, boat by boat, and that is the perseverance that a top athlete has, but I will come back to that point. So you had the 2022 European Championships and then the World Championships four months later. What was the training regime like? What did you do? Is it mostly boat handling or kilometers on the water, or is it a holistic mindset?

B: It’s definitely a combination of things. During the year or during every regatta, we pick a few a few main points where we see we could make a big improvement and that’s what we’ll work on in the next training sessions. If that means that we need to do handling, we do handling. If it means we want to be quicker in a certain kind of breeze, we look for the right kind of breeze to train in. We try to make it very specific, because you can’t go into a training session and say your goal is to be better sailors today. That’s what everyone wants. You really need to divide it into pieces, pick one piece at a time and get better at it.

W: Let’s go to 2022 to the World Championships. In Canada. Was it cold?

F: No, it was in the summer. It was very nice.

W: How did how did the days unfold?  Where were you in terms of position in the first gold fleet? Let’s start with the qualification races. The first three days, how did they go? Were there any issues or challenges?

F: The first race of the regatta was very windy. We were sailing in windy conditions and it all gets very quick and it gets very dangerous. It takes around 30 minutes. We had 25 knots of wind, which is a lot, and big steep waves. In our class, if you make a technical mistake, you can end up with the boat capsizing and both of us in the water and that happened in the first race. It’s not an ideal start to a World Championship.

W: Was this before the start?

F: No, during the race. Which means we immediately had a big score on the scoreboard on race one of the regatta. We’ve had better starts.

B: Our boat has a lot of sail area and it’s very light so it tips over very easily. And this race was super windy. It sounds like an exceptional thing that it capsized, but in our class, in those conditions, it’s quite common. More than half the fleet capsized during that race and I think we finished 12th. So that’s still within the first half. It shows how easy it is for the boat to capsize.

W: A question about the detail – in 25 knots I assume you don’t put the spinnaker up?

F: We do actually, but it is tricky. And that time it went wrong in the downwind with the spinnaker up. There was a wave and we were both standing on the back of the boat. Usually, you jump over the waves but sometimes you have a very steep wave in front of you and the bow goes in. And that’s what happened. We capsized, we went forward.

W: So you were 12th in the first race. Not bad, but still not optimum. Then what happened?

B: We knew the week was going to be long and it was only one race. At 12th place, we were still in it. The day after that, we had a pretty stable day. The wind wasn’t very changeable and we had a really good day. We started on port side, which is the opposite to the fleet. Normally the fleet starts on the starboard deck and goes left. We ended up starting on port and going to the right every time because we believed that side was a little bit better than the other side. It ended up paying off three times and I think we came first, first and second that day. So that definitely put us back in front again. After that we had some different days.

W: So, at the start of the race, you create a strategy together. I assume you’re talking to each other at that moment. You’re making some measurements along the start line about where the first bouy is and then you make a decision. Maybe you have plan B and plan C for if things don’t go well. You decided to go on the port side, which is a disadvantage because if a starboard boat cuts in, you need to give way to them. It’s a bit of a tight start on the port side. Were you one of 10% of the boats choosing port side for that race, or were you the only one?

F: Yes, remember, we have a fleet of 30 and maybe there were one or two others, but there weren’t many others.

W: What made you so confident in your decision? To someone who isn’t a sailor or a top athlete, it might sound like it was luck.

F: If we start on the port side, it basically means we start last. We have to give way to all the other boats, so we’re essentially giving them all a small advantage. Doing that is a big risk, which is why most people don’t like doing it. You start behind everybody else who is going out in front. The reason we believed it was worth it, was because the gains we were about to make were going to be bigger than the initial loss. That’s why we went for it and why it paid off. But the reason most people don’t do it is because you have to start behind the other boats. If you look at the tracker, you’re last in line.

W: I will definitely look at the recording. I’m curious to see that strategy. I also see this relating to business life. Usually, these counterintuitive decisions are really hard to make. There are not many people who are able to gauge the risks and possible advantages to be able to operate that way. People usually choose to be on the safe side, which is in sailing terms, starboard deck start. That doesn’t always pay off and you can end up behind all other competition or competitors, and really the race is already done because of the competitors as well. Maybe it would be better to have a clear wind in front of you, even though you’re letting them go a little bit earlier. Then you have the freedom to move forward. After the gold fleet was decided, you had a stable race. Please walk us through it. How did it go?

B: The last day of qualifying is worth talking about. We had an offshore breeze, which means that a lot is happening. It’s not a stable breeze. The breeze is going left, going right, strong breeze, light wind, you get a bit of everything. One thing you know on a day like that, is that there are going to be big losses and big wins throughout the day. You need a certain mindset to go into a day like that. And that was the only offshore day during that regatta. Besides the start, we did really well mindset-wise that day. We lost a lot of boats, we won a lot of boats. But in the end, we had a very stable day compared to other boats. In sailing, it’s not about winning one race and having short term success. It’s about having success over six days of racing. That wasa  very important day in the World Championship, which set us up for a good position into the into the finals. I think having a good mentality going into it was really a key factor. You see teams having a bad race and then having three other bad races that day because they lose their lose their ability to make decisions. They get frustrated, they get angry, they lose their rational decision-making. We did that well on that day. We stayed very composed. It was a key factor in that World Championship.

W: If I understand this correctly, when you start a race you might be on the backfoot because of certain circumstances. But that doesn’t mean the race is gone and that you need to move on to the next race. Instead, you know that the positions can change, you know the situation can change, and circumstances can change. So, you take every possibility to find a gain. You may gain nothing but you might gain something. It’s the mindset of continuously trying to improve what you have in your hand.

F: Absolutely. You need to keep looking for the opportunities that are always there on a day like that and not look back too much at what just happened. Sometimes it is going to feel unfair. But you need to move on and look for the next opportunity.

W: Also, whatever the circumstances, other people and teams are experiencing them too. Sometimes they get an advantage from it, of course. But other people will be having the same disadvantages that you are. This reminds me of those cartoons, where one person is walking with a raincloud over his head while everywhere else is sunny. But the real world isn’t like that. If you have a disadvantage, others are likely to have the same disadvantage. We need to keep that mindset to move forward.

F: In terms of mindset, that was an incredibly challenging day. We had so many moments where we were losing to other boats because they had a bit more wind here and there. It’s easy to think, ‘I’m never in the right spot’. But it’s the same for everybody. The mindset is something we try to prepare ourselves for. For example, the previous day, the wind was very stable and we knew quite quickly after the start that we were going to stay in that position. Not much was going to change. Then on the difficult day, we knew the forecast. We knew our course and we knew it was going to be very challenging. We knew there would be times that we would lose a lot of places, and we went into the day with that mindset. Every day before we sail, we have a briefing between the three of us and we talk about situations that might happen and recognise that there are going to be a lot of moments where we’re going to have it wrong. It’s all part of it. Then when it actually happens, you’re more prepared for it and it doesn’t surprise you as much. You can deal with it instead of getting emotional and being unable to make the next decision.

W: Then once you’re in the gold fleet, you have the medal race. You entered the medal race quite relaxed. You had enough points to secure first place in the championship. How do the points work?

B: The top 10 go into the medal race and whatever place you finish, you get double points. We finished the race 9th, so we got 18 points.

W: Did you come 9th because you sailed a relaxed race? Or did you still push for it?

F: The level in that top 10 is really close. So if you’re missing a little bit of something, then you can find yourself at the back quite easily. We think we were missing a little bit of eagerness in that race. We knew we had already won and we didn’t want to get in the way of any other battles going on. So we were careful on the course and we didn’t sail it as well as we could have.

W: And then came the championship celebrations. How did it feel to be a second time world champion? Did you call your parents, friends?

F: Sure. It’s very nice to speak to your family immediately after a win like that. They’re the ones supporting you through it. They’re most important factor in everyone’s life. We had a good celebration afterwards as well.

W: After the World Championships in 2022, there were no other championships during the winter season. How did that winter season go? I assume you sail a bit less, have a holiday. How did it go in terms of training towards 2023?

B: After the World Championships, the season is over. You take a break, take a holiday and then you go back into training quite quickly again. In terms of days on the water, it’s not that different to the lead up to the Worlds. We have a similar amount of hours on the water throughout the whole year basically. We pick a nice location for winter training. Most years we spend the winter season in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, which is ideal for sailing. We spend a lot of time working on areas we can improve on.

W: For 2023, you’ve been in your Olympic campaign. Your target is to get to the Olympics in 2024. What is the mindset? What are the targets? The World Championship happened in your home waters, which I imagine has also had an impact. How did the mindset shape your success this year?

B: The target was to qualify for the Olympic Games. A lot of people said it would be easy because we’re two times world champions. But we know better than that. We know that if we made one or two mistakes in the qualifying series, we wouldn’t qualify for the Olympic Games. It’s not as easy as it sounds to qualify because we have to get a top 12 result in the World Championships. Just because you’ve won two Worlds doesn’t mean you’re going to have success in the future. You need to succeed every time. And that was definitely our aim for this year.

W:  Last year’s World Championships was in Netherlands. How did it go?  

F: It went well in the end. We had a good week. It was really nice to race in home waters, to have a lot of people on the beach and on the harbour entrance cheering us on. It’s an experience that we hadn’t had before. That was cool. It was a long week with six days of racing but it was really close throughout the week, especially with the Spanish team. We were switching in first place every day but on the last day of racing,  something went wrong for them and it seemed like they lost their composure. Then it was all done and wrapped up before the medal race again. We weren’t expecting that because all week it had been really close between us. Then on the last day, we were able to take a big lead over the Spanish sailors and it was over. I was super happy with that.

W: It happened in the medal race again. It sounds like a tradition! This year, the European Championships also happened, in December instead of March or April.  They’ve moved because of the Olympic trajectory. So next year in March you will have the World Championships. After coming out of the World Championships as three time world champions, you had a little holiday. And then you were back in training, preparing for the European Championships in Portugal. How did it go? How was the start? How was the training?

B: It went quite well actually. We had a big break after the Worlds. That was the end of our season and now we’ve started up again. The European Championship was the first time back in the boat in three months. It took a little bit of getting used to but it went really well and we got straight into working on areas that we had written down after our World Championships debrief. We had the perfect conditions to practice in, so we were really happy and we were able to make some improvements, specifically in light wind sailing.

W: What happens when you have a three times world champion sticker on the back of your t- shirt? Do the other teams play on you in the races? Do you think others are thinking, ‘These guys do the right thing, I’ll follow them’?

F: No, not really.

W: I would follow you – or try to!

F: No, it doesn’t really happen. Just because we won three World Championships, doesn’t mean we’re the best sailors in every moment. We saw that during the European Championships. It’s quite easy not to win. Of course, there are people are looking at us. Looking at what we’re doing differently. For example, our techniques or strategies. And we see that people do copy our style a little bit sometimes, and our strategies. But we need to be one step ahead and come up with new with new tactics, strategies and techniques before they come up with them. That’s always the aim.

W: This time, the European Championships was a bit of a different weather set up. You mentioned previously that it was a learning experience for you. Did you do a debrief afterwards? In the Olympics, there might also be conditions you’re not used to.

B: Every day we sail, we try to improve and we have a small briefing before we go on the water with clear goals that we are going to work on. After sailing, we have a debriefing to see if we’ve made steps towards that. Then after any event, we make a summary of all those goals we’ve worked on. It’s like that every day. It will be like at the Olympics as well. If there are small things we can improve on during the games, we will. We’ll take that opportunity – we’ll take every chance we can to get better.

W: In your boats, during competitions you’re not allowed to use any digital devices besides a compass and a timer, which means you don’t have exact measurements. For example, you can’t measure your speed. You can measure your angle, but you can’t see your true wind angle or apparent wind angle. Those kind of calculations don’t exist on the boat, especially during the races. It means that you’re basing your discussions and debriefs on your feelings, on your perceptions. How do you make it more tangible in the discussions? I remember my crew and other sailors saying things like, ‘The start was bad’, ‘The start was good’, or, ‘Now we’re going fast’. We had a saying – if you are the only boat on the sea, you’re the fastest. It means you haven’t got anything to measure yourself against. How do you manage this? How do you make those debriefings more tangible?

F: It’s a combination of data that we get from tracker information. The Portera guys put that in a nice overview so we can actually see what’s been going well and what has been going wrong. Besides that, it’s about how you actually interpret the data. It’s not just numbers. We’ve been there that day so we know what the wind has been doing and what position we were in. Then data shows whether it is true that we were quick or not so quick because in different positions, there’s different speeds. It’s a combination of that and a combination of what we feel in the boat as well as what the coach sees from the outside. It’s a combination of those factors which we bring into a debrief, and then we put a conclusion on it and say, ‘Okay, this is where we actually need to get better.’ For example, when we talk about communication, it’s quite tangible. We can look at whether we actually said a particular comment to each other. If the answer is yes, and we still made the wrong decision, then that’s one of these decisions that was wrong. But if the answer is no, and then we made the wrong decision, we can see that next time we need to actually verbalise the comment because it’ll give us a bigger chance of making the right decision. In terms of communication, it’s a very tangible thing to do. What we noticed during the European Championships is that after three months of not sailing with each other, we lost a few of our routines a little bit. And you can’t do that at that level. You need to be able to do these routines time after time after time to get a good score on the board.

W: Okay, let’s look forward. You mentioned that your Olympic trajectory has started and you don’t want to take any other big pauses before the Olympics. First of all, thanks a lot for spending time talking to me. What will this eight month trajectory look like?

B: It looks pretty similar to our last few years. We have about five big events throughout the year and we use those as an opportunity to get better at certain racing skills. Alongside that, we have a lot of training days and we use those together with our training partners to work on specific areas. It’ll be the same as the last few years really.

W: So you will have the World Championships in March and then European Championships in France in May.

B: Yes, it’s a bit strange next year. Normally, we pick one event every year to be the main event we’re working towards. That’s the most important event for us and the last few years that has been the World Championships. Next year, it’s going to be the Olympics so there’s going to be less priority on the World Championships. We believe it’s really hard to get a top result throughout the whole year at every event. We believe in a bit of phasing, where we work towards a main event and we are okay with compromising the results a little bit here and there. We know we’re working on a specific skill and it’s okay if we don’t win every event. As long as in the end at the Olympics, we get the best performance.

W: Before closing, I’d like to ask you both something. I personally strongly believe that sailing shapes a person. Sailing for many years, being on the sea. How has sailing shaped you? In who you are today. In your daily life. Do you see that it’s affected your decision making or perseverance? Or is there something in your personal life that you can see in sailing, and vice versa?

F: It definitely teaches me a lot about communicating with someone in the right way and giving someone feedback in the right way. And being honest to someone without being rude. Those are three things, but there are many others. There are not many sports where you get so many setbacks during a race. Every time you get a setback, you need to need to act well and look at the next opportunity as I said earlier. That’s how life goes too. It definitely does shape you with the amount of setbacks you get. There’s so much too much to say about it. We can make a fairly long list, but this sums it up pretty well for me.

B: For me, the biggest thing is that I’m quite comfortable working alone. I sailed in a small optimist when I was younger, until I was about 14 years old. 10 years ago, I had the choice to either go into a similar boat on my own or pick a boat in which you sail with two people. I thought that was a really fun challenge and it would challenge me as a person a lot. I think it has and I think it’s taught me a lot about how to work together, how to give feedback to each other in the right way that that works for the other person. Also being able to receive feedback well and get better at that. That’s been a very big challenge. I think I’ve been able to get better throughout the last 10 years. It’s still a work in progress.

W: Thank you. Before we finish I have one game to play. When I’ve talked about sailing to my kids or somebody in business life, I’ve explained that you need to analyze a lot of data when you during a race. For example, speed direction, wind speed, but also how the clouds are, etc. I can usually count 5, 6 or 7 variables, but it’s not a full extensive list. My ambition for this game is to build a more extensive list of variables that you need to keep an eye on and when you’re sailing in a race. Let’s see how many we can get.

F&B: Wind direction. You need to look at how much wind there is. Other boats. Clouds. Weather forecast before racing. Where the marks are. What’s the long tack to the top mark. Where you sit on the boat. All the technical things like how you want the balance on the boat. Does the boat feel nice and balanced. Do we need to change anything about the sail? Waves. Currents. Other boats positions. Other boats positions and speed. Possible collisions. How the wind is moving. Where is there most pressure – on the left or the right? The list goes on and on. Also whenever you approach a mark, how will you execute a manouvre? Is everything ready? Is there anything in the way? Because you need to do it perfectly every time.

F: You’re always thinking about the next leg. If you’re approaching the top mark, which is upwind and you need to go downwind, you need to have your plan ready before you actually need to execute it. So there are a lot of other variables for the next step in your mind already.

W: Thanks a lot Bart and Floris for being with us. So lovely to see you. Good luck in your endeavour. I can only imagine how big of a deal it is for you. You’re prioritizing it above everything else in your lives. You don’t neglect your families but you’re prioritizing this Olympic campaign for yourself and for your nation. It’s a big compromise and I hope you achieve what you’re hoping for. Not everybody will win gold in the Olympics, but I hope all the athletes progress in their own journey. It is about individual progress. That’s the most important thing. It’s growth mindset that brought us here and that will take us to the next stage.