Two phenomenal talents, Benji Daniel (16) and Alex Burger (21), collided in an impromptu golden pairing that resulted in securing the coveted title of 29er World Sailing Champions, in California at Alamitos Bay Yacht Club, last month.
They recently shared their adventure at the Point Yacht Club to a spell-bound audience. Daniel referred to their experience as a fairy tale experience. “You can’t describe the feeling. Sailing is the most amazing sport.”
Daniel was awarded his Junior South African colours and the Yachtsmen of the Year award for Point Yacht Club. And the two are the youngest SA team to win the coveted title.
A late start
Helmsman, Daniel is a Grade 11 pupil at Thomas More College and his crew, Burger is a Mechanical Engineering student at University of Cape Town, they joined forces only four months prior to the regatta under the suggestion from Olympic sailor Roger Hudson.
Daniel shared, “With the late timing, we battled to find a charter boat. Mom hunted everywhere, reaching out to teams from the UK, US, NZ and miraculously we found a 2016 edition generously donated by team Hong Kong. We were set!”
“We spent our first two full days readying her. She was slightly heavier than the 2017 edition that everyone else was sporting, so we spent a fair amount of time sanding her down. We meticulously got to know our chariot. And that paid off for us!” continued Daniel.
The golden partnership’s first challenge was the US Nationals, all the contenders used this sailing regatta as a warm up to the main event. Burger said, “From the first time we hit the water, we took it seriously. Trying to learn as much as possible, the exceptionally big fleets, the swell, chop and breeze. It was interesting to see how other teams could obsess about competitors rigging, or get completely distracted about something as simple as tape on the boom, while we just shrugged it off, and concentrated on sailing.” The pair came third overall – surprising many.
The Daily Routine
From the get-go, they quickly synced into a compatible daily routine: waking up early, Burger making breakfast, while Daniel cleaned and filled their water bottles. They cycled down to the yacht club on their rented bikes. On arrival early each day, they methodically rigged their boat and then sat on the balcony, quietly eating their breakfast while observing the wind. In the evenings, they would dry their kit, eat dinner and banter about the day.
“In a way, it was good that we didn’t have an entourage. We could relax and process things at our pace. We binged on episodes of Game of Thrones, ate dark chocolate and talked nonsense. Of course, the flipside was that we had to do everything ourselves, which took some navigating, but our synergy and determination made the challenges manageable.” Daniel said.
“Sailing in Long Beach was fascinating, analysing and getting familiar with the thermal sea breeze. Daily, the wind would gradually build as the day warmed up. There were small wind shifts. Conditions were quite like sailing offshore of Durban.” stated Burger.
We had to constantly grind our way
through the fleet. If we got spat out at the start, or got buried you had to climb your way back to a decent result. At the front of the fleet, conditions were easier, you had clean air, and it wasn’t a nightmare, traffic jam rounding the marks. But at the back, it was difficult.”
The main event started off with a three-day qualifier. 129 boats took to the water to be slotted into the three different fleets, gold being the best. Daniel added, “My personal goal was just to get into the gold fleet!”
Racing was held on a windward leeward course, and the short two lap races lasted around 25minutes. The starts were enormous, and critical, Burger stated, “In Durban there are only two competitive 29ers, Cape Town doesn’t have many more on the water, so to be jostling on a line with another 49 boats, it was vital to get ahead, and stay ahead. The more experienced guys left it till extremely late in the race to make their move, there was lots of pushing.”
Into the Gold Fleet
We had three days of consecutive good scores during the qualifying which landed us in the gold fleet for the Worlds. When we got off the water each day, our mantra was, ‘Nobody remembered who lead at the half way mark.’ Our job wasn’t done.”
Two things stood out from the young world champions’ report back, basically hitting home about the basics. Consistency wins regattas, and Burger and Daniel certainly were that and more. With all their results being in the top ten, and the hot shots displaying results with double figures. They were 30 points clear of their second placed rivals and didn’t have to compete in the last two races. They did, and rubbing salt in the wound, won the last race.
The second was their routine. As simple as it was, it worked for them. They referred to it as ‘robot mode’, and the habit that they quickly settled into gave them peace of mind to concentrate what they are both spectacularly good at, sailing!
Examining the trophy, their names join some truly historic sailors that have graced podiums at Olympics, Americas Cups or Volvo Ocean Races. Daniel wraps up: “Winning the 29ers was a massive tick off the bucket list. Progressing from this, who knows what the future holds.”
In conclusion, Burger simply ended by smiling, shrugging and then saying, “Our story isn’t finished yet!” Amanzi will watch these two 29er World Sailing Champions with great interest. Subscribe to the ultimate aquatic digital magazine.
Photo credit: Mathias Capizzano