Durban - “I was ecstatic, but it has taken a while to sink in.”
That’s Durban sailor Benji Daniel, 16, who has won a sailing World Championships with Cape Town-based teammate Alex Burger, 21.
Winning the Zhik 29er World Championships in California last month took the international sailing fraternity by storm – Daniel and Burger not only put South Africa on the map, they also may well be the youngest South African sailing team to win the World Championship.
Daniel and Burger, a mechanical engineering student at UCT, addressed a packed meeting at the Point Yacht Club last weekend on their journey to glory.
Daniel, a Grade 11 pupil at Thomas More College, told The Independent on Saturday that his last-minute pairing with Burger quickly evolved into a very positive synergy.
“We paired up about five months before the race and were travelling between here and Cape Town. We practised in as many different conditions as possible,” he said.
Even finding their boat was a last-minute affair, with Daniel’s mother Becky reaching out to teams across the world.
“Mom hunted everywhere, including the UK, the US and New Zealand, and miraculously found a 2016 edition that Team Hong Kong generously allowed us to use. We were set."
The duo travelled to Long Beach in California where the championships take place from Alamitos Bay Yacht Club and and spent two days sanding down their borrowed boat.
“She was slightly heavier than the 2017 edition 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,” said Daniel.
The two started their campaign in the US Nationals, regarded as the warm-up event , and placed third.
“Our result was a surprise for all. It was a reassurance to us, but we didn't want to get too far ahead of ourselves before the critical event,” he added.
The world championship regatta takes place over six days, with sailors having to qualify in the first three days.
Daniel, as the helmsman and Burger as crew, qualified for the Gold Fleet – the top 50 contenders. Three days of intense racing followed with the South Africans taking the number one spot on the podium, beating far more experienced teams.
After they finished the final race, Daniel and Burger held the South African flag high above their heads as they made their way into the harbour.
Recalling that moment this week, Daniel said: “I was ecstatic, to say the least. But it has taken a while to sink in.
“Alex and I worked well together, we have good synergy. In the three days of racing, we raced three or four times a day. It’s intense and at the end of each day, we were tired.
“It’s important to keep emotion out of it. Keep calm and even in a race, don’t get ahead of yourself.
“I think another huge thing that paid off for us was keeping a routine while we were training and while we were there. We found that worked for us, both on and off the water,” added Daniel.
The two stayed in a local bed and breakfast, waking up early with Burger making the breakfast and Daniel preparing their water bottles for the day. They hired bikes, which they named Penelope and Veronica, took them to the yacht club every day until they were stolen from outside their accommodation.
Speaking at the Point Yacht Club on Saturday, Burger said: “In a way, it was good that we didn’t have a support team. We could relax and process things at our pace, watch Game of Thrones, eat dark chocolate and talk nonsense.
"Of course, we had to do everything which took some navigating, but our synergy and determination made the challenges manageable.”
Talking about the weather, Burger added, “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.
“Our results look glamorous on paper, but believe us, it was tough. 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.”
Commodore of the Point Yacht Club Greg de Beyer said the club was “incredibly proud” of the result.
“I have competed in various international, and national events and I know how competitive it is and the hard work required to be at the front of the fleet. We honoured them with the Yachtsmen of the Year, but I truly believe it shouldn’t be that, rather the Yachtsmen of the Decade.”
Struan Campbell, KZN South Africa Sailing representative, said he was following the sailing blogs while the racing was taking place.
“I have to admit, I was flabbergasted. Because the US is 12 hours behind us, the updates and racing happened during the middle of the night for us, but like the America’s Cup, I was riveted to get any info on how the guys were doing.
“Having sailed professionally, I can say they are legging it ahead, but it’s not over yet. This achievement will open doors for them: who knows, it could be Olympics on a 49er, racing in the Americas Cup or even the Volvo Ocean Race.”
The Independent on Saturday