Checkmate – the World Champion Sailor at 13
By Kristie Hayden
When 11-year-old Sophie Alexander realised older-brother Thomas’s devastation, she couldn’t sit idle.
“I thought I’d step in and help,” she remembers of the conversation two years ago.
News of his teammate’s illness meant no crew for the forthcoming season. Mother, Cait, recalls the timid voice of her daughter as she clutched Eeyore, her stuffed and faded friend since birth.
“I will be your crew, Thomas,” Sophie ventured quietly.
“I will give it a go so you can sail.”
So it was settled. And together, in a small dinghy named Checkmate, they went on to conquer worlds.
Categorised Australia’s top female cadet, it was a hero’s homecoming at the Royal Geelong Yacht Club for now 13-year-old Sophie and 16-year-old Thomas as they returned from England. Outclassing 250 sailors across 60 elite teams of aspiring Olympians they’ve just taken out the prestigious International Cadet World Championships.
“Standing on the podium was pretty amazing,” she told Sportette.
“I couldn’t believe it at first. I still can’t get over it.”
No surprise, though, for the international sailing community. Already awarded Yachting Victoria’s 2014 Junior Sailor of the Year, they entered the regatta unbeaten in all previous seasonal events including the State Championships, Australian Nationals and ISAF’s Sailing World Cup. I ask about Belgium 2013 where Checkmate tore through the fleet at the Cadet World Championship Promotional regatta.
“Oh yeah, we won that too,” she grins. It’s almost an apology.
Sophie may be a star on the water, but her upbringing was a world away from the ocean. Her early years on a 15-acre farm, just west of Geelong, consisted more of motorbikes and pony-club than two-handed boats.
“Thomas and I are really good in heavy winds because we’re good at keeping the boat flat. So, I like windy. I’ve never been frightened on the water.” A jolt of happiness and her spine lengthens. I can’t help feeling a tinge of pride. And, ahem, awe.
During the adults Learn-To-Sail at the RGYC academy, on a little pacer named Whale, I gained new respect for young mariners. Sails full, faces to the breeze, we cruised along to the theatre of Geelong’s vibrant waterfront. At first, it was so exhilarating I made plans to buy a yacht. Then it clouded over. Sudden teeming ripples attacked Whale. Dark clouds and gusts threw angry blotches over my idyllic ocean-scape. The scene changed from ‘Flipper’ to ‘The Perfect Storm’ in a matter of seconds. Crazed with fear from the lurching boat, dazed as the boom struck my head on every gybe, I longed for the safety of a cruiser with captain, crew and chardonnay-stocked fridge.
“Like at the UK Nationals,” Sophie brings me back,
“it was really windy, gusting 35-knots. Sometimes I get nervous if it’s gusting and we’re going really fast, but you get used to it and it’s fun, you know. It’s like you’re flying.”
“Once we won the Australian nationals (in January), we went to training five times a week. It was pretty tough. Even when I felt sick, I’d still go sailing because I knew it would eventually pay off,” she says.
Australian team coach and renowned Geelong-based sail-maker, Tony Bull describes Sophie as the ultimate team player.
“She does have a great rapport with Thomas and the feeling is mutual. She is absolutely supportive of him and the team in general,” he tells Sportette.
The entire contingent of seven Aussie boats in Weymouth finished top 21.
“We are very lucky at RGYC to have a great number of great sailors who are happy to chip in and help (coach). Brendan Garner, Tom Kelly and Jason Farnell, all past Australian Champions, are some that spring to mind. They have also received some wise words from the likes of John Bertrand and others along the way.”
As Sophie continues to develop under Bull, past champions, an America’s Cup winner and RGYC academy manager, four-time Olympic team coach, Rod Hagebols, it’s clear that a large part of the future of elite sailing in Australia is right here.
The Cadet is the only two-handed racing dinghy acknowledged by the International Sailing Federation that is sailed exclusively by children. Dingy racing provides fundamental grounding for many elite sailors across the globe. For Sophie, an accidental hero with indisputable raw talent, the ocean is now her stage.
“I really love sailing. It’s a great feeling coming back in when we’ve done a good job. And the shower’s the best part afterwards,” her shy giggle becomes a sigh, shoulders drooping.
“I haven’t rested in ages, actually,” she reflects.
I’m reminded of her tender age and wonder whether this is where Eeyore steps back in.