Interview. Alex Burger – 29er World Champion

The top step of the podium is for the new 29 World Champs – Benji Daniel & Alex Burger.
pic by Matias Capizzano

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger
pic by Matias Capizzano

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger
pic by Matias Capizzano

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger.
pic by Matias Capizzano

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger.
pic by Matias Capizzano

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger.
pic by Matias Capizzano

by Richard Crockett

Very recently Benji Daniel and Alex Burger won the 29er World Championships off Long Beach, California.

Yesterday I interviewed Benji Daniel, who helmed the boat, and today we hear the thoughts of Alex Burger, the man up front and on trapeze.

Winning a World Championship is something very few people ever get to do, yet Benji and Alex did it in style with a steady and consistent set of results – and with humility too.

Here’s the interview with Alex Burger.

What prompted you to do the 29er worlds?
A combination of things. Due to a slight shift in the university year I was not able to do any regattas on the circuit during the European summer. We then saw this event as a perfect opportunity for me to be able to do a large competitive regatta this year and for Benji to keep building his knowledge base in competitive big-fleet sailing.

Why the 29er when we have so few in this country?
The 29er is a crucial boat for competitive dinghy sailing. Not only is it a direct pathway boat to the Olympic 49er, but an essential feeder boat into competitive double-handed sailing. Due to it being relatively light, having a large downwind sail area and having a skiff design, the boat moves fast around the course. Combined with large fleets overseas and short races it makes for incredibly tactical sailing. Even if that might not be the case here at home the sailing overseas is highly competitive. Join all of that with the fact that the boat is incredibly fun to sail in small fleets around South Africa, I see it as the obvious choice!

It must have been tough preparing and training with so few local boats to sail against?
It certainly was one of the larger challenges we faced. We knew that most of the other teams would be fresh off many highly competitive regattas in Europe and would be well-versed in big fleet sailing

How did you train and prepare?
The biggest part was trying to optimise all the training that we could do. With very limited time and few boats to sail against we realised one area we could prepare well for was sailing in the conditions we were expecting in Long Beach. We spent a few days in Durban trying to find places to replicate the wind and sea state and really focus on speed retention and the technicalities of sailing the boat in these conditions.

We then spent another short period of time training with a small, but select, squad of 29er sailors in Cape Town which included setting a very small course and running many races throughout the day. The objective was to put ourselves under pressure and practice our decision making skills. This allowed us to highlight some tactical flaws that existed in our sailing and which turned out to be absolutely essential at the Worlds.

Was there anyone who assisted you, guided you or simply mentored you in preparation for the worlds?
Absolutely. I have been part of the RaceAhead squad for a few years now and the support I receive is immense. Roger Hudson masterminded the whole plan, essentially making it all happen and mentoring us the whole way.

Dave Hudson always provides excellent advice and on-the-water support during the training blocks.

Becky and Gregg Daniel who have at every turn thrown support, effort and enthusiasm into our sailing.

Finally there is the squad of Taariq Jacobs, Alex Lehtinen and Neil Malan who spent a few cold and unpleasant days in Cape Town training hard and pushing us at every turn.

What were your expectations for the Worlds?
The expectations for the event were tricky to set as we had never sailed together in an International event. With the nature of the regatta and the fleet divisions there were almost two separate goals to set. The first one being to qualify for the Gold Fleet. This was crucial as the qualification is only over the first 3 days – which leaves little margin of error in the early stages of the regatta.

The regatta almost ‘resets’ once the respective fleet divisions occur, and one adapts the goal based on which fleet you qualify in and how strong your qualifying ranking is.

We set out very determined from the start to qualify for the gold fleet. We qualified in 3rd place so went into the Gold Fleet with relative ease which took us a bit by surprise. However we took it in our stride and decided if we could hold our position, or not drop too many places, we would be satisfied. In all honesty we did not expect the outcome to be as glorious as it was in the end. I don’t think either of us really thought 3 weeks before the event we were possible World Champions. The reality is still sinking in.

What have you brought away from the experience of the worlds – and from winning?
Every truly competitive International event offers so many lessons and learning opportunities. It is sometimes hard to deal with the volume! However one lesson that stands out for me was the nature of the partnership. When an environment is created where the best version of each individual teammate can exist a certain synergy happens. That synergy is essentially what makes the boat go fast and in the right direction. I personally learnt an enormous amount in creating and sustaining that environment between myself and Benji, playing a slightly more senior role compared to previous sailing partnerships I have had.

Another lesson which we don’t get reminded of much in South Africa is tactically how different racing is in large fleets. With 60 boat fleets around a compact course, an entirely different game is played. This is something I will not hurriedly forget.

Is this a long-lasting partnership now?
Not necessarily. We are both part of the larger RaceAhead squad. This was a special miniature campaign that is all part of a general progression in competitive sailing in South Africa and essentially a larger movement towards Olympic sailing. Which events and boats we will be sailing in the near future and the years to come is yet to be decided. We are exploring all of the options within the squad since our return and will soon have roles for all involved parties and squad members. Lots to come!

Advice for any of our young crew planning a world’s campaign?
My best advice is:
1. Never stop pushing yourself in training, and never to an extent where you are not enjoying the journey. T
2. Put yourself in difficult tactical situations by sailing against better and faster teams – even if sailing in other classes.
3. Always make sure you are progressing with small steps at all times. If one can achieve this while loving every moment of it, you really have found the key to sailing. It is what attracts me back every time.

Who is your sailing hero?
The list keeps getting longer and longer!

Roger Hudson for his enormous ambition and hunger, not only for himself and his completely unique personal 7-year Olympic campaign, but for every young sailor from many different backgrounds who show potential in the country. His vision and selflessness is something I admire every day.

Dave Hudson for always being on the water, giving advice, supporting and coaching us with every spare moment that he has.

Asenathi Jim and Sibu Sizatu for facing their respective daily challenges and then their absolutely fearless performance at the 470 Worlds inspired me to try do the same. It truly is a testament to what RaceAhead is about.

Benji Daniel for his exceptional performance and show of true character at every turn when the situation demanded it at the 29er Worlds.

Finally every South African truly excelling at an International level in sailing. Showing that with the right plan, execution and hard work a high level of sailing can be achieved.

RaceAhead – How They Facilitated this Campaign
Richard Crockett spoke to Roger Hudson.

The Alex-Benji 29er project was a RaceAhead initiative, carried out in collaboration with the Daniels family.

We came up with the idea early this year in discussion between myself and Alex Burger, having already been working with Benji for nearly 6 months in his u18 format. RaceAhead also provided coaching and the flights to the event.

The boys did a lot of training on their own too and Alex Burger really took on the leadership/mentoring role. Becky Daniels was just brilliant on the organisational front.

I started coaching Benji (and his u18 team mate Chad Stevenson) a bit just after Rio last year for his Youth Worlds campaign and it was clear that he is a special talent and a strong character. Alex was very much involved already at that stage, co-coaching with me and sailing with/against the guys. We were putting Benji and Chad up against Taariq Jacobs and Alex out on the water and swapping team-mates to generate on-board coaching too.

When the 2017 29er worlds concept crystallised, we wanted to put Benji into a programme with the best possible senior partner so he could really learn and develop fast – an approach that has served us very well in RaceAhead since 2008. That senior partner was Alex Burger, who has a strong history in the 29ers with an 8th at the 2013 Youth Worlds, but he has also been training with RaceAhead and the 470 squad since mid 2013 and we’ve taken him to 9 international Olympic class regattas and an SB20 worlds.

He has done many hundreds of days of training with us over the last 4 years. He was a primary training partner and reserve crew for our Rio 2016 campaign, and was a huge help in so many ways. He was in the coach boat for us at many Olympic circuit events. Alex’s senior level experience really shined through at this 29er worlds, which was extremely pleasing to see. They both did a brilliant job and deserve a huge amount of credit.

What does RaceAhead do?
We try to produce the best possible results in terms of both transformation and performance at the highest level of international racing with the ultimate aim of winning an Olympic sailing medal for South Africa. We do this by combining the best young talent we can find with the most accomplished and experienced sailors we can secure and creating an environment of openness, sharing and learning. We try to really take care of each other. And we train very hard and with very specific techniques and give absolutely everything we can.

Information on RaceAhead from Roger Hudson HERE