Interview. Benji Daniel – 29er World Champion

Benji Daniel (left) & Alex Burger (right).
pic by Matias Capizzano

by Richard Crockett

Very recently Benji Daniel and Alex Burger won the 29er World Championships off Long Beach, California. Theirs was an interesting and somewhat unconventional win in that 29ers are few and far between in this country, making their preparations something of an individual thing. But along the way they received some very solid help from a few key people, all of which ultimately saw them win the World Champs.

These are two very exciting sailors who could well make a name for themselves in the future – or should I say a bigger name for themselves as they already have a ‘worlds’ title firmly under their belts.

This interview is with Benji Daniel – and will be followed soon by one with Alex Burger.

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger – World Champions in the 29er Class.
pic by Matias Capizzano

What prompted you to do the 29er worlds?
This is my second 29er Worlds, the first was in Pwhelli in Wales in 2015. Since then, I have also sailed in two Youth Worlds on a 29er in Malaysia (2015) and New Zealand (2016).

This year I started training with Roger Hudson of RaceAhead. We were looking for the right international opportunity and it was Roger’s suggestion that Alex Burger and I team up for the 29er Worlds in the USA.

Why the 29er when we have so few in this country?
I chose the 29er after finishing in Oppies because, despite the small number of 29ers locally, we have some very good sailors sailing them. It is a boat which offers good progression and on which you learn a lot of sailing and racing skills. Oh…and it’s fast and fun!

It must have been tough preparing and training with so few local boats to sail against?
It was tough, but we were both motivated and we managed to pressurise ourselves while training alone to simulate racing conditions. When we had another boat to train against we made the most of our time on the water doing either short races or speed tests.

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

How did you train and prepare?
We did a combination of training on our own and two-boat training against other strong crews. When we trained alone we would go out with a single goal or just to sail the boat and learn to work well as a team. The goals would be something like 200 tacks or gybes, or do 10 perfect starts. When we sailed against other boats we tried to simulate fleet racing scenarios and boat on boat situations. The two-boat training was a key part of our training as it is the only way to truly simulate the racing situations.

We split our training between Cape Town, mainly Granger Bay, and Durban, both in the harbour and off-shore. This gave us opportunities to sail together in varied conditions.

Was there anyone who assisted you, guided you or simply mentored you in preparation for the worlds?

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger
pic by Matias Capizzano

Alex was my main mentor throughout the training and racing which was hugely beneficial. Apart from being a good sailor, he is thorough, professional and cool-headed. And it helps we get on very well together.

Roger Hudson was the mastermind behind the whole project: he put the two of us together, helped organise the trip and provided some funding through RaceAhead.

Cape Town sailors, Taariq Jacobs, Neil Malan and Alex Lehtinen, played an important part sailing against us in our final block of training before the event.

How were you funded?
The trip was funded by RaceAhead and parents.

What were your expectations for the Worlds?
My goal for the regatta was to qualify for Gold Fleet, which is the top 50 boats, and, if we had a really good regatta, to be in the top 25. But, above that, it was to learn as much as I could in the short time we had in the USA.

Benji Daniel & Alex Burger.
pic by Matias Capizzano

What have you brought away from the experience of the worlds – and from winning?
I had never won an international event before so it was a completely new experience. The regatta was an eye-opening experience in terms of racing strategy: I realized how crucial a good lane was, and that by keeping boat-speed up all the time you could make gains over teams who prioritized “picking a side”. I also learned the importance of other factors in our preparation, for example, eating well and being the right weight; this had never been a priority before.

Before this competition I would dream about winning this kind of regatta, but I didn’t really think it would become a reality.

Is this a long-lasting partnership now?
Alex and I teamed up only in the last four months specifically for this event. Nothing is currently planned in the future together…but who knows!

Where to from here?
If I am honest, I don’t really know what I’ll be doing in the future. For now, I am enjoying the moment, catching up on my school work and relaxing after a busy few months.

Advice for any of our young crew planning a world’s campaign?
Train hard! Try to make sure every aspect of the campaign is sorted before you arrive. Try to make the boat you use at the event as similar to the one you train on as possible. Make sure you eat well and are fit enough. And don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the experience.

Who is your sailing hero?
Peter Burling. He always seems so calm during racing and has every aspect of his sailing sorted. He doesn’t appear to have any weak points. In my opinion, this makes him arguably the best sailor in the world at the moment.

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