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Exclusive Melges 32 Competitor Interview: Sophie Esson, Red

15 May 2008

As published on Offshore Rules • Sitting in the press rib, watching the Melges 32 fleet battling it out at the recent Malcesine edition of the 2008 Audi Sailing Series, we were amazed to realise that there was only one female amongst the almost one hundred competitors. Scottish sailor Sophie Esson has run the bow on Joe Woods’s British entry Red for the last year. This year, Red continued where they left off on the US regatta circuit with a third place in Key West and a long awaited win at the Annapolis NOOD.

We spoke to Sophie after the Malcesine regatta to find out more about her and why she thinks there are so few women racing in the European Melges 32 fleet.

Twenty-three year old Sophie is no stranger to competitive yacht racing. Her earliest sailing memories are sailing Optimists with her friends back in Rhu Marina near Helensburgh. She remembers, 'My parents are keen sailors having been brought up in sailing families themselves. My dad's father was in the Navy and my mum's father went to the Olympics in the 6m Class. Mum and Dad raced Sonars, Flying 15’s and Dragons mainly and we cruised the west cost of Scotland as a family every summer. They took sabaticals from their jobs recently to do the ARC together and then cruised the Caribbean for a year afterwards. I remember as a kid they used to teach me and my friends to sail our Oppies inside the breakwater at Rhu.'

Sophie sailed a range of dinghies as she grew up including the 420’s, 29er’s and RS800’s. 'When I went to university at Glasgow I did some team racing and match racing. After I left university I moved to Southampton to work and since then it has been it has been all keelboat racing.’ Much of Sophie’s racing has been on Swan 45’s and Farr 45’s around the Solent. She is also a member of the RYA Volvo Keelboat Programme – an initiative which provides talented UK sailors with the opportunity to compete in all aspects of keelboat racing, including inshore, offshore and match racing disciplines.'

So what attracted her to the Melges 32 fleet? Since I started to sail keelboats I have always wanted to get involved in a good one-design fleet. I have found exactly what I need in the Melges 32. The fleet is growing fast, it’s filled with great sailors and the boats are very fast and wonderful fun. I was approached to do the bow on Red about a year ago for the Chicago NOOD. That regatta went well and I have been a part of the team ever since.’

We wondered how the Melges 32 differed from other boats she had raced previously? 'The Swan and Farr 45’s are both symmetrical spinnaker boats so the difference to the Melges 32 with its asymmetrical gennaker is huge.' For Sophie however it is all upside ‘I love doing bow on the Melges 32. It is so simple. No pole to lug about, no lazy spinnaker guys, no changing sides of the jib downwind – in fact when it is windy we don’t even drop the jib. The Melges 32 is by far the most fun I have had racing keelboats.'

We asked Sophie to talk us through her role on the boat during a typical Melges 32 race. 'I do the time on distance calls to the tactician and helmsman during the prestart. Upwind I don’t have much to do other than hike hard with the rest of the crew. These boats are fully powered up with the crew hiking in anything over six knots. When we round the windward mark I let off all the mainsheet controls – cunningham and outhaul, before running to the foredeck to take the kite halyard forwards and feed out the tack of the kite over the bow. During the hoist I help the kite out of the hatch and then drop the jib if we are racing in light airs. If it is windy then downwind we still have the jib up and I am responsible for gybing it. On the drops I help the mast man to get the kite down.'

We asked Sophie what were the most important things to remember for a Melges 32 bowperson. 'It's pretty important to pull the kite halyard forwards in the hoist, if you don't then the kite can easily rip on the jib clew or spreaders. Its also important to not get a "bonnar" when gybing the jib on the run, but at the same time not to oversheet the jib out of the gybe.'

For the uninitiated - what exactly is a ‘bonnar’? Sophie laughs. 'It’s when the jib is left too slack and the battens wrap round the forestay - a REAL pain to get out. I think it’s named after a guy called Nick Bonnar who’s from the English south coast, but it seems to have become a world wide expression now.'

Does Sophie have to put a lot of physical training for her bow role on the Melges 32 we asked? 'Not a huge amount actually. I go to the gym a couple of times a week right now and I eat relatively healthily. I would like to be fitter to be honest so I am aiming to get in better shape for the US Nationals in July.

We wanted to know from Sophie how it felt to be the only girl currently in the European Melges 32 fleet? Why did she think there weren’t more? 'I can’t really understand it. I don’t think I have ever seen such a poor ratio of girls to guys at a regatta. It was almost 1:100. It is totally different in the States where there are plenty of girls involved. Jeff Ecklund’s 'Star' are on of the top teams and they sailed with three girls at Key West and Miami. I don’t believe the Melges 32 is too physically demanding for girls to be able to be part of the team – especially on the bow or in the pit. I am determined to show the European fleet that having a girl on the boat is no disadvantage and I sure that as the fleet grows there will be more females involved.’

Sophie and the rest of the Red team are now looking forward to the second round of the Melges 32 2008 Audi Sailing Series which takes place in Cagliari on the southern tip of Sardinia from the 27th to the 29th of June. Around fifteen teams are expected to compete in three days of intense racing.

For more information please contact:

Justin Chisholm
Melges Europe Press Officer
+447769 938722