Off Watch


Cruising World - - Contents -

TYou could say So­phie Ciszek, a for­mer cruis­ing kid, is go­ing places, but when it comes to the world of off­shore pro­fes­sional sail­ing, there are few spots she hasn’t al­ready gone.

here’s noth­ing the least bit av­er­age about So­phie Ciszek. At 32, she’s sailed more than 300,000 nau­ti­cal miles on some of the planet’s hairi­est, scari­est yachts, and has com­peted in not one but two Volvo Ocean Races, the epic round-the-world con­test that called in my home­town of New­port, Rhode Is­land, ear­lier this year. You could say she’s go­ing places, but when it comes to the world of high-stakes off­shore com­pet­i­tive sail­ing, there are clearly few spots she hasn’t al­ready gone.

When I first met So­phie in New­port, dur­ing a break from her du­ties as a crewmem­ber of the Span­ish en­try MAPFRE, it was im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that I was in the pres­ence of a very fit, elite pro­fes­sional ath­lete. Stand­ing eye to eye (I’m over 6 feet tall, and so is she), So­phie shook my rather prissy hand with a firm, strong, cal­loused mitt that re­minded me I’d been mostly typ­ing dur­ing the pre­vi­ous seven months that she’d per­formed count­less sail changes across the world’s fiercest oceans. Had she asked me to say un­cle, I would’ve com­plied.

How­ever, what in­ter­ested me more than her phys­i­cal stature or im­pres­sive rac­ing re­sume was her unique sail­ing back­ground. As it hap­pens, be­fore So­phie be­came a world-class yacht­ing pro, she was a cruis­ing kid.

“Yes, I come from a cruis­ing fam­ily,” she said, laugh­ing, her ac­cent a twangy mix of Aus­tralian and Amer­i­can. “I don’t know how I be­came this crazy racer!”

The Ciszek fam­ily story started in South Africa a lit­tle over three decades ago, when So­phie’s dad, Joel, a solo sailor from the Pa­cific North­west, met her Aussie mother, Liz, on a Dur­ban dock. “They were cruis­ing around the world on sep­a­rate yachts,” So­phie said, but ap­par­ently not for long. Be­cause soon af­ter, the pair met up again in Cape Town. “And that’s where my mom jumped ship,” she said.

Even­tu­ally, the cou­ple re­turned to Aus­tralia, got hitched and had two kids, a boy and a girl, with So­phie be­ing the youngest. When she was 2, the clan boarded their new Adams 40 and set sail from Oz, bound for Seattle via Ja­pan and the vast North Pa­cific Ocean.

They got as far as the Solomon Is­lands. It was there that So­phie, her brother and dad all con­tracted malaria. And there was a ru­mor that dengue fever was about. Liz had heard enough. “That’s when my mom called it,” So­phie said. Back to Oz they went.

Through her ele­men­tary school years, the Ciszeks lived on Wash­ing­ton’s Bain­bridge Is­land, but they re­turned to Aus­tralia when So­phie en­tered high school, set­tling near Mel­bourne, a mad sail­ing city hard by the treach­er­ous Bass Strait. It was on that im­pos­ing piece of wa­ter that So­phie cut her teeth as a fledg­ling off­shore racer.

An ac­com­plished surfer as well as a sailor, So­phie had a deep and abid­ing re­spect for the sea, one that grew as she steadily gained ex­pe­ri­ence, first in round-the-buoy keel­boat rac­ing, then with de­liv­er­ies to Tas­ma­nia and up the coast, and on to ma­jor events like the of­ten gru­el­ing Syd­ney-ho­bart Race. It was af­ter one of those Ho­bart races that she landed a spot on an Open 60 called Hugo Boss that was on a pro­mo­tional world tour.

Later, So­phie was on a surf­ing trip to In­done­sia when her dad for­warded her a story about a group form­ing an all-women crew for the Volvo Ocean Race. On a lark, she filled out the on­line ap­pli­ca­tion form, and soon af­ter, re­ceived a plane ticket to come to Swe­den for an in­ter­view. There were few gals who could match her blend of skill, size, ex­pe­ri­ence and en­thu­si­asm, all of which landed her a po­si­tion aboard Team SCA for the 201415 edi­tion of the Volvo.

“It was hard,” she said of the SCA cam­paign. But it was also re­ward­ing. “It opened my eyes to what it took to make it at this level.” And it made her re­al­ize she wanted to come back for more, which led to her sec­ond swing at the Volvo.

Time will tell, but a third Volvo might still be in So­phie’s fu­ture. But she hasn’t for­got­ten her roots. Far from it.

“Oh yes, I want to go cruis­ing. It’s def­i­nitely on my mind,” she said. It seems to still run in the fam­ily. Her brother and his fam­ily are cur­rently liv­ing aboard in French Poly­ne­sia, and her dad dreams of a steel boat to sail to Patag­o­nia. “I said I’ll go with him. We’ll see what hap­pens.”

One way or an­other, the call of the sea will re­sound. “I don’t want to race for­ever,” So­phie said. “Cruis­ing’s in my blood for sure.”

Herb Mccormick is CW’S ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor.

So­phie Ciszek’s love of the sea started on a cruis­ing boat.

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