Matheo Capasso used to get puzzled looks when fellow sailors saw his competition gear.
“People would say, ‘What’s Cayman?’” Matheo said.
But that is changing.
Matheo, 14, said people in the competitive sailing community are getting familiar with the islands due to the performance of a small group of youngsters, including him, who have begun cracking into the upper tiers of the sport. Four members of the Cayman Islands Sailing Club have qualified to compete in the World Championships in Antigua, 6-16 July.
Club organisers have taken a serious approach to improving the programme. In addition to having a regular coach, Raphael Harvey, the club regularly brings in international coaches to provide week-long sessions of intensive training. This past week, Pieter Van den Bossche, of Belgium, coached the team through drills and race courses on the water, and also provided classroom discussions on strategy and tactics.
Van den Bossche, who has been coming to Cayman to help the team four times a year over the past three years, said the Cayman programme is being taken more seriously at major competitions.
“They’re definitely noticed in the international level,” Van den Bossche said. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in individual performance. Initially, there were one or two good sailors. Now there are easily five that their standard has gone up.”
Chief among them is Matheo, who competes in the optimist class – a one-person vessel raced by kids 15 and under. He was recently invited to the RenRe Junior Gold Cup regatta at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, in Hamilton, Bermuda. It was the first such invite for a Cayman sailor, and only one sailor from each of the 14 countries attending was invited. There were also 20 sailors from Bermuda. Matheo placed third.
“His performance there was actually really good,” Van den Bossche said. “The level of the event is really high. Matheo is a really good sailor.”
He also placed third in a large regatta in the Netherlands last year.
Matheo said a neighbourhood friend convinced him to start sailing several years ago, when his family lived in Barbados. It was only a little more than a year ago that he began taking the sport seriously, he said. Since then he’s devoted much of his free time to practicing his sport. He’s hoping to compete in the Olympics as early as 2024.
He said he likes the mix of skills the sport requires.
“It’s a combination of physical and mental ability,” Matheo said. “You have to think really fast when you’re out there. Thinking fast is very important.”
That is because conditions can change quickly, whether it’s a shift in the wind, a bad wave or another boat challenging the course.
He said he wishes more people realised that sailing is a legitimate sporting activity.
“They think of it as a leisure activity for the old guys,” he said. “But children can enjoy it a lot and it’s a good sport.”
He said he has one friend who tells him that despite the quick manoeuvring and sail hauling involved, he’s not convinced it’s physical enough to qualify as a sport.
“I said, ‘You play golf. What’s the difference?’” he said.
Other young sailors are also breaking into the international scene.
James Costa, 13, finished 37th out of 100 sailors at a Can Am event in Miami recently. He will also be sailing in the World Championships in July, and is another example of the programme’s success.
“We have many good coaches and we’re starting to do well overseas,” he said.
Eleven-year-old Ciara Murphy is getting serious too. She initially did not want to think about competing internationally, but her teammates convinced her otherwise.
“You’ve always got a big team and they encourage you,” she said. “People are encouraging me to go to North Americans, but I didn’t really want to because it makes me nervous. But they keep telling me it would be fun. So now I want to go.”
She said she’s developed a competitive streak, and hopes to qualify for the World Championships next year.
“On land I’m not that competitive,” she said. “But on the water I’m pretty competitive. It’s easy to make friends on land, but when you get on the water, all you want to do is beat them.”
With a small population of sailors to draw from, serious sailors pretty much have to look off-island for good competition. But the club has also hosted international sailors, who come from other Caribbean islands and as far away as England and Belgium, to provide more of a challenge for its own members. Attracting such sailors is an easier task due to the regular winds and generally sunny skies found in Cayman.
“The conditions here are amazing to sail,” said Van den Bossche. “If they want, they can sail every day of the year.”
One thing sailing is not, is cheap. Serious competitors spend their school breaks travelling internationally to sailing competitions. While some money is generated by the sailing lessons the club provides to the general public, funding comes largely from the families of the sailors.
Donna Graham, who is the club’s representative for the optimist class and also Matheo’s mother, said the club is working on getting more outside support.
Currently, she said, the government provides some funding for an after-school programme for government school students who are interested in sailing. The demand exceeds the available money, she said, and “there is no funding to convert these kids from the government schools program into our mainstream program, though each year the sailing club sponsors a few and we have had kids here and there sponsored by some of the club members over the years”.
Graham said the club is seeking additional support from government sources and is also hoping for private sector sponsors as the programme grows. She’s hoping a regatta the club is planning to host in October – given that funding comes through – will help in that respect.
If sailors, such as Matheo, realise their dreams of competing for the Cayman Islands in the Olympic games, that probably would not hurt either.