It’s not every day you get the chance to beat two-time World champions in a sailing race but five Sussex teenagers celebrated doing just that when they competed at the 2013 Sonar World Championships in Rochester, USA last month.

Sussex Yacht Club’s Shoreham Youth Team sailors Alex Gooch, George Hinchliffe, Millie Webb, Olivia Cleary and Hayley Weir, all aged 16-19, may have been competing at their first ever World Championship event. 

But they proved they were quick learners after finishing ahead of the British Sailing Team’s three-time Paralympians and double IFDS World champion crew of John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas, plus their event crewmate Quentin Bes-Green, in race seven of the 10 race event.

The Sonar is a 7m keelboat best known in Britain for being the three-person Paralympic class. However up to five people can sail the boat and these World Championships featured a mix of both able-bodied and Paralympic sailors. 

Shoreham Youth Team has used Sonars since forming in 2008 to encourage youngsters to race and as a team on keelboats. The team forms part of the active youth and RYA OnBoard scheme at Sussex YC and provides opportunities for young sailors to experience different types of sailing beyond the dinghies they learned in.

As well as Britain’s top Paralympic Sonar crew, the Shoreham team also went head-to-head against former IFDS World Champion and Beijing 2008 Paralympian, Rick Doerr (USA), Paul Tingley (CAN), the 2008 Paralympic 2.4mR class champion, and a true icon of sailing in Bruce Kirby, designer of the Laser and Sonar boats.

Both Millie and Olivia got into sailing through their school, Steyning Grammar School’s involvement in RYA OnBoard at Sussex YC four years ago. OnBoard is the hugely successful nationwide grassroots initiative run by sailing’s national governing body providing low cost sailing opportunities for local school and youth groups.

The pair can’t believe they have now rubbed shoulders with sailing legends at a Worlds event.

Millie said: “To be lined up on the start line with some amazingly talented sailors was incredible. On this trip I learnt lots of things, one of which was about being and working together as a team as well as many technical things about sailing. 

“Sailing has brought a huge amount to my life and given me options I never thought I’d have. It’s also given me a group of friends I’ll never forget. If I hadn’t had the chance to learn through OnBoard I wouldn’t have developed my skills this far and wouldn’t have been given these amazing opportunities.”

Olivia added: “My personal objectives were to just enjoy the whole experience and not finish too near last place! We had only competed in tidal waters before, and were used to very windy, rough conditions, so it was a new experience racing on Lake Ontario with a vast range of conditions. 

"At the start of the series there was little wind and flat waters, which took us a short time to adjust to, but on the last day it was very windy with waves up to 3m. This allowed us to show our full potential.

“I often wonder what I’d have thought about sailing if I hadn’t participated when I was 12. I immediately enjoyed it; it was new, exciting and something I hadn’t been able to experience before. Sailing has bought to my life a sport I love and can perform at a level good enough to compete in the World Championships.”

Shoreham Youth Team ended their Worlds debut 26th out of 30 boats overall, finishing on a high with their best two race results of 17th and 13th. The team already has one eye on their next adventures including the Sonar European Championships and Cowes Week in 2014 and the 2015 Worlds.

For full information and videos about the team’s Worlds experience visit www.shorehamyouthteam.co.uk or to find out how you can get involved in sailing at Sussex YC visit www.sussexyachtclub.org.uk