An Interview with Sailor Sophie Ciszek

Professional sailor Sophie Ciszek just finished the latest Volvo Ocean Race as a member of Team MAPFRE, but she got her start as a kid cruising the Pacific with her parents.

Sophie Ciszek

Leg 6 to Auckland, day 12 on board MAPFRE. 18 February, 2018.

Sophie Ciszek's love of the sea started on a cruising boat.Courtesy of MAPFRE

There'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 2014-15 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.