A Sydney sailor’s journey from local regattas to the international circuit

Zoe Dransfield is 19-years-old, yet she has taken the Australian sailing community by storm.

I talked to the two-time Flying Eleven National champion and 470 sailor about her passion for sailing.

Zoe Dransfield was a six-year-old in 2009 when her dad, John, presented Dransfield’s mum, Helen, with a 40th birthday present that would change Dransfield’s life forever. His gift was the adventure of a lifetime – a sailing holiday from Croatia to Sydney.

What could have been an unmitigated disaster turned into a life-transforming experience for Dransfield (who is the second eldest) and her brothers, Jesse and Tyler. The siblings spent 12 months aboard a Bavaria 46 where they experienced different countries, cultures and learned how to sail.

The once-in-a-lifetime adventure ignited Dransfield’s love for sailing.

Dransfield, now 19, lives in the Sydney Northern Beaches suburb of Curl Curl. She is a member of the Australian Sailing Futures squad in the Olympic 470 class, an Australian Sailing pathway program that trains and supports youth sailors making the transition into Olympic classes.

Zoe Dransfield (right) and Madeleine Mcleay sitting on 29er and RIB.
Zoe Dransfield (right) and Madeleine Mcleay.

Dransfield skippers a 470 with crew Ethan Lozevski. It is an exciting time for the 470 class, which is now mixed (a combination of one female and one male sailor) ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

After a quiet couple of years on the international sailing circuit as a result of Covid-19, the duo will get their chance to shine when they compete against some of the best youth sailors from around the world at the Junior European Championship in Portugal in July.

Dransfield’s first taste of dinghy sailing started after her family returned from the Croatia. She and younger brother Tyler, now 17, took turns crewing for their dad at the 2011/12 Mirror NSW Championship at Balmoral. John Dransfield is a successful sailor in his own right, as a three-time world champion in the Fireball class and the 1990/91 Australian Yachtsman of the year.

According to John, Zoe, at first, was nervous and a little scared about crewing in the NSW Championship. But seeing her brother having a great time and winning plenty of races, Zoe’s competitive streak was activated. As a combined team, the siblings and their dad won the regatta.

The three Dransfield children sailed Manly Juniors and then Flying 11s at Manly 16ft Skiff Sailing Club. Their fourth sibling, Zoe’s youngest brother Beau, 11, is following in his siblings’ path by sailing the junior classes at Manly.

The success Zoe experienced at the Mirror NSW Championship continued when she and eldest brother Jesse (skipper), now 21, won the 2016 Flying Eleven (F11) Australian Championship on Lake Macquarie.

In 2019, she backed up the win by taking out the F11 Australian Championship (as skipper) with crew Pearl Twomey. It was an extra special victory as it marked the first time in the 50-year history of the F11 class that an all-girl crew had won the event, and the second time that a female skipper had won (Nicky Souter won with her brother crewing in 2001). 

“It was really cool that we were able to win and prove to everyone that girls can be competitive, if not more competitive, compared to boys,” Zoe said.

She then stepped into the 29er class, with crew Madeline Mcleay. The pair had swift success, qualifying for the 2020 29er Youth Worlds at the Youth Nationals. That year was to be a big one. Zoe and Madeline were to compete in the New Zealand Nationals, the 29er World Championship in Weymouth, England and the Youth Worlds in Brazil. But Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works and the events were cancelled.

Zoe Dransfield steering the 29er on kite reach.
Gust on! Zoe Dransfield steering the 29er.

Fast forward to 2022, and Zoe has a jam-packed year in which she will juggle her university studies. After a gap year last year following the Higher School Certificate in 2020, she is studying Business and Biotechnology at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

“It’s a lot of logistics to keep our training schedule up. But I think it’s really great having balance and it’s just great to have an education as well as a sailing focus,” Dransfield said.

In the lead up to the regatta in Portugal, Dransfield and Lozevski will train with the Australian Sailing Futures squad from Middle Harbour, coached by Viktor ‘the Medal Maker’ Kovalenko. But it’s hard to find large 470 fleets to race against in Australia. To get more experience in bigger fleets, in August Dransfield and her brother Jesse will reunite for the 29er for the World Championship in Barcelona.

“[There will be] a lot to learn for both of us, getting back into the boat. I’m shocked how fast everything happens in the 29er, so my quick-thinking skills need a lot of work,” Zoe said with a laugh.

Zoe Dransfield and Ethan Lozevski racing in the 470 on a kite run.
Zoe Dransfield and Ethan Lozevski racing in the 470.

Zoe has enjoyed the Olympic class, 470, and Olympic pathway classes like the 29er. But she understands that committing to a training regimen to qualify for the Olympics is a mammoth task in a highly competitive environment.

“This is a big question and I’m still trying to decide on it. Where I am at the moment is, I think the Olympics would be an amazing opportunity. I think every sailor would dream of going to the Olympics and representing their country.

“But what we can’t forget is how much we have to sacrifice to go to the Olympics. One of Victor [Kovalenko’s] favourite sayings is: ‘If you want to achieve Olympic glory you have to sacrifice all your time, all your money, all of your resources and put the rest of your life on hold’. And I’ve not decided yet if I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”

But for the time being, Zoe is having an awesome time in the 470, training with Olympians and other high-calibre sailors.

“We’ve been lucky to train with the Australian Sailing Team boats over the last couple of months. It’s been cool how welcoming they’ve been of us young 470 sailors who are just moving into the class.”

Being part of the squad has opened an array of sailing opportunities to Zoe, from Etchells’, 16ft skiffs, the Sailing Champions League and more.

Zoe sailing upwind on keelboat.
Zoe Dransfield and team sailing the RS21 in the Sailing Champions League.

Recently she crewed (as the fourth member) on board an Etchells skippered by 1983 America’s Cup skipper John Bertrand. And for one regatta, Tokyo 2020 Laser Gold medallist Matt Wearn joined the team. Zoe said she has loved every moment of learning from these world-class sailors.

“It was incredible to hear his tactics and see how he competed as an athlete,” she said of Wearn.

Another highlight was returning to Manly 16ft Skiff Sailing Club at the end of the 2021/22 season to fill in as skipper for Trent Barnabas and Rob Napper on a 16ft skiff.

Dransfield was initially tentative when they asked her to fill in for their regular skipper, as the 16s is a male-dominated class. But she decided to give it a shot and the trio won the club championship race in a fleet of 20-plus boats.

“It couldn’t have been a better boat to hop on because they absolutely know their roles, they’re great sailors and lovely people.”

It marked another significant win for Dransfield – by all accounts it was only the second or third time that a female skipper had won a club championship race at Manly.

“It was the most amazing feeling,” Zoe said.

Despite her non-stop sailing schedule, she won’t ease off anytime soon.

“There’s just so many variables and factors that you have to address in order to be a good competitive sailor. It’s such an amazing sport and different to every other sport.”  

Her parents, couldn’t be more proud of her achievements. Dransfield said she was forever thankful for summers of sailing and “tabletop sailing tactic” sessions ran by her dad.

“I think we’ve only realised as we’re older how much of an impact [our sailing] had on their lives. Every summer, ever year, we’re away for at least three weeks – going all over Australian for different competitions. They’ve been amazing and looked after and really supported us. None of us could have gotten as far in our sailing without them.”

Dransfield’s dad is his daughter’s biggest supporter.

“My dad stresses that I’m a role model for these girls which is amazing, and I can’t wrap my head around it.”

By Greta Quealy

*Are you or do you know an up-and-coming youth sailor who would like to be interviewed by My Sailing? Contact Greta at editor@mysailing.com.au .

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