Bex Hornell loves a challenge.
Whether it’s fixing a broken boom in the middle of one of the world’s most challenging yacht races or breaking glass ceilings - few things compare to the thrill of overcoming big obstacles.
And the 23-year-old has had to navigate a few.
Hornell recently returned from competing in the Caribbean 600 – one of several offshore races in the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) series - only weeks after completing the iconic Sydney Hobart race for the first time.
She was the rigger and pit aboard the eight-crew English-flagged Sunrise that was nearly forced to abandon the race.
“We had a few little hiccups along the way like snapping our boom in half,” Hornell says.
“When that happened we knew it had the potential to be a showstopper for us as we had a bit of upwind to the finish but we managed to fix it by cutting the bunks out of the boat and making a little splint for it using some tape and plenty of ingenuity.”
Finishing the race in a corrected time of 3 days, 8 hours, 13 minutes, and 55 seconds to win their division is a definite career highlight, she says.
“It was one of the coolest races I’ve done and it's why I love ocean sailing so much. It’s a mental challenge as much as a physical one and there is a huge sense of accomplishment when you finally finish a big race like that.”
The friendships formed aboard big boats also appeal to Hornell: “I really enjoy the team aspect of keelboat sailing. The boats I sail on have a crew of 12 to 15 people, so you end up forming quite a good bond with the people you sail with.”
Had it not been for an early introduction to keelboats, Hornell may well have been lost to sailing.
“My dad has always been into sailing and I pretty much grew up sailing with him up in the Bay of Islands. He’s always had boats and I was very lucky that I got to go with him,” she explains.
“But as I got older, I did a bit of dinghy sailing and the transition out of that was quite hard. I was just coming out of the youth classes and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore – a lot of my friends had stopped sailing for various reasons and it was probably the toughest time for me.”
The turning point came when she returned to regular keelboat sailing with her father, Chris.
"I guess you could say I fell back in love with sailing and after I finished school, I knew I wanted a job in the industry, so I became a yacht rigger.”
Learning a variety of skills – from boat building and optimising sails to splicing and making wire stays - has come in handy more than once, Hornell says.
“Especially with ocean sailing, knowing how to fix things on a boat is very valuable. It’s meant that I get to do some sailing alongside work – going over for a regatta and also setting up the boat for the race.”
There is an increasing number of opportunities for women considering a career in the marine industry, Hornell says.
“I have been very lucky to have had plenty of opportunities come my way – in fact, on many occasions being a woman has actually helped me – but I know that for a generation of women before me, it was a lot harder," she says.
“Having a role model, someone to look up to is very important and hopefully seeing someone like me can help bring more girls into the industry in the future.”
Does she have a message for young female sailors who may be at a similar crossroads to where she was not that long ago?
“Just keep going, even if it does get hard. There are so many different options and pathways in sailing now that you will eventually find your own spot.”