CJ Perez: competitive sailing’s first Latina champion

March 17, 2022 | 6 minute read
Text Size 100%:

CJ Perez’s path from the shore to the water was a unique one.

“Sailing has a history of being quite exclusive and male dominated,” says Perez. “There's definitely room to improve.”

Perez grew up in Honolulu, HI, surrounded by water. When she was 13 years old, she saw a group of kids her age sailing and was intrigued.

“I begged my parents to sign me up for a sailing spring break camp, and that’s where it all started,” she says. “I became obsessed with sailing.”

Today, Perez is changing the face of competitive sailing. She’s the first Latina to win multiple championships in a sport traditionally dominated by white males. And at just 18 years old, she’s inspiring other young women to follow suit.

A nine-month journey

Perez grew up in a highly competitive family—and as the youngest of four children, she was determined to prove herself in her new endeavor. She had tried track and field, tennis, swimming, and even bowling during elementary and middle school, but none of these sports captivated her. Her parents thought her interest in sailing would follow the same course. But Perez enrolled in weekly sailing lessons at Hawaii Kai Boat Club and things really took off.

She became a student of Harold Von Sydow, a third-generation sailor who is known for cultivating young sailing talent. Under Von Sydow’s tutelage, Perez’s sailing skills flourished.

As Von Sydow says, sailing is very complex. To be successful, sailors must read the water, the clouds, the jet stream, the mountains—a process that can take years. “CJ grasped all those things quickly, and everything came together for her,” says Von Sydow. “After eight months of instruction, she was neck and neck with some of the best sailors.”

Around that time, Perez became interested in foiling. Foiling involves the use of watercraft with hydrofoils—winglike appendages that protrude from the bottom of a boat. Hydrofoils push the hull out of the water, reducing drag and allowing boats to gain speed. Because foiling allows boats to go much faster and requires the people that sail them to be more athletic, foiling disciplines are adding new excitement to the sport, attracting new groups to sailing clubs, and encouraging younger sailors to stick with the sport.

Perez took to foiling instantly. “She loved it the moment she tried it,” says Von Sydow. “In about four months, I could see she was excelling much faster than everybody else.”

“I hope I can inspire other women to find what they're passionate about and pursue it.”
—CJ Perez, first American woman, first Latina, and the youngest person ever to race in SailGP

After just nine months of sailing, Perez had a chance to test her skills in her first big race. But it's a big trip from Hawaii to Florida to race and it’s expensive to travel and charter a boat. “My parents were naturally a little hesitant because they still had three other kids to take care of and I had only been sailing for nine months,” recounts Perez. “But I really wanted to see where my skills lied.”

The investment paid off. In March 2017, Perez finished fourth at her first major race, the North American Championships. The next year, she became the first woman to win that title outright. In 2019, Perez was the top female competitor in the under-17 group at the O’pen Bic World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. CJ Perez was a sailor.

Joining the Pathway Program

In 2021, Perez’s success and proficiency at foiling prompted her to apply to SailGP’s Pathway Program, an initiative aimed at increasing gender diversity in sailing. SailGP, a high-tech global racing series with eight national teams, issued an open call for applicants and selected Perez. CJ would be a crew member on one of the fastest, most technologically advanced foiling catamarans in the world. “It’s spectacular,” she says. “I was so thrilled to be chosen and so happy to be part of it.”

There was one problem. Perez was six months shy of her 18th birthday, the minimum required age for SailGP participation. So Perez was sidelined for part of the season. But even away from the water, she found a way to contribute to the team.

Perez has a particular interest in using data to improve sailing performance. All the teams within SailGP compete on identical F50 foiling catamarans. Both the boats and the athletes who sail them have sensors that collect and stream data for every competition. SailGP relies on Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse to handle all that race-related data, with streaming analytics, machine learning, and visualization technologies all running on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI). In a matter of seconds, SailGP can analyze more than 240,000 data points collected from 800 sensors on the F50 vessels.

When shes not sailing, Perez uses data to help her team improve their performance on the water.

Perez reached out to Philippe Presti, SailGP USA’s coach, and asked him to teach her more about OCI and how the team uses data to improve after each event. Between events, Philippe would train Perez on the Oracle system and the two would talk about ways to analyze racing data. “We’d compare our boat with the fastest boats of that day,” she says. “We’d then share that data with the rest of the team.”

Perez was eventually able to bring these lessons to the water. Once she turned 18, she joined the United States SailGP team traveling and sailing around the world. In October 2021, she made history as part of the winning six-person crew that finished second in the event in Cádiz, Spain, becoming the first American woman and the youngest person ever to race in the global sailing championship.

Paying it forward

Looking forward, Perez hopes to shorten the distance between women and minorities and sailing.

Jimmy Spithill, CEO and driver of the USS SailGP team, recently recruited Perez to help him launch Foiling First, a program designed to increase accessibility for communities less exposed to sailing. Spithill hopes the rising popularity of foiling will attract more young and diverse people to the sport.

“You don't see many women at the top of this sport,” says Lorna Perez, CJ’s mother. “CJ is very aware of that, and she is always volunteering to get other girls to try sailing. And girls do come and talk to her about it. They call her and ask her to train them, and they ask her questions. That’s a very important part of all this for her.”

“I hope I can inspire other women to find what they’re passionate about and pursue it,” says Perez. “It took me a while before I found something I fell in love with, and I had no clue what it would turn into—that I’d be sailing on SailGP with some of the best sailors in the world. I want to inspire other women to try whatever sport or hobby they’re interested in, because you never know where it could take you.”

Photography: Oracle

Justine Kavanaugh-Brown

Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is a senior writer at Oracle. She was previously a writer and editor for e.Republic’s Content Studio, where she worked with numerous enterprise technology companies.

Previous Post

Three days, three hundred women: Oracle’s emerging leader summit in EMEA

Amy Luddington | 3 min read

Next Post

Oracle Professional Asian Leadership: Oracle’s fastest-growing employee resource group

Alex Chan | 5 min read