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Kiwi women stepping up to sail in the Cup

The America's Cup may have missed a trick when it comes to gender equality, reports Suzanne McFadden.

Olympic silver medallist Molly Meech would like a crack at the America’s Cup.

While her focus is sharply on stepping up to gold with her 49erFX skiff partner Alex Maloney at the 2020 Tokyo games, Meech wouldn’t dismiss the chance to crew on an AC75 yacht on Auckland's harbour.

“If there’s ever an opportunity to sail on a different boat, I always make sure I look at it,” says the 25-year-old, who won gold in the World Cup at Hyeres this week. “I’ve always tried out for the Youth America’s Cup crews.”

But a Kiwi woman has yet to break into a crew in the Youth America’s Cup, created as a pathway to professional sailing.

“Being quite tall and strong, I think I’m potentially able to do more roles on different boats. So I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to sail in the America’s Cup.”

But will that opportunity come her way in the next Cup in 2021? Or have Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa squandered a chance to open a door and usher in a new generation of women’s Cup sailors?

Dave Abercrombie, CEO of Yachting New Zealand, reckons they’ve missed the boat. “I’m disappointed. There should have been a rule to have a woman on board the new Cup boats,” he says.

“I know people will say women can join America’s Cup teams as designers, engineers and sailmakers - and they do. But there needs to be a specific position for a woman sailor on the boat.

“It’s short-sighted. It would open up a whole new level of sponsors, and a whole new level of exposure.”

The new AC75 class rule released in March outlines the size of the crew, which is restricted to 11 “human beings”. Unlike the ground-breaking rule in the latest Volvo Ocean Race, there is no specified quota for female sailors. 

But Team New Zealand’s technical director Dan Bernasconi, who led the design of the AC75, can’t see any reason why women couldn’t sail these foiling monohulls.

“There’s an average crew weight of 90kg required on board. So when you have a number of grinders approaching 100kg, you will certainly need some crew who are lighter, in the helming, trimming and tactics roles,” he says.  

“I don’t think there’s any built-in bias in the rule against female sailors. It’s purely who are the best people for the job. So, yes, it’s wide open.”

The last time a woman sailed on an America’s Cup boat was in Valencia in 2007, when Alicia Ageno was a navigator for the Swedish Victory Challenge. Before that it was Auckland 2000, when Dawn Riley’s America True had a co-ed crew. Riley was a trailblazer in women’s sailing – the first to have an active role on an America’s Cup yacht, as ‘pit-person’ on Cup winner America3 in 1992; and captain of the America3 women’s team in the 1995 Cup defence. 

With Kiwi yachtswoman Leslie Egnot at the helm of Mighty Mary, that all-women crew (bar tactician Dave Dellenbaugh) came agonisingly close to becoming the America's Cup defender to race Team New Zealand.

The only time Team NZ has had a female sailor on board was in 1995, when Maury Leyland – an engineer in the design team - called tactics on NZL38 in a challenger round-robin victory over the Spaniards.

Back in 2015, Leyland told me she shouldn’t really still hold the record for being the only woman to race on a Kiwi America’s Cup boat. “There are so many good women sailors in New Zealand. But I guess these new Cup boats are exceptionally physical – raging bulls. I was lucky there were very light winds in San Diego, and even though I was strong, size wasn’t an issue,” she said at the time.

Perhaps that will change this time around. Elise Beavis is in her second campaign as a designer with Team NZ, and has the sailing credentials. She sailed at the 2010 Youth Olympics, and is the current women’s national champion in the Waspz – a single-handed foiling dinghy. She would love to be on board one of Team NZ’s two AC75s as they work towards their defence of the Auld Mug.

A major issue holding women back is strength. The recent generations of America’s Cup catamarans were cantankerous, dangerous beasts to control, with only six crew. After parting with the silverware, Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said: “I think the America’s Cup is so physical now, it’s right up there with a lot of mainstream sports. There are definitely roles on board – certainly steering and skippering the boat – that don’t require such a big physical side, and it would not surprise me at all to see women in the America’s Cup in the future,” he told redbull.com.

Case in point, four-time world champion Annabel Vose proved her worth as strategist in the winning British team at last year’s Youth America’s Cup in Bermuda.

When Spithill’s old team-mate Tom Slingsby was trying late last year to pull together an Australian challenge for the 2021 Cup, he hoped to have females on his team. "I would like to see a woman sailing. It is an old boys’ club," he told the Daily Telegraph.

The Volvo Ocean Race has taken a large leap towards gender equality at the pinnacle of the sport, with its rules allowing boats to have more crew if they include yachtswomen. Every boat in the current race fleet has embraced the rule and taken women sailors on board.

But one of the shortcomings of yachting communities around the globe is not giving young women sailors pathways to compete in those kind of events.

In an effort to change that, the Magenta Project was formed by members of the all-female Team SCA crew who sailed in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race. Its vision is to enable women to have equal access and opportunities in sailing and the marine industry.  

A number of New Zealand yachtswomen, including Meech and Maloney, have taken up opportunities to sail with the project. 

“It’s a really cool initiative to get more women into sailing,” says Meech, who sailed on a 32ft multihull on the world match-racing tour in Miami last year – in the first all-women’s crew to sail on the tour in 22 years.

“The opportunity to sail the M32 class might never have come to us otherwise. Sailing a different type of boat with different people gives you an opportunity to see what else is out there, and you learn from each other.”

Experienced Kiwi yachtswoman Sharon Ferris-Choat, a two-time Olympian who sailed around the world non-stop on maxi cat Maiden II, has been a Magenta ambassador since the project began. She’s now determined to set up a base for the Magenta Project in New Zealand.

Ferris-Choat made history in 2016 as skipper of the first all-female sailing crew in the international Extreme Sailing Series, raced in G32 foiling cats. The Thalassa Magenta Racing team also included Kiwi Gemma Jones - the only woman at the helm of the mixed gender Nacra 17 class in the Rio Olympics medal race.

“We achieved a lot of firsts in the G32s. Proving that you can have a female on a boat, and be on the podium, was a big personal triumph for me,” Ferris-Choat says.

Her latest Magenta project is to compete with an all-women’s crew in next month’s New Caledonia Groupama race, a 654-mile course around the island. New Zealand winemaker Antonio Pasquale has lent his 40ft trimaran, Ave Gitana, to Ferris-Choat specifically to bolster women’s sailing.

“He wants to set a precedent for more owners to do the same thing. We’re hoping this is the start of a sailing academy based in the Bay of Islands,” she says.

If we are ever to see another women’s crew in the America’s Cup, it will require the financial support of successful corporate women, Ferris-Choat believes.

“We have a lot of talented women sailors around the world, but we also need to get more women involved in the marine industry, in apprenticeships, learning the trade and then bringing those skills together in a team,” she says.

Olympic sailing is also under pressure to achieve gender equality – with the future direction of the sport to be set at a World Sailing meeting at London’s Chelsea Football Club in just over a week.  It’s likely that, of the 10 sailing event at the 2024 Olympics, four of them will be for mixed (male and female) crews. In Tokyo 2020, the Nacra 17 is the sole mixed event.

Yachting New Zealand acknowledges it has to make changes to keep girls and women in the sport.

Abercrombie wants to appoint a “women’s champion” within Yachting NZ, to determine how to retain female sailors. “I want to have a woman on our staff who will champion women’s causes in New Zealand sailing - on the beach, in the schools and clubs, talking to girls, and boys. We need to find out where we aren’t delivering,” he says.

“I think it’s about giving them opportunities to sail different boats, creating more fun for them to sail, have really good coaching and consistent messaging and selection processes. I’m the first to put my hand up and say we haven’t been good at all of these.”

But there are already positive signs. A young Kiwi women’s team, skippered by 19-year-old Celia Willison, will compete in the Helsinki leg of the women’s international match-racing series next month – the first time New Zealand has been represented since 2013.

New Zealand has just won the right to host the 49er, FX and Nacra world championships in 2019 - all equal gender events.

“If we win our bid to host the 2022 world sailing championships, and with the America’s Cup and the Volvo, we’ll have a five-year window to give sailing incredible exposure in New Zealand,” Abercrombie says.

And it may give young Kiwi women more incentive to sail.

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