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Skiff sailing duo still striving for synchronicity

Olympic silver medallists Alex Maloney and Molly Meech are trying to stay in sync for a very strong shot at the 49erFX world title in Denmark. Suzanne McFadden reports.

Above a millpond ocean, without a zephyr of a breeze, Alex Maloney and Molly Meech sit at a picnic table at Milford Beach and look out, wistfully, at the perfect Auckland winter’s day.

This is not what they were expecting of the Hauraki Gulf in the middle of July. 

The Olympic silver medallists wanted to snatch a few days’ sailing during their whistle-stop trip home, before returning to Europe for the world championships in Aarhus, Denmark, in just over a weeks' time.

On this morning, Auckland’s fickle weather gods aren’t playing ball.

They may have been sailing together in a 49erFX for the past six years, but Maloney and Meech still need to stay in sync on the water, even when they’re home for a much-needed break.

“Our boat is all about teamwork and balance, making sure you’re standing in the right place,” Meech says of the demanding skiff they sail. “We wanted a few days on the water to get back into the rhythm.”

Intriguingly, their lives have followed a similar rhythm - even long before they sailed together.

They each grew up on their families’ yachts cruising the Pacific; neither was very keen on sailing dinghies as a kid. Their paths intersected when their older brothers began chasing their Olympic dreams. Then they became friends, and finally an exceptional team on the water.  

Whether they'd admit it or not, Meech and Maloney must go into these sailing world championships as favourites, ready to repeat the world title they won back in 2013.

They’ve just won two key regattas on the Olympic classes circuit – the World Cup in Hyères, France, and Kiel Week, the largest sailing regatta on the globe, in Germany.

And they’ll have a distinct advantage over their fellow medallists from the 2016 Rio Olympics, whose crews have been disrupted by round-the-world escapades.

Brazilian gold medallist Martine Grael sailed in the Volvo Ocean Race on Akzo Nobel, while bronze medallist Jena Mai Hansen of Denmark was on board Vestas 11th Hour Racing.

Although the punishing circumnavigation finished only a month ago, both women will be back in skiffs in Aarhus, getting their campaigns on track for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Such is the camaraderie in the 49erFX elite fleet, that Meech and Maloney will be happy to see their rivals return.

Their solidarity was no more obvious than at 1am on a February morning this year, when they were out on the Waitemata Harbour welcoming their 49er competitors at the end of a gruelling Hong Kong-to-Auckland leg.

Had the two Kiwis had different priorities, they could also have been on board those round-the-world boats, taking part in a ground-breaking race which encouraged mixed-gender crews.  

“We had our opportunities,” Maloney says. “But we worked out it was probably best to focus on our Olympic campaign for 2020, and then reassess our options after that.”

Would they consider sailing in the 2021 version of the race? Definitely, they reply in unison.

Both women thought long and hard before committing themselves to another Olympic cycle after Rio, in spite of the obvious desire to go back for gold.  

“It took a little time to make the decision, because we wanted to make sure this was absolutely what we wanted to do,” says Maloney who, at 26, is a year older than her crewmate.  “You go through varying phases while you’re trying to decide. Immediately after the Olympics, of course you want to, because it was amazing. But you have to look at all the options.

“It’s cool to be able to represent your country, and you can only do that for a limited time. We have to make the most of that opportunity.”

Meech and Maloney have recognised the importance, though, of spicing it up a bit, trying out different boats in the next couple of years.

The last regatta they sailed together was in Marstrand, Sweden – on board a M32 catamaran in a women’s match-racing event. They joined forces with three other Kiwis – Olympic gold medallist Jo Aleh, Nacra sailor Liv MacKay and Olympic match-racer Jenna Hansen – and finished a respectable third.

“When it fits in with our campaign, it’s good to learn something different,” Meech says. “When we’re out in the FX now, I think: ‘This actually feels a bit slow'!”

That coming from the sailor whose job it is to eke out more speed from the skiff while Maloney, the smaller of the pair, is at the helm.

Initially it was size that brought them together as a crew: “You have to make sure you have the right weight for the boat,” Meech says. “After a couple of weeks, we realised we had fun sailing together. And that’s really important – making sure we enjoy what we’re doing.” 

But they’d known each other long before that. Their families became firm friends when Maloney’s brother, Andy, and Meech’s brother, Sam, started sailing competitively in the Laser dinghy class. They’ve both done okay since – Sam Meech won bronze at the Rio Olympics, and Andy Maloney won the America’s Cup as a Team NZ cyclor.

Both men will be sailing in Aarhus too, focused on making the 2020 Olympics in the Laser and Finn classes.

The Maloneys' dad, Jim, coached the 49erFX women to silver at the Rio Games – finishing just two seconds behind the Brazilians in the deciding medal race. But now they have a new coach, who was, well, their old coach.

Nathan Handley, who sailed a 49er for New Zealand at the 2000 Olympics, first coached Meech and Maloney back in 2013 – when they won the inaugural 49erFX world title. He then coached Aleh and Polly Powrie to Olympic glory in the 470, until Powrie retired from sailing last year.

Handley has brought composure and consistency to their crew, Meech says. “He makes sure we keep our routines the same, no matter if we have a good race or bad. If we’ve had a shocker or a really good one, he doesn’t get overly excited… you see other coaches get quite angry.”

Their goal at these world championships is to improve on the bronze they won last year, but they’re both careful choosing their words.

“We just want to put together a really good series; just nail it,” says Maloney.

“We know what we want to do on the water, and the result will come quite naturally,” Meech says.

After the worlds, the Kiwi crew head to Japan, where one of their skiffs will be waiting to race in two regattas at the site of the 2020 Olympics.

Last year, Maloney and Meech didn’t have the best introduction to Enoshima, a small island an hour out of Tokyo that also hosted the 1964 Olympic sailing regatta. In the 15 days they were there to sail, two typhoons roared through.

“We had to lock up our boat, and batten down our house – it was a bit of an experience to be honest,” Meech recalls.

“But we caught a few mornings of sunshine,” adds Maloney, “and when we saw Mt Fuji, it was pretty special”.  They also brought home the gold medal.

Late next year, the 49erFX worlds will be raced in Auckland. While Meech and Maloney hope to  hold the home harbour advantage, they both know how capricious the weather can be. Like on this particular day.  

“At most venues around the world we go to these days, people say ‘It’s never like this’,” Meech says. “Realistically in New Zealand, you could get anything.”

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