Best of the Week

The Olympian creating a new sailing dynasty

As the starters' gun fires in the country's largest keelboat regatta next week, three generations of Ferris women will race together for the very first time. 

For skipper Sharon Ferris-Choat - a two-time Olympian and round-the-world sailor - drawing family together in an all-female crew for Bay of Islands Sailing Week is one way to thank her mum for supporting her, as she’s dashed off to sail around the globe over the last 25 years.

And it’s also a way for Ferris-Choat to show her own daughters, aged 10 and five, that sailing isn’t “the devil”.

Ferris-Choat, who turns 45 this week, is still a seriously competitive sailor.

Her incredible sailing resume includes competing for New Zealand at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics, sailing in the Volvo Ocean Race on all-women’s team Amer Sport II, and breaking four world records on board multihull Maiden 2 on its non-stop circumnavigation of the globe.

These days she revels in offshore racing (it's her goal to establish an offshore academy in New Zealand), and she's a strong advocate for advancing women’s sailing. 

She made history as skipper of the first all-female crew in the international Extreme Sailing Series, on a foiling catamaran, back in 2016. And, last year, her women’s crew won every race in the multihull division at Hamilton Island Race Week on board Ave Gitana - taking the Gun Boat Trophy for most line honour wins across the entire regatta fleet.

“We took it from all the million dollar boys,” she laughs.

But she’s also very aware that her sporting career takes her away from her family in Kerikeri – her understanding husband Neil and their daughters, Sofia and Victoria.

“Last year I was away overseas for four months off and on. It takes its toll on the family,” Ferris-Choat says.

“My girls know how to sail, but sailing is a double-edged sword for them at the moment - because it takes mum away. For a while there, the girls saw it as the devil.

“But I want to show my girls that racing doesn’t have to be all at Olympic or world championship level. It can also be a lot of fun, quality family time.”

That's why she's taking them racing, along with their grandmother Pauline. As far as the regatta organisers know, they will be the first all-women’s keelboat crew in the regatta’s 17-year history.

It’s in the Bay of Islands that Ferris-Choat first encountered sailing as a young teen. She was taken out on a friend’s family yacht, where she learned to snorkel and sail a dinghy. “I was in absolute heaven,” she recalls.

She then joined the Kerikeri High School sailing team, learning to sail under the legendary Derry Godbert – who also first coached Emirates Team New Zealand sailors Blair Tuke and Andy Maloney.

Sailing also helped Ferris-Choat in the classroom. “I’m incredibly dyslexic and, until then, I was failing at school. But the self-confidence that grew from my sailing transferred into my school work,” she says.

Impressed by her daughter’s passion for the sport, Ferris-Choat’s mum, Pauline, began sailing herself. “Then my three younger brothers all got into it,” Ferris-Choat says. Her brother Justin has now sailed in the Volvo Ocean Race four times.

“My mum has always supported me through everything I’ve done. She always gets left looking after the kids so I can go sailing. So I came up with a cunning plan to get her back out on the water – having an all-girls team with the three generations of our family. She absolutely loved the idea."

Team Ferris will race Bay of Islands Sailing Week on Black Swan, a 9.5m Mull yacht lent to them by Helen Horrocks, who's on the regatta committee. Their fifth crew member, Alice Autet, was coached by Ferris-Choat at Kerikeri High.

They will compete in the Island Racing C division, as part of a regatta fleet of 110 boats. 

“The goal for me is to spend three days with Mum and my girls and have fun,” Ferris-Choat says. “But we’ll aim to do as well as we can, because we’re pretty competitive. My mum is fiercely competitive

“The most important thing I got from Mum, though, is her work ethic. She’s one of the hardest working people I know - raising four kids while working fulltime, running the family business.” Pauline and Murray Ferris have exported kiwifruit, made swamp kauri furniture and branched into forestry. Now, at 67, Pauline is the event co-ordinator at a rest home.

Ten-year-old Sofia will be Ferris-Choat’s co-skipper. Although the girls are more interested in tennis, horse riding and piano, they’re both competent on a boat.

“Often, I’ll do all the running around and Sofia will drive. We used to have buckle the younger one into a carseat or she would be straight up the mast,” Ferris-Choat says.

“The girls like sailing, but they don’t necessarily like working on the boats. As Victoria said after one sail: ‘That was boring for my heart, Mummy’.”

But Ferris-Choat knows that sailing will give her daughters practical life skills: how to use appropriate tools for the job, planning and logistics, and safety in the water.

“These are skills you take with you for the rest of your life,” she says. “For the last 20 years, if you’ve wanted a job anywhere in the world, you could walk down to a boat dock, speak Kiwi and they would have you straight away for your practical skills and boat knowledge.”

Sharon Ferris-Choat keeps an eye on the mainsail on board TP52 Kia Kaha in last year's Bay of Islands Sailing Week. Photo: Will Calver, Ocean Photography.

Ferris-Choat had a successful 2018 on the water skippering 40ft trimaran Ave Gitana, owned by Kiwi winemaker Antonio Pasquale – a father of three daughters who wants to help boost women’s sailing.

Her crew finished second multihull and first all-women’s boat in the Groupama Race in New Caledonia, before a string of successes on Australia’s east coast.

“I’m so grateful to Antonio Pasquale for giving us his boat. He’s pushing and encouraging me to do more,” she says.

Her other goal is to start up an offshore sailing academy in New Zealand, now that there’s an offshore class slated for the 2024 Paris Olympics. It will be sailed in a two-person keelboat, with one woman and one man on board.

Ferris-Choat is now chasing funding for a fleet of suitable keelboats, with her dream to base the academy in the Bay of Islands.

In March, she will also be involved in the return to Auckland of Maiden – the pioneering women’s boat that first sailed around the world in the 1989-90 Whitbread race. Ferris-Choat will be reunited with Maiden’s British skipper, Tracey Edwards – together they made two attempts on the non-stop round-the-world record, the Jules Verne Trophy.

The Bay of Islands Sailing Week is becoming a hotbed for women in sailing. Manuela Gmuer-Hornell is the regatta's first female chair; her daughter Bex will be racing on board the family's TP52 yacht, Kia Kaha. 

“Last year there was definitely a noticeable increase [in female sailors], and a noticeable shift towards women in more pivotal roles on the boats,” says Black Swan's owner Helen Horrocks. “So we’re hoping for the same or better this year.”

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