The Kiwis sailors making Sydney-Hobart history

For the first time in the gruelling Sydney to Hobart race, a professional all-women’s crew will line up on Boxing Day. Among them are two Kiwi sailors at very different stages of their careers. Suzanne McFadden reports.

As an 18-year-old, Keryn McMaster got her first taste of true offshore sailing in the notorious Sydney to Hobart race, on board the old Whitbread round-the-world boat Outward Bound.

“It almost disintegrated under us while we were sailing it,” she laughs.

She tackled the 628-nautical mile race again in 1997, when it was a leg of the Whitbread race – McMaster’s first of two circumnavigations of the globe.

Six years ago, her third attempt at the Sydney-Hobart, on Living Doll, had to be aborted in Bass Strait. “We hit something, broke the rudder and almost sank,” McMaster recalls.

“They reckon with one in three Sydney-Hobarts, you don’t make it.”  Which is why she reckons the odds are stacked in her favour for this year’s race, as she joins the first professional all-women’s crew in the race’s 73-year history.

McMaster is one of two Kiwis who are part a multinational crew of female sailing icons. The other is 29-year-old Bianca Cook, fresh from her first Volvo Ocean Race, on Turn the Tide on Plastic.

All 13 women are sailing stars in their own right. Between them, they’ve amassed 17 Volvo Ocean Races and 68 Sydney-Hobarts.

They’ve been handpicked by Australian sailor Stacey Jackson, who also sailed in this year’s Volvo on board Vestas 11th Hour Racing. Jackson’s latest mission is to encourage more Australian women to sail, and to push the message of taking better care of our oceans – naming this project Ocean Respect Racing.

For Aucklander McMaster, now 46, this race on board maxi yacht Wild Oats X may have another objective - opening a new door in her international sailing career.

A single mum, she’s spent the past decade focused on raising her two daughters. But she still harbours a passion for blue-water sailing.

“I wanted to do the last two Volvos, but I couldn’t with my girls being so young. You know, it turns into a military exercise trying to organise kids, school and sports,” she says. “But now they’re older, it’s easier to go sailing again.”

For Cook, this race – her first Sydney-Hobart – means the opportunity to sail with the women who she says “created the pathways for me”.

Women like Carolijn Brouwer, of the Netherlands - the first woman to win the Volvo Ocean Race on board Dong Feng this year. And Australian Vanessa Dudley, who's already sailed in 22 Sydney-Hobarts.

“I was up on the bow the other day, looking back and thinking ‘wow I can’t believe I’m sailing with these amazing women’. I realised I’m actually the youngest on board by quite a few years," Cook says.

And then there’s McMaster. Cook had never met her before they were drawn together for this race.

But of course she knew of her. A bona fide legend in New Zealand’s sailing fraternity, McMaster raced around the world twice in all women’s crews - first on EF Language in the 1997-98 race, and then Amer Sports Too in 2001-02.

After just a handful of days alongside McMaster, racing Wild Oats X on Sydney Harbour, Cook reached the conclusion: “She’s the coolest person I’ve ever sailed with.

“She’s so down-to-earth and has such a massive amount of knowledge. I’m just honoured to be able to sail with her. In fact, I’m a little bit starstruck.”

McMaster laughs on hearing this. She’s similarly impressed by Cook.

“Bianca’s fantastic. She sailed around the world with Dee Caffari, who’s our crew boss [on Wild Oats X]. Dee says during the Volvo, Bianca always had a smile on her face - and the windier it got, the bigger the smile.

“In that way she reminds me a little of me. If it’s under five knots I’m like ‘Yawn’, but give me 45 knots and I’m like ‘Woohoo, this is great!’”

The 13-woman crew took little time to know the ropes on Wild Oats X, the maxi yacht they'll race in the Sydney-Hobart. Photo: Salty Dingo/Ocean Respect Racing. 

McMaster and Cook spent last week in Sydney, getting acquainted with the crew and the boat, which has a fine reputation of its own.

The 66ft Wild Oats X has taken line honours in numerous Australian races, and is from the armada of the Oatley family. The Oatleys, known as Australia’s first family of yachting, have had unparalleled success in the Sydney-Hobart race.

Their latest boat, Wild Oats XI, was (until a controversial jury decision in last year's race) the race record holder, and nine-time line honours winner. It will also line up at the start inside Sydney Heads on Boxing Day, with an all-male crew. 

“The Oatley family have been amazing to us,” McMaster says. “They’ve gifted us the boat – which is in amazing shape – and they’re going out of their way to give us every chance possible.

“The boys on the Wild Oats XI are so helpful too. I think it’s a bit different to the old round-the-world race days - there’s a lot more respect for women in sailing.”

It took the women’s crew little time to get to grips with sailing Wild Oats X, racing in last week’s SOLAS Big Boat Challenge in Sydney. That’s the beauty of having so much experience on board, McMaster says.

“You didn’t have to jump on the boat and teach anybody. The depth on this boat is awesome.”

McMaster will be a trimmer for the Sydney-Hobart, while Cook will work on the bow.

“I’m going out there hoping we don’t have any majors and we have a good blast down to Hobart,” Cook says. “But it’s a race where you just don’t know which hand you’re going to be dealt.

“We’re hoping to get a pretty good result out of it, and we’re capable of it. It’s a fantastic project with such an incredible crew of sailors. Not women – sailors.”

Invited to join the crew by Jackson during the Volvo race stopover in Cardiff, Cook is also very aware of the importance of continuing to advocate for the health of the oceans and sustainability. Partnering the project is 11th Hour Racing, an organisation promoting sustainability through sport. 

“All sailors are very passionate about our oceans, so it’s really just trying to push the message further,” she says.

“When I was a kid growing up it wasn’t really an issue. I’m not saying that we threw stuff into the ocean left, right and centre, but it wasn’t something you always thought about.

“Now, having been out on the world’s oceans and seen the effects humanity is having on them, it’s scary. It’s a message I’m passionate about spreading.”

Cook is also an ambassador for Yachting New Zealand’s sustainability strategy, urging every boat club in the country “to step up” and reduce their impact on the environment.

Since the Volvo ended in June, Cook has dabbled in some international match-racing, but mostly concentrated on finishing her Officer of Watch certificate to skipper super yachts. She's looking forward to finally spending time at home in Auckland this summer, sailing her family's famous classic yacht, Ranger. (Cook's dad, Ian, is commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron). 

McMaster, who's kept her hand in by regularly sailing TP52 Georgia on Auckland waters, has a daytime job with PredictWind, a Kiwi company considered a world leader in wind forecasting. “I’m already analysing the weather,” she says. “And a week out, it’s looking good.”

The two Kiwi sailors will fly out on Christmas evening, after spending time with their families, to join their crew.

“It’s great how many mums are on our Sydney-Hobart team,” Cook says. “It’s actually quite inspiring!”  

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