Cook’s odyssey to become first Kiwi woman skipper

Pioneering sailor Bianca Cook has her course firmly locked on the start line of the 2021 Ocean Race in Alicante - and she knows it will be a battle just to get there.

She has a boat, she has an experienced boss, and she has the belief.

Now Bianca Cook just needs the backing to become the first Kiwi woman to skipper a boat in the iconic round-the-world yacht race.

Cook, who’s just turned 30, is on a pilgrimage of sorts, taking her passion to yacht clubs all around New Zealand.

Her motivation is straightforward: to get a Kiwi team lining up in the 2021 Ocean Race (formerly known as the Volvo Ocean Race, and before that, the Whitbread).

Her nationwide tour, which hits Wellington this weekend, will spread the word of her yet-to-be-named campaign, which she’s embarking on with the help of Tony Rae – a veteran of six round-the-world races and seven America’s Cups. ‘Trae’ will be her highly-experienced team manager.

Cook also wants to share her experiences from her first circumnavigation of the globe, on board Turn the Tide on Plastic in the last version of the race, and the environmental crusade she’ll continue through this voyage.

“And I want to get people excited about ocean racing again,” she says.

It was half-way round the world – after a terrifying but exhilarating blast through the Southern Ocean – that Cook decided she wanted to do the race again, but this time with a Kiwi team.

“It was the toughest experience I’d ever had – the biggest highs and then the biggest lows, with the loss of Fish,” says Cook, after British sailor John Fisher was washed overboard and lost at sea.

"This race can consume you, but I wanted to be involved with a Kiwi team the next time around. The discussion as to who would lead it came afterwards, when we were really trying to make it happen."

Cook first ran the idea of her own campaign past her sister, Paige (also a talented sailor), their father, Ian – who happens to be the commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron – and their mother, Blanche, before she passed away in March.

“Mum definitely had her concerns around it,” Cook admits. “She wanted to make sure that I had a team behind me who would ensure the campaign was run properly and smoothly.

“She was supportive, but she had that 'concerned mum' hat on, as mum’s do. But I know she will be there with me.”

Cook admits she got in plenty of hot water with her mother in the last race.

The first instance was in the second leg, when Cook was hit by a large wave while she was on deck. Clipped on to the rail by her safety harness, she was washed into the cockpit – where her life jacket inflated.

“But somehow it got reported that I had been washed overboard. My mother, grandmother and my sister were so upset, until they saw the footage that I’d ended up in the cockpit,” she says.

A big proponent of safety, Cook also admits she was caught out in a moment of complacency during the race. As she was about to go off-watch, the breeze picked up and she went to help change the headsail. Again she was caught on camera, this time without her life jacket on.

“I got an email from my mother, written in full capitals: WHAT ON EARTH WERE YOU DOING? UP ON THE BOW WITH NO LIFEJACKET, NOT CLIPPED ON! I tried to talk my way out of it, but there was no way!”

Yachting veteran Tony Rae, on board Team Vestas in the 2014-15 race, before it was grounded on a reef in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Getty Images. 

Even though this will be her second circumnavigation, Cook has clocked up thousands of ocean racing miles in her sailing career.

“I’m capable of taking it on, and if Trae’s involved, that means he believes that too,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong – I still have a lot to learn; I’m not going to step on and be the best of the best. It’s a challenge I’m ready to tackle.”

Rae says he was impressed by Cook's drive to achieve this groundbreaking goal. "I could see that she was hell-bent on doing this, right or wrong, whether I did it or not. That sort of attitude encouraged me the most about her ability to pull this off and for me to get involved,” the sailing veteran told Yacht Racing Life.

It’s been eight years since a New Zealand flag last flew in this race, on board Team New Zealand’s Camper (alongside the flag of Spain).

But New Zealand has maintained quite a tradition with the 46-year-old race. Cook did her maths and found 187 Kiwis have sailed in it.

She wants to make her team as Kiwi-centric as possible: “Run by Kiwis, sailed by Kiwis and supported by Kiwis.”

There will be least three women in the 10-strong crew, and three sailors under the age of 26.  

“I think it would be cool to sail around the world with a group of Kiwis. The last team was an awesome bunch of people, but it was a real United Nations,” says Cook, who was the only New Zealand woman in the last Volvo race. 

Cook has already secured a boat for the Ocean Race - a two-time survivor of the gruelling event, that's now in transit to its new home in Auckland.

But now she’s reached the toughest part of any major sailing campaign - finding the money to do it.

It’s an especially hard sell when you don’t know exactly where the race will go – other than, of course, around the globe.

The Ocean Race organisers are still determining the route for 2021-22, but having a New Zealand boat in the fleet should bump up the odds of the race returning to Auckland.

“We’ve been in talks and there are definitely a lot of people trying to get a stopover here in Auckland again,” Cook says. “That was one of the major reasons we wanted to do the race – to make sure it came back to New Zealand.”

Cook and Rae would like to have all New Zealand sponsors on board, but they know how difficult other teams have found that in the past. 

They’ve raised enough seed money from private backers to buy the VO65 Turn the Tide on Plastic. It should arrive in Auckland, from Lisbon, at the end of this month.

The boat is “bulletproof”, Cook jokes - having already sailed in two of the Volvo Ocean Races so far. Rae was part of the Team Vestas Wind crew on the boat in the 2014-15 race – but it was grounded on a reef in the Indian Ocean on the second leg, and didn’t rejoin the race until the last two legs.

The yacht will need a little work done on it to bring it up to race standards - which have yet to be released. “But luckily I know a guy, who knows a guy, who’s got a good yard,” Cook jokes, sitting in that very yard - Yachting Developments - her family’s boat building business on Hobsonville Point.

Ian Cook was one of the leading voices in making sure the one-design VO65 class was used again in the 2021 version of the race. It will be one of two classes – alongside the brand-new, hi-tech foiling IMOCA 60s.

“The reason we went for the 65 was the cost, because it already exists,” Bianca Cook says. “And we wanted to go with a boat that was going to create diversity in gender and in age.

“The race is creating huge opportunities – for women and for young sailors. Trae tried to get a team together focused on younger sailors for the last race, but couldn’t get it off the ground.

“If all goes well, after the race we’d like to create a kind of academy for off-shore racing in New Zealand.”

So far, Bianca Cook's campaign is a team of two, but she's already looking at NZ sailors who'd tick the boxes for her crew. Photo: Martin Keruzore/VOR 

Cook will make sure this campaign also carries on the sustainability message – to help the health of our oceans – that she became “consumed with” while on Turn the Tide on Plastic.

“It’s something that’s become extremely important to me,” she says. “It’s fantastic that all sailing teams are really trying to push the message - because we live, eat and breathe the ocean. We’re looking after it not just for ourselves, but for future generations. It would just break my heart if I went for a swim at Takapuna Beach and was surrounded by plastic.

“After I did the race, everyone around me was impacted by it. They’ve all changed their lifestyles in this snowball effect.”

It’s a message she’s getting out to yachties on her nationwide speaking tour, which started at the Hamilton Yacht Club and the Mercury Bay Boating Club in Whitianga – which challenged for the America’s Cup in 1988 and 1992. On Sunday, she'll do a beach clean-up before talking to Wellington's Port Nicholson club, alongside two-time race winner, Darryl Wislang. 

Once her boat has landed, Cook would like to do what her round-the-world race heroes, Sir Peter Blake and Grant Dalton, did – and sail it around the country.

She knows there’s no guarantee there will be a Kiwi team at the start in Alicante, Spain, in two years’ time. “We could get to a crossroads where we need to make a decision about whether we’re going or not," she says. 

“Unfortunately that can be the case with these campaigns. But we will do everything we can to be on the start-line.”

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