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Golden Grael returns to Hauraki Gulf playground

An Olympic sailing champion who learned to race on Auckland's harbour is back to claim a world title, but can Martine Grael claim Kiwi hearts like her famous dad once did?

For four glorious summers, Martine Grael grew up in Auckland, learning how to race sailboats.

At the turn of the millennium, eight-year-old Grael came to New Zealand from Brazil following her famous sailing father, Torben Grael. He was calling tactics for the Italian Prada campaign – who captured Kiwi hearts and sailed against Team New Zealand for the 2000 America’s Cup.

The Grael family lived in the Heritage Hotel in the heart of the city, and Martine and her elder brother, Marco, would go racing their optimist dinghies every weekend somewhere on the Hauraki Gulf.

“Mum would take us in a car, without a roof rack - but somehow she got two optis on board,” Martine, now 28, marvels.

“It was quite a big effort for Mum to take us sailing. I don’t know how she did it.”

Grael remembers racing an optimist in the first Sir Peter Blake Regatta in 2002, a year after the New Zealand sailing legend was killed by pirates in the Amazon. Sailed off Torbay, it’s now regarded as the world’s largest centreboard regatta; Marco Grael’s name is the first engraved on the Sir Peter Blake Memorial Trophy for the outstanding sailor of the regatta.

“It was hard,” admits Grael, whose family knew Sir Peter. “We feel so sorry for Kiwis that his death happened in our country.”

She also remembers the embarrassment of flipping her optimist right on the beach after a day’s racing.

“I was trying to get in to the beach with a big swell coming. I had instructions on how to get in, I just didn’t execute them very well,” she says. Dumped by the surf, all she was hoping was that her mast didn’t snap.

Twenty years later, Martine Grael is back on the Hauraki Gulf, but with only a slight chance of capsizing again.

The reigning Olympic champion is here to claim another major crown, the world 49erFX championship, being sailed this week on those same waters where she learned to race.

Grael and her long-time sailing partner, Kahena Kunze, are the on-form crew to win the world title, eight months out from defending their Olympic title in Tokyo.

But Grael admits it will be difficult to beat their Kiwi rivals and regular training partners, Alex Maloney and Molly Meech - who were denied gold at the Rio Olympics by just two seconds in a dramatic final race.

This is, after all, their body of water (even if Grael can claim a little piece of it).

Many hands carry Martine Grael and her skiff off the water after winning Olympic gold in Rio. Photo: Getty Images. 

A sailing superstar

The Grael family are South American sailing royalty.

Martine’s great grandfather, Preben Schmidt, left Denmark and pioneered sailing in Brazil. Two of her great uncles were the first Brazilians to win a world title, and her father is regarded as one of the world’s most multi-talented sailors.

Torben Grael has won five Olympic medals, making him one of Brazil’s most decorated athletes. He’s also won the round-the-world race skippering Ericsson in 2008-09 and challenged three times for the America’s Cup.

He encouraged both of his children into sailing, and was Brazil’s team coach when they both sailed in their hometown Rio Olympics – Marco finishing 11th in the 49er (won by Kiwis Peter Burling and Blair Tuke), and Martine winning gold. It was the eighth Olympic medal for the Grael family.

“Winning at home, I don’t think it could get any better,” Martine Grael says. Thousands went wild on Flamengo Beach when Grael and Kunze won - and then capsized their boat. "I think I knew half the crowd there. It was truly a great moment.”

After the Olympics, Grael took a year off the 49erFX to pursue another ambition – to sail around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race.

She circumnavigated the globe in a mixed crew on board Akzo Nobel – an achievement she thought impossible.

“For me it was almost like the America’s Cup is now. I thought it was a little out of my reach, because I didn’t have any real offshore sailing experience,” she says. But with the rule change to encourage more women on boats, “suddenly it got a whole lot more interesting.”

But in the hours before the race started in Alicante, Grael almost walked away from the campaign. An “out of the blue” crew change on the day of the start saw four experienced sailors leave. One of them was Kiwi Brad Jackson, who had sailed around the world with Grael’s father.

“Suddenly they were gone from the team, and I didn’t know anyone else on board. I doubted whether or not I would go,” she says.

“My Dad let me decide. I had friends who were very emphatic and said ‘Please don’t miss this opportunity’. I’m very thankful for that advice. It was a very intense, but very enriching experience.”

She admits struggling at times with the mixed crew environment. “We had a lot of very experienced guys, and some very young, inexperienced women. It was hard not having more experience to be at the same level. It was a big learning curve,” she says.

Grael just needs to sail in an America’s Cup now to equal her dad. But right now, she can’t see how. It’s unlikely there will be many – if any - women sailing in next year’s Prada Cup, to find a challenger to meet Emirates Team New Zealand.

“For sure, I’d like to,” she says. “But I can’t picture now how I could help. Eventually the moment will come I will see where I can be useful. The America’s Cup is about the best of the best.”

Olympic 49er champions Blair Tuke and Peter Burling, and 49erFX champions Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze, flank Grael's legendary dad, Torben. Photo: Getty Images. 

Wishing for the weekend

Ever since those days sailing out of the Murray’s Bay Sailing Club on Auckland’s North Shore, Grael has always loved racing.

“I’m so glad I started here. There’s so much sailing in New Zealand, that’s what made it great. We would sail on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then race on the weekends,” she remembers.

“Back in Brazil, we would only train and sail on the weekends, then study the rest of the week. We would always wish for the weekend.”

Grael put her university studies in environmental engineering on hold during her last Olympic campaign. “When I tried to go back, I got kicked out, because I spent too much time away,” she laughs.

Grael met her 49erFX partner Kunze when they were 12 years old, sailing dinghies against each other. They won a world youth title in the 420, before going their separate ways, but they joined forces again in the new 49erFX skiff, winning the world title and the World Sailor of the Year award in 2014.

They’re both focused on regaining the world title this week, sailing out of the Royal Akarana Yacht Club (although it’s a title that will only last two months, before the 2020 world champs in Melbourne in February). It’s important, Grael explains, because the racecourse here resembles what they expect at next year’s Olympics.

“The conditions here in Auckland are pretty diverse,” she says, looking at the forecast of strong winds and choppy seas for the first couple of days of the regatta.

“In Tokyo, I think we could get anything, from flat waters and light winds, to very strong breezes and a swell. These worlds will be challenging, and whoever gets in front here will show who’s prepared for Tokyo.”

She knows the accomplished Maloney and Meech will have the local advantage. They won the Oceania championships here last week.

“There’s a lot of land to affect the wind here, and there will be a favoured side to the racecourse - and they’ll know it better than anyone. I think everyone will look to see where they are on the start line,” she says.

Grael’s brother is also racing this week, in the 49er class. But their parents aren’t here with them this time.

She values the advice her father gives, but perhaps her greatest hero is her mum, Andrea.

“Mum was a vet, but she gave that up to look after our family. That’s a big thing to do, especially now that women are more independent, pursuing what they want. I’m really proud of her,” Martine says.

No doubt, the feeling is mutual as Andrea watches her daughter pursue exactly what she wants.  

* Sky Sport will broadcast live the world 49er, 49erFX and Nacra 17 championships every this week through to Sunday, on Sky Sport 9. 

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