America's Cup

Bridging the gender gap to the America’s Cup

The crews in next summer’s Youth America’s Cup must have two females and two males on board. Is this a step closer to getting more women on board America’s Cup boats?

Celia Willison has grown up on the sea, first sailing on her father’s yacht when she was eight days old.

She's also watched as boys have had more opportunities on boats than she has. But that's done little to deter her.

Willison is now 21, a third-year nursing student, and ranked in the world’s top 10 women’s match race skippers.

She’s now trying out for a place in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s crew to compete in the Youth America’s Cup in Auckland next summer.

“I’ve grown up on the sailing scene watching mostly guys doing the Youth America’s Cup in these really cool boats,” Willison says. “Now it’s at home and there’s the new rule that mandates that girls must be on board – which is really cool and exciting for everyone.

“I never imagined there would be a girls’ rule. Before that there was virtually no chance for girls. Now there’s an equal chance for everyone.”

When the RNZYS, holders of the America’s Cup, drew up the rules around the 2021 Youth America’s Cup regatta, they felt it was important to have an equal gender crew.

So the new AC9F, a radical 9m carbon foiling monohull, will be sailed by two male and two female sailors.

“Sailing is an all-inclusive sport and has a very high percentage of both sexes competing at the highest level,” says RNZYS CEO Hayden Porter.

“Unlike some other sports, it’s also clear that there is no major gap in ability. So for this re-energised Youth America’s Cup event, we felt it was imperative to have a 50 percent split of males and females.

“We want to showcase the best youth male and female sailors the world has to offer, and this event is the perfect platform to do it.”

So far 17 yacht clubs from around the globe have embraced the new rule, entering their mixed crews in the match racing event starting in February. All crew must be aged between 18 and 24.

There are eight crews from Europe: two Swiss, two Dutch, and one each from Russia, Denmark, Germany and Spain. Argentina will have a crew, as well as China and Hong Kong. Teams from Australia and the United States, plus another Kiwi entry from the Royal Akarana Yacht Club, round out the fleet.

The initial stages of the Youth America’s Cup will be raced on the Waitemata Harbour after the Prada Cup challenger series in February, with the finals held during the America’s Cup match in March.

The first AC9F, built in Auckland and christened Kōtare (kingfisher), has been out on the harbour testing this week.

Celia Willison at the helm with her Edge Women's Match crew racing on the Waitemata. Photo: Andrew Delves.

Willison says it’s an exciting new concept that puts male and female sailors in the same boat, so to speak. “We’re all on an equal footing, because no one else has sailed it before,” she says.

“It’s a bit of a dynamic change for the guys having girls on board. We definitely don’t have as much experience as them – but that’s because we haven’t had the same chances as them. We don’t get the time of day normally.

“Yes, we’re smaller and less experienced. But we bring the organisational skills to the boat, for sure. Half the world is girls so why can’t we have the half the crew? It’s annoying sometimes. But if everyone has to do it, it’s not a disadvantage having girls on board, is it?

“We have to start somewhere. So it’s a great start.”

Willison went through the RNZYS youth programme and found her niche in keelboat sailing. Competing on the world match racing circuit with her Edge Women’s Match team, Willison has climbed as high as No.6 in the world. She’s currently sitting at No.9, but her international season has stalled because of coronavirus.

She wishes more young female sailors could forge the same pathway as she has. “It’s the same in pretty much every sport, right? Girls start doing it and then they stop because there’s not the same end goal that men have."

Suellen Hurling, a sailing enthusiast and creator of the LiveSailDie.com website, sees the Youth America's Cup as becoming a crucial pathway for the next generation of women sailors. 

"Instead of being in the background, or being shore crew, young women have the opportunity to be sailing on the world stage with their peers. Sailing is one of those sports where all through your youth, it’s always guys racing against girls on the same level playing field. Now going into a more professional level of sailing, the world gets to see the young talent we have, not just guys, but girls as well," says Hurling, who's also helping the Royal Akarana with their entry.

"Women are smart sailors - they're very strategic in their thinking and planning. They don’t react, they think about things. Maybe one day we will see women in America’s Cup teams because they bring another level of knowledge to the game. We really hope one day there won’t be a need for the rule."

The Royal Akarana attracted 33 sailors to apply for the team: “which is fantastic because the club hasn’t been involved in anything quite like this before,” Hurling says.

The argument around whether women should be included in America’s Cup crews is one that has seemed to intensify in this Cup cycle.

America’s Cup defenders, Emirates Team NZ, have women in their design and administration teams, but no female sailors in their crew.

Carolijn Brewer was poised to become the first woman helming a boat in an America’s Cup challenger series, until her DutchSail syndicate, withdrew from the 2021 regatta.

And the American Stars & Stripes team were hyping having a co-ed crew, but it’s now unclear whether they will even make the Prada Cup start-line (the yard building their boat was commandeered to make PPE for the Covid-19 response). 

Women have sailed in the race for the world’s oldest sports trophy since 1886, when Susan Henn was on board her husband’s British challenger Galatea – although she spent the race below decks with her pet dogs and a monkey called Peggy.  

In 1895, Hope Goddard Iselin took a more legitimate place in the crew as the timekeeper on the victorious Defender. But it was Dawn Riley who had the first physically active role on a Cup boat, in the pit of the winning America3 in 1992.

Riley was captain of the historic all-women’s America3 team in the 1995 defender trials, who came agonisingly close to racing Team New Zealand in the Cup match. At the helm of that women’s crew was Kiwi Leslie Egnot – the first helmswoman of a boat in the Cup defender trials.

Egnot, who is now an Olympic yachting selector, believes there’s no reason why yachtswomen can’t be included in America’s Cup crews of the future.

“I think the Volvo round the world race people are on the right track, where they are setting requirements for having a certain number of women on the boat,” Egnot says in Yachting NZ’s podcast, Broad Reach Radio.

“I think with the America’s Cup, that might be the way to go as well. The trouble is it’s very difficult for women to get the experience out-right to get good enough to compete with the guy in that same position.

“With the level of fitness that’s required and the strength, it will always be really tough, unless you are the skipper or helmswoman. I think that might be the way to go if you want to see more women in the current way the America’s Cup is sailed.”

The AC9F test model being put through its paces on the Waitemata Harbour. Photo: Georgia Schofield/Yachting Developments

Egnot’s son, Nick Egnot-Johnson, is part of the RNZYS squad trying out for the Youth America’s Cup crew. He’s currently No.2 skipper in the world match race rankings.

The trialists for the Squadron team will start fitness tests soon, and will then be split into two crews to sail against each other in trials before settling on a team of 10.

Yachting New Zealand CEO David Abercrombie made his disappointment known when the 36th America’s Cup rules were announced and there was no quota for yachtswomen in the crews.

But he’s thrilled to see the Youth America’s Cup bring in a gender balance.

“The boat is cool, and the concept is fantastic,” he says. “There’s been amazing interest from around the world, and I’m absolutely convinced that’s not just about the boat and the opportunity to sail in New Zealand, but the opportunity for boys and girls to sail together.  

“I’m really pleased they picked up on that, having two girls and two boys. It wasn’t initially on the radar. But it just adds another pathway for our youngsters coming through.”

The AC9F was drawn up by a team at Yachting Developments in Hobsonville, where the first model was built. The owner of the company, Ian Cook, who’s also commodore of the RNZYS, says the boat has been designed to be sailed by anyone. 

“Both males and females can sail any kind of boats,” Cook says. “The boat was designed to provide a great sailing product for this event which has similarities to the larger America’s Cup AC75s.

“We believe the AC9Fs will generate great competition and an even playing field for all the teams involved, while leading from the front in terms of modern yacht design. The event is shaping up to really be a melting pot of global sailing talent for both males and females to participate in.”

But will it have the desired effect of ultimately getting more women on America’s Cup yachts? Porter hopes so.

“This is definitely a great stepping stone towards encouraging the America’s Cup to embrace mixed crews,” he says.

“As has been shown by previous Youth America’s Cup events, a large number of these sailors go on to be involved in the America’s Cup.” The 2013 winning team from New Zealand included current Team NZ crew Peter Burling, Blair Tuke, Andy Maloney and Guy Endean.

“So if this event is a success, then it will be a great example of how mixed crews can work well and provide a superb product,” Porter says.

“There are a number of females involved in the design and administration sides of the teams in the America’s Cup, but it would be great to think that this event showed that mixed crews were a possibility in the future.”

* Original plans for the 2021 Youth America’s Cup included a fleet racing seeding event in China in November 2020, are likely to be cancelled because of Covid-19. The New Zealand regatta has been extended instead.

LockerRoom is made possible by contributions from readers like you. Become a supporter to expand our in-depth coverage of women's sport in NZ.

Become a Supporter

With thanks to our partners