Kiwi sailor determined not to be another statistic

Erica Dawson didn't want to be another female who dropped out of sailing, so now she's focused on the Tokyo Olympics and being a role model instead

Staring out across her playground, the glistening Waitemata Harbour, Erica Dawson knows she could easily have become one of the sailing statistics she’s collected.

The 25-year-old travelled the country, talking to young female sailors, as well as girls no longer in the sport. She quizzed them on what motivates them to sail, the obstacles they’ve faced - or what led them to drop out altogether.

That's a major problem that yachting in New Zealand faces: girls make up around 30 percent of sailors in the junior classes, but by adulthood that sinks to just 20 percent.

Dawson wanted to find out why. Now her six months of research has been turned into Yachting New Zealand’s new strategy for women and girls in sailing – with the aim to attract more female sailors, keep those who are already sailing and advance equal opportunities.

In her own sailing career, Dawson has endured her fair share of peaks and troughs, and there have been times where she’s been seriously tempted to give the sport away.

But the glint of an Olympic medal has kept her on the water, and she’s striving to be on the start-line at the Tokyo Olympics next year.

It’s barely six months ago that Dawson paired with Micah Wilkinson to sail in the Nacra 17 – a foiling multihull with a mixed gender crew. And they’re already one of three strong Kiwi crews all gunning for one spot at the Tokyo Olympics.

In the next fortnight, they should find out just where they sit in the pecking order when they race in the world championships, on their home waters of Auckland.

“Tokyo is our number one goal,” Dawson says.  “Micah and I have a long-term plan for the 2024 Olympics in Paris as well, but Tokyo is definitely our focus at the moment. 

“It’s cool to even be in the running for it.  Six months ago, I didn’t think I was.”

Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson are on a steep trajectory learning to sail the fully-foiling Nacra 17 together. Photo: Suellen Hurling/Live Sail Die

This time last year, Dawson was in sailing limbo.

As a kid, she showed exceptional talent in a dinghy. She won the Tanner Cup – the national championship in the P Class – in 2010. In 74 years of racing for the trophy in the iconic Kiwi dinghy, Dawson is one of just two girls to win it,  with Olympic champion Jo Aleh.  

Dawson then became the first female to win the national Starling championships.

After seeing Aleh and Polly Powrie claim gold at the 2012 London Olympics, Dawson decided to give the Olympic classes a go, and started sailing the brand new 49erFX skiff. Teaming with Ellie Copeland, the teenagers finished 24th at the inaugural world champs in 2013; at the same regatta, fellow Kiwis Alex Maloney and Molly Meech won the world title.

Although they worked their way through the fleet, to be 10th at the 2015 European champs, Dawson and Copeland eventually parted company.

Dawson found a new sailing partner in Kate Stewart, and the pair finished an encouraging 13th at their first 49erFX worlds in 2017, followed by third at the Enoshima Olympic week. But they were still stuck in the wake of Maloney and Meech, the silver medallists at the Rio Olympics.

Then Stewart decided to try out for medical school – and Dawson was on her own again.

“It was the right decision for Kate,” says Dawson, who got a degree in business while she was sailing. “And we’re still great friends.

“But it was a tough time, the next year and a half, trying to find the right fit for me. There were definitely times when I thought about giving it all away.

“But then I decided to take every opportunity that popped up.”

She sailed keelboats, an 18ft skiff, joined the New Zealand women’s matchracing crew and even helped deliver a boat to the Pacific Islands.

But the Olympics kept calling her. Keen to try a completely different boat, Dawson took up an invitation from Henry Haslett to steer his Nacra 17 multihull.

The Nacra 17 was designed from scratch especially for the Olympics. A thrilling speed machine, sailed by one man and one woman, it made its debut at the last Games in Rio.

Kiwi crew Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders finished fourth in Rio, but in the past year, it’s been a case of musical chairs in the New Zealand Nacra 17 fleet.

Jones has now paired with former 49er world silver medallist Josh Porebski, while Saunders is sailing with Olivia Mackay. She had been sailing with Wilkinson, and they’d qualified New Zealand a Nacra spot for the 2020 Olympics.

So Wilkinson and Dawson then joined forces – just six weeks before the Olympic dress rehearsal event in Japan in August (where they finished 17th).

Dawson and Wilkinson have the worlds in Auckland, then the next worlds in Melbourne in February, to prove they deserve the Olympic spot in Tokyo. Photo: Suellen Hurling/Live Sail Die.

Although the Kiwi crews are all new, the Nacra has changed too – it’s now a fully-foiling cat - which has put everyone on a steep learning curve.

“It’s levelled out the playing field, which makes it exciting for the trials to get to the Olympics,” Dawson says.

Dawson and Wilkinson have also switched roles on their new boat – she’s crewing, he’s steering.  “When I first started, I didn’t know how I was going to sail this thing - the loads are so heavy,” says Dawson. She’s getting physically stronger.

“I’ve always enjoyed sailing with both guys and girls. A lot of it isn’t about whether you’re male or female, but if you work well with the person next to you,” she says.

“Micah’s very lively and full of energy – we have a lot of fun.”

With Aleh as their coach, they’re getting quicker too, especially in wind and waves. At the recent national championships – in a fleet bulked up with international crews preparing for the world championships in Auckland in December – Wilkinson and Dawson finished third. Mackay and Saunders won the title.

The Nacra worlds, which will be sailed out of the Royal Akarana Yacht Club on the same waters as the 2021 America’s Cup, will also serve as the first trial for New Zealand’s Olympic contenders. The world championships for the 49er and 49erFX will be sailed at the same time in the same place.

Dawson never imagined being a full-time sailor, but she’s training five days a week and spending countless hours finely tuning the boat. A career in business or entrepreneurship will have to wait (she won an innovation competition at Massey University with her idea of a waterproof headset for coaching sailors).

She’s proud of the work she did for Yachting NZ, identifying “what drives girls to sail, what the barriers are, and how we can keep more girls in the sport”.

“When girls - and boys - first start sailing, they’re out in the elements; it’s not an easy sport to start,” she says. “So it’s really important those beginning stages are kept fun and supportive - until the point where they want to go out sailing themselves, rather than being pushed to go out.

“For girls, it’s important to have a clan around them. Girls like doing what their friends are doing.”

When Dawson started in the Murray’s Bay learn-to-sail programme, she was surrounded by friends. “I loved it from the start,” she says. “It was just so freeing before on the water.

“But I was one of those kids who wanted to play everything - I just hated the thought of dropping something. My parents were really supportive – taking me from my netball game straight to sailing training.”

Now, Dawson hopes she will be held up as an example to other young girls.

“Having role models was really important to me. Girls need role models who are just like them,” she says.

“When I started, my role models were the sailors just a few steps ahead of me. Like Alex Maloney in the Optimist a couple of years ahead of me; she was always doing awesome things.

“If we can all give back to the people who are just two steps below us, and give them a helping hand up, it will be invaluable. I try through coaching or just talking to girls at the yacht club.

“I’ve had some tough times, but they've made me want it just a bit more.”

* Sky Sport will broadcast live all six days of the Nacra 17, 49er and 49erFX world championships in Auckland on November 29-December 8 - believed to be a world-first for an Olympic class world champs.

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