Women spot changes in SailGP
As New Zealand wins its first SailGP event in Plymouth, Kristy Havill goes behind the scenes of the team and the world regatta, and see where Olympic champion Jo Aleh and other sailors make the difference.
The fastest growing professional sports league in the world? Check. The most ecological and sustainable sporting event on the planet? Check. Sailing high octane? Check. Women on board every ship? You guessed it – check.
The 50ft high performance foiling catamarans that race in SailGP, in some of the world’s most iconic locations, are absolutely beautiful, requiring skill, courage and physical fitness to battle it out.
Until the second season of the SailGP league, launched by Kiwi Sir Russell Coutts, female sailors had no opportunity to sail foiling catamarans of this size.
That all changed with the launch of the SailGP women’s course program. Now, female athletes race alongside and against the best of their male counterparts in an effort to close the gaping gender experience gap in sailing bigger, faster boats.
Sailing GP races are short and precise – just 13 minutes – and with nine F50s flying around the course at speeds of up to 50 knots, it can make for chaotic and congested races.
This is where communication skills and the extra pair of eyes that each sailor brings to the boat are crucial, as evidenced by the British Sailing Grand Prix, on Plymouth Sound, where the direction and speed of the winds were constantly changing.
This prompted all three boats in the second day final, including New Zealand, to come off their foils and become sitting ducks in the water; their crews work frantically together to be the first boat to find the next gust of wind and get back to foiling.
In her first SailGP event, Olympic gold medalist Jo Aleh constantly turned her head from side to side, looking for the next bursts, then looking behind her to assess the progress of her opponents Denmark and Italy. Australia.
From her vantage point on the boat she could see things helmsman Peter Burling couldn’t, and that proved to be a valuable contribution to the team’s performance – as New Zealand stalled his first Sail GP title and collected valuable points to secure a place. in the season-ending championship race.
Always outspoken and humble as possible, Aleh downplayed his contribution to the team’s success.
“The boys have done a lot of hard work behind the scenes,” said Aleh, 36. “It’s cool to see us put it all together and perform when it matters. The race was at the same pace as the training, so when you do that you know you’re doing it well.
But there is no doubt that the women aboard these flying F50s make the difference.
Initially, each of the eight countries competing in season two held training camps for their country’s top female sailors before selecting a couple to step into the fold and immerse themselves in roles out of the water with their respective teams at each Grand Prix.
The New Zealand SailGP team, co-skippered by Burling and Blair Tuke, took on experienced Nacra17 sailors Liv Mackay and Erica Dawson. Mackay recently shared his thoughts on his role with LockerRoom.
An argument could be made that there was a check mark element going on, having the women so close to the action so far – especially since the women didn’t feature in the first season in 2019.
On the recent stop in Plymouth, I asked Sail GP Inclusion Program Manager Lindsay Molyneux if that was the case. She confirmed that was not the case and that the organizers are taking the time to get it right.
“We’re really building, and we’re only at the beginning of our journey,” says Molyneux. “We navigate through this, put in probes, talk to the teams and make sure they buy into it and believe in what we’re doing.”
It’s a sensible approach to take. Forcing female athletes to take to the deep end, without the proper level of training on boats they previously only dreamed of sailing, would not only be unfair, but unsustainable to the success of the program.
The wait was worth it. Organizers announced ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix in Cadiz last October that the racing configuration of each boat would be reduced from five members to six, and the sixth must be a woman.
The first task for each team was to figure out how best to use the skills of their female athlete and sixth sailor on board. Each team has chosen a role of “assistant helm”, where the navigator is located in the cockpit just behind the helmsman, or the driver as they like to call him in Sail GP.
What this all looks like in practice differs slightly from team to team, and the New Zealand team has decided that in addition to its communication of strategy and tactics, the assistant helmsman role will first cross the boat with Tuke and then steer the boat out of maneuvers. until the rest of the cavalry arrives.
The New Zealand team welcomed a third woman to Plymouth, with Aleh, recognized as one of the best sailors in the world. Aleh is now sailing a 49erFX with Molly Meech who is trying to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics. And she hasn’t made a secret of what she’s been through on the big cats.
“That was pretty hectic, huh!” Aleh exclaimed.
“It was very fun and cool to see how we reacted when we backed off just a little bit and stayed very calm and composed and held on – it was impressive to see.”
An Olympic gold and silver medalist, as well as a two-time world champion, Aleh was a valuable addition to the team and one that co-CEOs Burling and Tuke were delighted with.
“We’ve known Jo for a really long time, and she’s settled in really well with the group,” Burling says.
“The Three Women [Aleh, Mackay and Dawson] have done a great job and helped us grow, and that’s an incredible part of the NZ SailGP team – that depth of female talent.
It’s not just communication and strategy that sailors bring to the team, while improving their skills.
Prior to the implementation of this current leg of the women’s course program, a boat’s crew configuration was reduced from five to three members to sail effectively in lighter winds.
Now the number of crew members is reduced from six to four, with the deckhand remaining on the boat and taking on grinding duties – and this provides an opportunity to show off her strength and physique.
And with the rockstars of world sailing in the pilot’s seats, there are arguably no better people to learn from than Burling, Australian Tom Slingsby, Briton Sir Ben Ainslie and another of our favorite Australians – Jimmy Spithill.
Improving the skills and experience of these sailors in all facets of bigger foil boat racing is something Sail GP teams take very seriously. And a few countries in particular are doing all they can to allow their counterparts – with Team Kiwi to lead the charge.
Burling and Tuke took it a step further and created a racing team named after their foundation, Live Ocean.
Live Ocean Racing has entered an all-female team in the 2022 edition of ETF26 races, a series of five events using 26ft hydrofoil catamarans. It is skippered by Mackay with Aleh, Dawson and Olympic silver medalists Meech and Alex Maloney – with various up-and-coming Kiwi female sailors joining the crew depending on the sailors’ schedules.
The meaning of this? It is the only team with an all-female crew.
“It’s something Blair and I are really proud of,” Burling said. “To be able to reinvest in them through Live Ocean Racing and help develop more lanes for women.”
Watching their male counterparts help them bridge the gap to achieve the long-term goal of parity of opportunity is a special sight to behold.
Love him or hate him from his checkered history of taunting the Kiwis during the America’s Cup, Spithill is one of the greatest sailors of his generation and is another rider who makes huge contributions to achieving the objectives of the global inclusion and diversity strategy.
His young manager aboard the American boat is CJ Perez, 18, SailGP’s youngest sailor and also the first Latina to compete. She can’t talk enough about Spithill and how he empowers her to achieve her goals.
“I want to be at the helm of one of these boats one day,” says Perez. “He gave me a lot of driving time. In the formation [in Plymouth] he got off the boat and gave me the keys. He wasn’t even on it, and I did my first jibe without him behind me.
“It was so nice to feel all the responsibility that he normally feels and to be a little closer to being able to do it myself in a race.”
But where does all this lead? What does the long-term future of women’s sailing on foiling boats look like?
I soon discover that this is not a question with a unanimous answer.
All the sailors are united in their response: there is still a long way to go to be at the same level as the men, but they relish the opportunities that are offered to them in the short term.
Ideas such as a women’s SailGP, or a 50/50 women/men ratio on SailGP boats are discussed.
Ultimately, however, what everyone wants to achieve is symbolic of what society is trying to achieve – not just in sports. This fairness and equality is being achieved around the world, so these conversations and focus become unnecessary.
As Molyneux says, “If I can get fired, that would be great.”
* SailGP will finally come to New Zealand next March, race at Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour, and alternate between there and Auckland for the next four years. The next event for Season 3 will take place in Denmark next week.