Making waves: the female athletes plotting a course for SailGP history

Making waves: the female athletes plotting a course for SailGP history

Physics-defying, high-speed sport of the ‘Formula One of sailing’ is breaking down barriers on the high seas.

If you wanted to see how SailGP is changing the culture of sailing, last month’s event in Singapore offered a perfect visual. Each of the boat’s crews carry two grinders, usually a pair of towering men with Popeye biceps whose arms can generate the same power output as an Olympic rowers’ legs. When the US boat won the second race of the heats, however, there was a woman at the winch. She was 5ft 4in and 19 years old.

“I’m probably the world’s smallest grinder,” says a laughing CJ Perez, the team strategist who also grinds when winds are especially light. “The first time I did it, two years ago, I was gassed afterwards.”

She took herself to the gym and worked on her strength. After the race in Singapore, she screamed with delight as they crossed the finish line. “I was just so happy, I felt I had helped the team a lot.”

This is season three of SailGP, the global competition designed by the America’s Cup legend Russell Coutts to be the Formula One of sailing. In its roster of “grand prix”, foiling catamarans fly around courses at such high speeds that their hulls never need to touch the water and sailors are pinned to the sides of the craft by the G-force. On Saturday and Sunday, spectators will flock to the Sydney shoreline to watch the spectacle, promising everything from physics-defying manoeuvres to dramatic capsizes and, occasionally, collisions.

Not so long ago, there was no such thing as a professional racing career in sailing. The apex of the sport, the America’s Cup, takes place every four years and opportunities to take part have always been restricted to a handful of athletes. They have always been men.

SailGP’s inaugural season in 2018 was an all-male affair, but when it returned for its second edition in 2020-21, the rules required every team to take to the water with at least one female crew member. Their “women’s pathway programme” was intended to open up elite racing and its immediate success proves how powerful such structural interventions can be.

Perez grew up in Honolulu, but while all her friends surfed she never tried watersports until six years ago. “I didn’t come from a family of sailors,” she says, “and I don’t want to say I was clueless, but all I wanted was to get on the water and go fast. It wasn’t until I started going abroad and racing internationally that I saw, wow, there aren’t enough females in the sport.”

A natural from the moment she stepped in a boat, Perez won her first world title within two years. Jimmy Spithill, captain of SailGP’s USA team, was the youngest winner of the America’s Cup in 2010 and when he saw videos of Perez he knew he was looking at a future star. In 2021, she made her SailGP debut, the first Latina and the youngest woman in the competition.

She admits to more than a few rookie mistakes. “The first day I went on the F50 I had put my wetsuit on backwards,” she says. “The guys on the chase boat pointed it out. The logos were all on my butt.”

The generation gap with the rest of the crew (at 43, Spithill is old enough to be her father) makes for equally amusing culture clash at the team’s HQ, where the soundtrack is usually 80s music and country. “I want to listen to hip-hop and talk about boys, but I don’t think they’re into that.”

Natasha Bryant, of the Australia team, is three years older than Perez. Growing up in north Sydney, her ambition was to play soccer for her country. “I had my heart set on being a Matilda,” she says. “But my brother was getting competitive with his sailing and he needed a training partner.”

Aged 11, she went out on the water with him every day after school, a sibling rivalry that pushed them both. Their next-door neighbour and babysitter Jason Waterhouse, who won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, was their sporting role model. He’s now Bryant’s crew-mate on the Australia team.

Like Perez, Bryant had been surprised by the small pool of female talent. “At our first youth world championships there were 250 boats and less than 20 of those were girls’ teams.” Having missed out on selection at her first SailGP trial, she found herself on an F50 a few weeks later and was handed the wheel by the Australia captain, Tom Slingsby.

“I was there as the reserve sailor, so I wasn’t even sure if I’d get on the boat,” says Bryant. “But Tom didn’t give me any time to think about it, he just said ‘here you go’… I was really naive. Everyone laughs at me, but I’d only been in dinghies before, so I’d never sailed anything with a wheel. I was thinking: ‘OK, it’ll be kind of like driving a car.’ It wasn’t.”

Skippering an F50 is like nothing else on earth. Flying speeds of up to 60mph (Olympic-class boats top out at less than 20mph) require quick thinking and nerves of steel. They also demand perfect communication between the crew, especially the wing trimmer, responsible for managing the windpower to the boat, and the flight controller, whose job is to keep the boat off the water and gliding on its foils. Two grinders work on the winch handles to move the wing back and forth as required.

The remaining role, which all of the women on the pathway programme assume, is that of strategist, feeding information that helps the team make best use of conditions and anticipating the movements of the other boats to find the driver the fastest route. “The races are so short that if you collide or get stuck with traffic it’s really hard to get out of it,” says Bryant. “And everything happens so quickly that the further ahead you can plan the easier it is to have a smooth clean race.”

For Hannah Mills, the role came naturally. She and Ben Ainslie are the most successful British Olympic sailors of all time and their skills complement each other well. “Ben used to be a single-handed sailor, whereas I have always sailed double-handed,” she says. “I came from Tokyo with a lot of skills and experience in communicating in a team.”

Bryant found the most urgent lesson was when to talk and when not to. “In my first few races I got so nervous I was a little bit quiet.” The encouragement of her more experienced male teammates gave her confidence. “Now I pretend I’m the one driving and think: ‘What input would I like to hear right now?’”

All three women want to become drivers and they can achieve that only by gaining experience on the F50s, which is hard when the athletes sail the boats for only three days each race weekend. “The lack of training time is the biggest challenge,” says Perez.

“The organisers have talked about putting in a training block next season to have the women on the boat for longer, but you need funding to do that.” She will miss the next two races to give other women on the US team the opportunity to sail.

The Australia GP will be Mills’s third race; she debuted in 2021 before stepping back to have her first baby. Off the boat, she took responsibility for a number of gender equality and sustainability projects including the Athena Pathway, which she and Ainslie launched last August to fast-track female athletes into high-performance foiling and encourage young people into careers within the sport. It is the engine room for the British campaign to win the first Women’s America’s Cup and defend the Youth America’s Cup in Barcelona next year.

Returning post-pregnancy was a feat of physical preparation. “I was nervous because I’d gone from being in the best form of my life at the Tokyo Olympics to a very different body,” says Mills. In Singapore, she had her ankles taped to combat the softening of ligaments that occurs when breastfeeding.

Motherhood contributed to her decision not to launch an Olympic campaign for Paris 2024, but the opportunities afforded by SailGP are also a factor. Bryant, who missed out on selection for Tokyo, says even a year ago she never imagined any career in sailing beyond the Olympic Games. “It was what I wanted to do for so many years and it’s weird to change my mind, but SailGP has given us an avenue I never really thought was possible. I enjoy being with this team and I’m learning so much.”

Thanks to her fellow crew, Bryant owns her first Moth, a foiling dinghy for single-handed racing, while Perez will soon be in Miami, trialling for the USA team for the Women’s America’s Cup. “In high school I didn’t even think sailing was a profession,” she says. “This is history in the making.”

OG Article – The Guardian

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