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Women in Sailing: Pathways of a top Olympic helm and Engineer

by Michael Brown, Yachting NZ 20 Mar 18:06 PDT 21 March 2019
Gemma Jones/Jason Saunders ( NZL) - Nacra 17 - Hempel Sailing World Championships, Aarhus, Denmark, August 2018 © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Earlier this month, to mark International Women's Day, Yachting NZ interviewed four women, all born in 1994, tell their stories about the vastly different directions they took in their sailing.

Below we republish the recollections and comments from Gemma Jones who placed fourth in the Nacra 17 at the Rio Olympics and was the top female helm, and Emirates Team New Zealand Performance Engineer, Elise Beavis, who is also a serious competitor in the Waszp foiling singlehander she explains her pathway into the champion America's Cup team where her first project was working on the issues surrounding the use of cyclors.

For the interviews with so-called "lifestyle sailor" Gen Saunders and sailmaker Alison Kent click here

Gemma Jones:

My dream, ever since I was a little girl, was to win an Olympic medal. I came close in 2016, finishing fourth in the Nacra in Rio with Jason Saunders, and that ambition is still what drives me.

Olympic sailing can be ruthless, and your funding for a year can all come down to one regatta, but it’s also incredibly fun and rewarding. I didn’t expect it to be such a long career. I thought it would be one Olympics and then you would go on a different career path. But sailing is a career. Winning a medal is success just like owning a business.

My parents were sailors so sailing as a career was a normal thing when I was a youngster. We moved to Spain because of Dad’s job when I was little and the sailing scene was a lot different to here, a lot less intense. I enjoyed getting out on the water each day.

I enjoyed some success in the Optimist class but also found it frustrating at times when things didn't go my way. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to do well at every regatta and, when I didn't, I wondered if perhaps I didn't have it.

I remember speaking to one of my dad’s friends after a really bad day and he had won a gold in the 470 and he was like, ‘I hated the Opti and used to count from the back’. It wasn’t until he changed to being a 420 crew that he really enjoyed it. I thought, ‘that sounds like me’. I really liked going fast, so I changed to being a 420 crew when we moved back to New Zealand and sailed with my best friend. We were going to win that Olympic medal.

My dad's friend helped me realise that how you go at a certain age isn't a good representation of what you can go on to achieve. Often size at a particular age can be a big factor in results and it's not fair to make judgements until you mature and really start to work hard.

I was introduced to catamarans when I went to the youth worlds. It was also the time the America’s Cup was changing to cats and it looked really fun. I guess I was in the right place at the right time but I’ve also worked hard to get where I am.

It’s a really good time to be a girl who loves sailing. It’s not a matter of if sailing is going to offer more opportunities for women but when. It’s going to happen. For that 12-year-old girl out there, they are in that perfect spot. There will be places on America’s Cup teams for girls, just like there was for the last Volvo Ocean Race, and in things like the TP52s.

I often tell young girls into sailing to get on the pathway they enjoy and they will be successful at it because they enjoy it and have the energy to get up in the morning to go and do it. It’s worked for me.

Elise Beavis

I'm in my dream job working at Emirates Team New Zealand. It also happens to be my first job out of university.

I’m a performance engineer with Team New Zealand, involved with performance analysis and running the simulator as we design the AC75 for the next America’s Cup. In the last campaign, I primarily worked on aerodynamics, particularly around fairing design and crew windage. The new America’s Cup boats are going to be awesome. I was lucky enough to go on the boat last time and the thing that struck me was the G-forces when turning.

I still do plenty of sailing and in January went to Perth to compete in the Australian Waszp championships and then the Waszp Games. I’m absolutely buzzing being back on the water again and in a boat that goes fast. I still like competing, so this is a great way to satisfy that need.

I did reasonably well as a young sailor after the Optimist, and went to the 2010 Youth Olympics in France. But when I finished school, I realised I didn’t have the sufficient drive to be successful in perusing an Olympic campaign, and that I was more driven academically. As a result, I completed an engineering degree at The University of Auckland.

A requirement of the degree is to do 800 hours of practical work and I did most of that with Pure Design and Engineering, working on structural analysis tools. Through that, I was connected with ETNZ technical director Daniel Bernasconi. I finished my practical experience with Team New Zealand, which transitioned into an ongoing job. Working at ETNZ was my dream job but I wasn’t expecting to get a there so early in my career.

The sailing industry is still very male-dominated but that is changing and the design side, for instance, will get a lot more balanced as more female engineering graduates filter into the workforce.

I’ve realised there’s so much more to the sport of sailing. There’s obviously the Olympic pathway, but you might want to sail keelboats or go match racing. It doesn’t even have to be racing, you can go cruising. And you don’t have to be a sailor. There’s a huge industry around it: media, marketing, logistics, boat building, design and engineering, sail making, rig design and much more. One of the great things about the sailing industry is that there are so many opportunities beyond just being a sailor.

For the interviews with "lifestyle sailor" Gen Saunders and sailmaker Alison Kent click here

For more news from Yachting New Zealand click here

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