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49er FX: Martine Grael returns to her sailing nursery

by Suzanne McFadden 2 Dec 2019 16:40 PST 3 December 2019
Brazil's Kahena Kunze (L) and Martine Grael celebrate their win at Ready Steady Tokyo © Jesus Renedo / Sailing Energy / World Sailing

An Olympic sailing champion who learned to race on Auckland's harbour is back to claim a world title, but can Martine Grael claim Kiwi hearts like her famous dad once did?

For four glorious summers, Martine Grael grew up in Auckland, learning how to race sailboats.

At the turn of the millennium, eight-year-old Grael came to New Zealand from Brazil following her famous sailing father, Torben Grael. He was calling tactics for the Italian Prada campaign – who captured Kiwi hearts and sailed against Team New Zealand for the 2000 America’s Cup.

The Grael family are South American sailing royalty.

Martine’s great grandfather, Preben Schmidt, left Denmark and pioneered sailing in Brazil. Two of her great uncles were the first Brazilians to win a world title, and her father is regarded as one of the world’s most multi-talented sailors.

Torben Grael has won five Olympic medals, making him one of Brazil’s most decorated athletes. He’s also won the round-the-world race skippering Ericsson in 2008-09 and challenged three times for the America’s Cup.

He encouraged both of his children into sailing, and was Brazil’s team coach when they both sailed in their hometown Rio Olympics – Marco finishing 11th in the 49er (won by Kiwis Peter Burling and Blair Tuke), and Martine winning gold. It was the eighth Olympic medal for the Grael family.

“Winning at home, I don’t think it could get any better,” Martine Grael says. Thousands went wild on Flamengo Beach when Grael and Kunze won - and then capsized their boat. "I think I knew half the crowd there. It was truly a great moment.”

After the Olympics, Grael took a year off the 49erFX to pursue another ambition – to sail around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race.

She circumnavigated the globe in a mixed crew on board Akzo Nobel – an achievement she thought impossible.

“For me it was almost like the America’s Cup is now. I thought it was a little out of my reach, because I didn’t have any real offshore sailing experience,” she says. But with the rule change to encourage more women on boats, “suddenly it got a whole lot more interesting.”

But in the hours before the race started in Alicante, Grael almost walked away from the campaign. An “out of the blue” crew change on the day of the start saw four experienced sailors leave. One of them was Kiwi Brad Jackson, who had sailed around the world with Grael’s father.

“Suddenly they were gone from the team, and I didn’t know anyone else on board. I doubted whether or not I would go,” she says.

“My Dad let me decide. I had friends who were very emphatic and said ‘Please don’t miss this opportunity’. I’m very thankful for that advice. It was a very intense, but very enriching experience.”

She admits struggling at times with the mixed crew environment. “We had a lot of very experienced guys, and some very young, inexperienced women. It was hard not having more experience to be at the same level. It was a big learning curve,” she says.

Grael just needs to sail in an America’s Cup now to equal her dad. But right now, she can’t see how. It’s unlikely there will be many – if any - women sailing in next year’s Prada Cup, to find a challenger to meet Emirates Team New Zealand.

“For sure, I’d like to,” she says. “But I can’t picture now how I could help. Eventually the moment will come I will see where I can be useful. The America’s Cup is about the best of the best.”

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