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SailGP NZ: Fast-tracking female sailors to the sport's Formula One

by Suzanne McFadden/Newsroom 8 Feb 2021 03:57 PST 8 February 2021
Erica Dawson and Liv Mackay will join Olympic and America's Cup champions Blair Tuke and Peter Burling in their NZL Sail GP team in Bermuda, learning the ropes of sailing a 50ft foiling cat. Photo: NZL Sail GP © NZL SailGP

Will we see women racing on America’s Cup boats again? It may be a step closer to reality, with Erica Dawson and Liv Mackay in New Zealand’s crew for the Sail GP world circuit.

For years, Erica Dawson has imagined a day when she could sail alongside the best male sailors on board the world’s fastest foiling yachts.

“To be honest, I’d dreamed of it, but I wasn’t really sure it would be possible,” the 27-year-old Olympian-in-waiting says.

And now it is. And around 250 million pairs of eyes could be on her as she realises that dream.

No pressure, of course.

It may not yet be the America’s Cup, but Dawson and fellow foiling multihull sailor, Liv Mackay, have been given the opportunity to try to “bridge the gap” – sailing with the Peter Burling and Blair Tuke’s maiden New Zealand crew in the global Sail GP series.

Burling, who’s right now at the wheel of the Cup defender Emirates Team New Zealand, is on the same page as Dawson and Mackay – he sees no reason why women can’t sail in today’s America’s Cup.

But what’s holding them back, he says, is the lack of experience on fast, hi-tech flying machines, and the knowledge to know how to handle them.

“Nothing is stopping it right now. Rather it’s the skill and knowledge gap that’s the problem,” says Burling. “We’re doing our part to help bridge that gap and give women the chance to compete at the highest level of our sport.

“These things take time, but we’ll do everything we can to help fast-track that, and improve the skills and knowledge of our female sailors. It’s something Blair and I are incredibly passionate about.”

The inclusion of Dawson and Mackay is part of the gender equality initiative introduced by Sail GP, the foiling monohull global series billed as sailing’s Formula One, and run by another Kiwi sailing legend, Sir Russell Coutts.

When Season 2 starts in Bermuda in April (the global pandemic allowing), every national crew sailing in the event must have at least one woman in their team.

The Sail GP fleet racing on Sydney Harbour in January 2020, before Covid-19 cancelled the rest of the season. Photo: Getty Images. All eight teams will have two female sailors at the pre-season training camp in Bermuda, where they’ll learn the ropes on the F50 foiling cats, before being immersed in the first racing of the winner-takes-all $US1 million series – which boasts a global audience of 256 million viewers.

After the Bermuda Grand Prix, Burling and Tuke will likely narrow it down to one woman to join the team for the rest of the eight-stop series.

Mackay and Dawson are used to competing against each other for one spot – last year Dawson edged out Mackay for a place at the Tokyo Olympics in the mixed-gender Nacra 17 foiling multihull. “It’s lucky we get on really well,” Dawson quips.

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