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Gladwell's Line: Has the Kiwi America's Cup Womans sailing squad just selected itself?

by Richard Gladwell/Sail-World 14 Apr 20:47 PDT 15 April 2022
Live Ocean Racing team will compete in ETF26 Grand Prix © Georgia Schofield

Almost by default, Emirates Team New Zealand seems to have selected their team for the 2024 Women's America's Cup and set that squad's learning program covering the next year and maybe two.

Wednesday's announcement that Live Ocean Racing is entering an all-woman crew in the ETF26 Grand Prix circuit is a huge step forward for New Zealand sailing.

The crew will compete against six male or maybe mixed gender crews and one other all-female team.

In the early days of the Dalton/Shoebridge regime, sailing squad training was carefully dovetailed with the America's Cup program.

The current approach is a lot more laissez-faire, where the sailing team essentially decides what it will sail and when it will sail.

Under the previous management approach, there is no way that ETNZ would be sailing in the Larry Ellison owned/Russell Coutts managed SailGP team. The NZSailGP team, under the baton of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, gives ETNZ a backdoor entry to the best build-up circuit available for the 2024 America's Cup.

The same laissez-faire approach also seems to be in play for the selection of the Women's America's Cup team with the entry into the five regatta EFT26 circuit.

After years of tip-toeing around the inclusion of women in open competition, Burling and Tuke are the first to have the courage to step back and give female sailors the opportunity to test themselves in open competition, without the crutch of gender quotas, and in boats that require sailing skill rather than grunt to get around the track.

Of course, there have been all-woman teams in the past - Team SCA in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race and Mighty Mary in the Defence trials for the 1995 America's Cup.

We've never been a fan of gender quotas for women in what would otherwise be an all-male crew.

In our view, gender quotas are a patronising and condescending approach.

The time is long overdue for women to be given the opportunity to compete on a physically equal basis in a professional sailing team on a high-performance circuit.

The initiative by Live Ocean Racing means Emirates Team New Zealand have essentially had their Women's America's Cup team selected for them and a training program put in place under the management of Live Ocean Racing. Similarly, ETNZ's AC75 sailing team competes as NZSailGP on the SailGP circuit, racing against many of Emirates Team NZ's rivals in the 2024 America's Cup.

It's a very hands-off approach, placing a lot of trust in the sailors - but it has the benefit of cutting away a lot of cost and logistics from the America's Cup team - while ensuring the AC team gets high quality, high-pressure racing competition. All that is required from the AC team is some oversight and ensuring on-the-water testing requirements for the new AC75 raceboat are not compromised.

Filling that competition gap is essential given the Defenders being excluded from participating in the Challenger Selection Series. It's a different approach from the last couple of campaigns - where the core sailing crew pursued their various Olympic programs and then raced their AC75 against their chase boat.

Of course, the ETF (Easy To Fly) 26 program won't please those who call for women sailors to be included in an America's Cup AC75 sailing team simply because they are females.

A Class Rule tweak?

A simple rule change in the AC75 class rule could provide some additional incentive to include female sailors in an AC75 crew.

The current AC75 Class Rule limits the crew to 8 persons (of any gender) and a maximum crew weight of 680-700kg, for an average crew weight of 87.5kgs. The 2021 AC75 Class Rule allowed 11 crew (any gender), weighing a total of 960-990kg or an average of 90kg.

By simply deleting the number of crew in the AC75 Class Rule and specifying only a total crew weight, the teams would have the ability to trade off numbers against crew physique.

By not specifying the crew numbers, the teams can opt to put nine crew on board, but with a lighter average weight crew and gain an extra pair of hands. That encourages the inclusion of female sailors, who are usually of a lighter physique than their male counterparts. Or teams could stay with an all-male crew and get the heaviest crew permitted under the AC75 rules.

Live Ocean Racing's ETF26 program will allow women sailors to follow the same path as the other newbie sailors aspiring to step up into the AC75.

From the ETF26, if they are good enough, the female sailors can go across and try out as part of the four-crew AC40. The next step up from the AC40 is to put in the testing hours on the AC75 and build their experience that way.

Arguably women wanting to crack into the AC75 now have an easier route than the males. The males don't have an ETF26 program to gain foiling race experience - it's straight into the AC40 if they are lucky, or the AC75. But progression, for both genders, has to be on merit.

A lot won't make the cut onto the AC75 sailing team, but there are plenty of other roles in an America's Cup team, depending on what other skills they have and what they can contribute.

Despite our earlier expressed reservations about the merits of a female crew quota, it has to be said that the quota rule did work well in the last Volvo Ocean Race.

In that context, crew numbers could vary from seven all-male crew to 10 sailors if there was a 50/50 male/female split and 11 crew if there was an all-female crew. Most had two female sailors on board.

It was refreshing to see the open discussion of a "skills gap" between the men and women involved in the Live Ocean Racing squad.

That clears the way for the focus to shift onto how to resolve the skills gap rather than debating whether it exists. The skills gap is nothing to do with gender. We're all victims of our own experiences, and when you move into a new field, the learning curve is steep.

The breadth of that experience gap for the women of the Live Ocean Racing EFT26 team will be revealed this weekend with the first event in La Trinitie. It may not be very great, which will be encouraging.

The Live Ocean Racing squad comprises a group of the top women sailors in New Zealand - Olympic Gold and Silver medalists and former world champions. They are definitely the creme de la creme of the Kiwi women's sailing scene.

At this stage, results don't matter too much on the EFT26, provided Live Ocean Racing can finish the course - and then get a list of "work-ons" established and start being checked off.

The new Live Ocean Racing team must be allowed to work the issues out for themselves, in conjunction with their coaches, rather than taking the soft option of putting male sailors on board to fill any skill gaps. It may be OK as a training measure - but it is not a good look when the media and fans are watching and blokes start appearing in what has been billed as a female crew.

That happened aboard Mighty Mary in the final phase of the Defender Trials ahead of the 1995 America's Cup.

Cup veteran Dave Dellenbaugh was brought in as a tactician on the hitherto all-female crew, replacing the highly respected JJ Isler in an attempt to get some wins on the board. The move didn't improve the racing performance and results. It did a lot of damage to the team, who were seen to have abandoned their long-standing principles.

The Washington Post headline screamed: "All-Female America's Cup team, Mighty Mary, hires a Man". Ironically the same story, by the excellent Cup correspondent Angus Phillips claimed the diminutive Dellenbaugh was physically the weakest person on board.

If there are occasions when the ETF26 Circuit schedule clashes with the Olympic programs of the Live Ocean Racing team members. Then a better move is to bring in female sailors of other nationalities as fill-ins rather than the Kiwi blokes.

The Live Ocean Racing all-female team must be given the time and investment to succeed. The rewards are enormous, and the raison d'être for the EFT26 component of the all-woman Live Ocean Race team must not be compromised.

Otherwise, this group, which promises so much, will become just another professional racing team remembered as blowing it to make their mark in sailing and America's Cup history.

Of course, how the other America's Cup teams go about selecting and training their Womens America's Cup teams will be one of the fascinating aspects of the 2024 America's Cup.

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