Please select your home edition
Lloyd Stevenson - SYA3 728x90px TOP

Kiwi women on the ascent

by James Boyd / Sailing Intelligence 19 Sep 07:19 PDT
Kiwi women on the ascent © WMRT

While New Zealand has spawned some of the world's most famous male match racing skippers - Chris Dickson, Russell Coutts, Dean Barker, Adam Minoprio, Phil Robertson - female Kiwi skippers have made less of an impression...until now. James Boyd caught up with Celia Willison at Cowes to find out more..

This week's KDY Women's Match Race Denmark (21-24 September) at Skovshoved Harbour in Copenhagen will be the final event of the 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour season and promises to be a nail biter. But for the first time two of the top three on the Women's Tour leaderboard are from New Zealand. Megan Thomson's Two Point Zero Racing holds third and presently topping the leaderboard is Celia Willison, her Edge Match Racing Team just one slender point ahead of Swede Anna Östling's Team Wings. Östling comes with more experience having twice previously won the Women's World Match Racing Championship and been near or at the top of the women's leaderboard for more than a decade. Barring disaster, whoever wins between Willison and Östling will be crowned 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour Champion.

According to Willison some of the most exciting match racing she has ever experienced has been against her Swedish opponent. In May at the Normandie Match Cup in Le Havre, their first-to-two Petit Final went to six races. "They crashed into us and caused massive damage so we had to do re-races," she recalls, but it wasn't just that: "We had one race which took 40 minutes because someone was always trying to march out the other person at the top for 10 minutes. It was some of the most interesting racing I've done in terms of rules and tactics and match racing. Races against Anna can sometimes take a long time because she is very good at defending around the course." Fortunately on this occasion, and the reason Willison currently leads the Tour, is because she won.

A key reason so many Kiwis populate professional sailing and match racing globally, is the highly refined youth training program (YTP) run since 1987 by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Most top Kiwi pro-sailors have passed through the program in one way or another including world class match racers such as Gavin Brady, Adam Minoprio and two-time match racing world champion Phil Robertson, now helming the Canadian team on the SailGP circuit.

"You do a whole year of match racing," says Willison of the well-funded (it is currently backed by Mastercard) program. "When I did it there were 40 kids - you had to be 18 to do it and you'd go and sail every weekend for the whole year. The program also pays for you to do a few overseas regattas. They sent us to a couple of women's regattas as well. It is an amazing opportunity..."

The elite from the YTP can then graduate up to the RNZYS's Performance Program which has its own fleet of Elliott 7s and even acquired some Flying Phantom foiling catamarans to emulate the evolution of America's Cup yachts. "With the Performance Program they encourage you to put your own team together and get some really good coaching," says Willison. In 2018, aged 19, she formed her Edge Match Racing Team at the same as Megan Thomson was forming her team. "We have been racing against one another since we sailed Optis against one another. It is cool to see her team coming up..."

Willison's first overseas Grade One event was the Helsinki Women's Match in 2018 where she finished seventh, plus three events in Australia, finishing second at the Australian Women's Match Racing Championship.

Edge Match Racing Team's first international season was in 2019 when they started strongly winning the New Zealand Women's Match Racing Championship. They competed in at the Oakcliff International in Oyster Bay, New York and they lined up against an international cast at the Nordea Women's Trophy in Marstrand. Despite racing the M32 catamarans being used on the WMRT at the time, they finished a promising second. "It was great fun but quite terrifying boats!" she recalls of her first catamaran match race on the famous Swedish fjord. "It is a completely different style but it did provide useful skills for the faster boats such as what we are seeing now on the America's Cup."

Her progress ground to a halt for two years during the pandemic when her professional training as a nurse was called upon. "In fact my whole team works in healthcare. I am an emergency nurse. One of my trimmers is a nurse. Another is a paramedic and one is a physiotherapist."

As luck would have it, she and her whole team have boyfriends based in Europe and as the pandemic came to an end they all hightailed it to the Old World from where they decided to reignite their campaign. In 2022, they competed in the latter two of the four event Women's Tour - the EUROSAF Women's Championship in Corfu Greece and the Women's Match Racing World Championship in New Zealand -finishing the inaugural Women's World Match Racing Tour season (and the Auckland event) second overall to Pauline Courtois' French team. "We really knew the boats well and the conditions. Auckland was a very cool venue for us," Willison recalls.

This season they have gone all in, committing to all four events. In the first two, both held in four person J/22s, Willison won April's inaugural Casa Vela Cup hosted at the St Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, but finished second to Östling at the Santa Maria Cup in Annapolis the week after. American Nicole Breault's Vela Racing team was third and Thomson fourth.

At the third tour stage, the Normandie Match Cup in Le Havre at the end of May, Pauline Courtois again proved her skill and local knowledge, winning the final against Thomson on homewaters, leaving Willison and Östling to slog it out in their epic Petit Final. Not on the Tour, but they also competed at the 2023 Women's Match Racing World Championship in Middelfart, Denmark finishing fourth. "It was a bit of a shambles!" recalls Willison.

Next up is the concluding event of the 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour. In the ever evolving world of match racing crew, for this event Willison has one of Courtois' trimmers (the defending champion herself is not racing there). This will add to her team's international mix: two other Kiwis, Serena Woodall and Charlotte Porter sailed with her on the US events along with American Alison Kent, while in her Le Havre crew was Laurane Mettraux, youngest of the famous Swiss sailing siblings.

After Copenhagen, Courtois, Willison and Östling are all on the women's card at the 71st edition of the Bermuda Gold Cup on the Open World Match Racing Tour from 2-7 October and, subject to qualifying enough points, may well find themselves Open WMRT Final in Shenzhen, China from 12-17 December.

Willison has enjoyed the biggest successes in her own right match racing. As other mainstream sports are starting to achieve, she would love the Women's Tour to reach the same level as the Men's Tour has in the past when it was possible to earn a living from the prize money earned racing. Just in its second year, the Women's World Match Racing Tour is currently the only global professional series for women in sailing, and the tour organisation led by WMRT's James Pleasance in the UK are working hard to attract new sponsors to take the Women's Tour to its next and deserved level in the sport. For now, however, Willison has to spend half her year back down under working as a nurse.

However her goal is to become a pro-sailor. While this has been incredibly hard, recent developments, spurred by the Women's World Match Racing Tour, and the addition of female crew on the Ocean Race, have made this slightly less so. There is the Magenta Project which supported Willison, teaming her up with Emma Sanderson (previously round the world sailor Emma Richards) which helped, but Willison advises: "I think you have to have the right attitude. There are girls who carry on 'I am not on a boat, because I am a girl', but right now it is literally the best time ever to be a woman in sailing. You just have to have the right attitude and not be a sensitive little something. This is the way the industry is and you have to mould yourself into it."

In the UK post-Covid as a crew, she won the J/70 Worlds and Cape 31's. This season she is racing on the one design owner-driver 44Cup which is encouraging teams to include a female sailor in their crew. Willison sails with the Swiss Black Star Sailing Team which is unique in having two female crew - on board Willison works the bow - the only female bow-person on the circuit.

However a bigger prize may be on the horizon. Willison has been trialling to be on the Emirates Team New Zealand AC40 for both or either the youth or the female America's Cup. "I am young enough by just two days so I can do the youth and the women's teams..." she explains: Potentially a very bright and exciting future for this 24-year-old female sailor.

Related Articles

2023 KDY Women's Match Race Overall
WINGS clinch Denmark win and Women's World Tour title Sweden's WINGS match racing team led by Anna Östling have been crowned 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour champions after winning the final stage of the tour at the KDY Women's Match Race in Skovshoved Harbour. Posted on 25 Sep
2023 KDY Women's Match Race - Chasing the double
Anna Östling and WINGS crew won all of their six races today Anna Östling and her tenacious WINGS crew today won all of their six races to regain joint lead of the qualifying stage at the KDY Women's Match Race, the final stage of the 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour, hosted by the Royal Danish Yacht Club. Posted on 22 Sep
Women's Match Racing Worlds in Denmark overall
Pauline Courtois wins third match racing world title in a row Superlight winds made it difficult to finish the 2023 Women's Match Racing World Championship finals. French skipper and now triple world champion made winning look easy. Posted on 7 Jul
Women's Match Racing Worlds in Denmark Day 3
Swedish skipper injured after a spectacular crash in the hunt for gold Already littered with spectacular capsizes and impressive sailing, the 2023 Women's Match Racing World Championship proves that women are not afraid to go full throttle when they fight for the gold medal. Posted on 7 Jul
Women's Match Racing Worlds in Denmark Day 2
World Champion undefeated after two days of racing A low pressure with thunderstorms, lightning, and strong winds was predicted to hit the racing area Wednesday afternoon, so an early start could make it possible to catch up on some of the flights that were cancelled on the first day. Posted on 6 Jul
Women's Match Racing Worlds in Denmark Day 1
World Champion Pauline Courtois and Lea Richter Vogelius in front The first day of racing at the 2023 Women's Match Racing World Championship - powered by Bunker One - got off to a flying start in a solid breeze. Posted on 5 Jul
Women's World Match Racing Tour Normandy overall
Pauline Courtois defends title with her Match in Pink team French female match racer Pauline Courtois and her Match in Pink Normandy Elite team proved unstoppable yesterday as they defended their Normandie Match Cup title in Le Havre, France, Stage 3 of the 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour. Posted on 30 May
Women's World Match Racing Tour Normandy day 2
Megan Thomson brings the Kiwi magic Megan Thomson and her 2.0 Racing Team from New Zealand have qualified to the final at the Normandie Match Cup in Le Havre, Stage 3 of the 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour, after a close semi-final match against Sweden's Anna Östling/ WINGS Sailing. Posted on 29 May
Women's World Match Racing Tour Normandy day 1
A fresh breeze in Le Havre tested the eleven teams A fresh breeze in Le Havre Normandy tested the eleven all-women international teams yesterday competing at the Normandie Match Cup, Stage 3 of the 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour. Posted on 28 May
2023 Santa Maria Cup Match Racing overall
Team Wings victorious in Annapolis Sweden's Team WINGS won the all-women Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Santa Maria Cup today in Annapolis, the second stage of the 2023 Women's World Match Racing Tour. Posted on 4 May
Zhik 2023 September Seaboot 700 FOOTERPredictWind - GO! exec 728x90 BOTTOMRooster 2023 - Aquafleece Robe - FOOTER