In a new era that encourages yachtswomen to be part of the gruelling Volvo Ocean Race, Olympic gold medallist Jo Aleh believes she has a lot to offer in the mental department, to complement the grunt of her male crewmates as they race around the globe.
Jo Aleh had to seriously ask herself why she was sailing around the southern coast of England, wet, cold and miserable in the dead of night – so far removed from the comfort zone of her dinghy.
Every manoeuvre on board the Volvo Ocean 65 yacht was hard work; hauling on ropes, lugging 400kg of sodden gear from one side of the deck to the other. For almost three days at sea, sleep was a distant memory.
“I was doing it thinking ‘This is just stupid, why am I doing this?’ There was no respite; when it finished I was trashed,” she says.
“But then I woke up the next morning and I’m like: ‘Oh, that was cool. When are we going again?’ It just sucks you in.”
The Kiwi Olympic gold and silver medallist wanted something completely different from 470 dinghy sailing, and found it in the last few weeks on board Team Brunel – as the 20m Dutch yacht competed in the legendary Fastnet and Round the Isle of Wight races.
Aleh, 31, was literally learning the ropes as she trialled for a place in the Brunel crew that will start in the Volvo Ocean Race, leaving Alicante in October.
It’s an opportunity that Aleh – who quit Olympic sailing after collecting silver in Rio last year – thought she’d never have. But a new rule introduced for this edition of the Volvo race to “create a clearer pathway for female sailors to take part”, offers incentives for teams who choose to have a mixed gender crew.
I’m all about efficiency on the boat, how we use people, the timing of things, and set structures for manoeuvres. Women think more about efficiency because we can’t grunt through.
– Jo Aleh
More Southern Ocean racing this time means teams are likely to face gruelling conditions for longer, so skippers can take up to three extra sailors – as long as they’re women. Teams who choose to stick with a male crew are limited to seven pairs of hands on board.
“There’s one boat that’s chosen not to take women so far, and they’re getting last all the time… which I quite enjoy!” Aleh laughs.
She admits, however, to being in two minds about the inducements offered to selecting a mixed crew. “In some ways I wish there didn’t have to be a rule, because it’s saying: ‘Everyone has seven guys, and oh, if you want, you get to take a couple of girls for free’,” she says.
“But I also see that if there wasn’t the rule, there probably wouldn’t be any women in the race. So I’m really glad they did it.
“On Brunel, Bouwe [Bekking, the skipper] has been great. He was once pretty opposed to sailing with girls; he had done it in the past and didn’t really want to again. But after sailing with us for a week or two, he was like, ‘I can see it will work, you guys are just crew.’ It’s a really positive move, even if it just changes the viewpoint.
“We actually bring a different vibe to the boat, we change the atmosphere. I hope they go back to their guys-only boats and say, ‘Well actually it was a lot more fun with the girls on board’.”
Aleh admits she doesn’t have the muscle to match most of the men on a Volvo boat, but she brings her own set of strengths to the crew.
“I may be 40kg smaller than the guys, but it’s about being smart in where I fit in on the boat. My strengths are more mental,” she says.
Renowned as thinker, who likes to keep things tidy on a boat, Aleh may have found her forte working the pit during her trial with Brunel – looking after the ropes, running the halyards, deploying the sails from the middle of the boat. “It’s the engine room really,” she says.
“I’m all about efficiency on the boat, how we use people, the timing of things, and set structures for manoeuvres. Women think more about efficiency because we can’t grunt through. Guys seem quite happy to say ‘Lift this’, and you’re like ‘Hmmm, if you waited another few seconds and we put it there, you’d save yourself another lift’. Out on the ocean for 20 days, any energy saving is going to be beneficial.
“So that’s why I want to go back out there and have another go.”
Englishwoman Annie Lush, who has been sailing with Aleh over the past few weeks, was this week named as the first woman in the Brunel crew for the Volvo Ocean Race. A former Olympian, Lush has one circumnavigation already under her belt – sailing on the all-women Team SCA in the last race.
Aleh is now in the Netherlands with her boyfriend, Olympic and match-racing sailor Pieter Jan Postma, waiting to hear in the next week or so whether she has also earned a place in the crew. If she has, she’ll be joining her old friend, fellow Olympic champion and America’s Cup winner Peter Burling on board.
“Pete got on the boat as I got off. I saw a video of him on Twitter looking confused at front of the boat – he’s also got a bit to learn. In fact, it’s one of the few times that I can say to him ‘Ha, I know something you don’t!’” she laughs.
“It’s definitely a different style of sailing. Everything seems harder after Olympic sailing – where you had control over everything, you did everything yourself. Suddenly you’re on a boat with nine people and you have a specific job to do. It’s quite an adjustment to do just one thing and do it well.
“It would be an amazing race to do, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Especially with this Brunel team – I’m really impressed with the way they treat the women and the youth in the crew.”
This is the dream Aleh has been chasing since she and her crewmate of eight years, Polly Powrie, decided to do something different after their Rio success. But, if this opportunity doesn’t work out, Aleh knows something else will.
It’s unlikely to be another Olympics. After 12 years and two medals, she feels she has ticked off what she wanted to do in that arena. “It feels a bit small once you’ve stepped out of it, and it would be pretty hard to go back,” she says. “But you never know.”
And there’s always her other long-held ambition – to sail in an America’s Cup. Aleh hopes that mixed crews will become a normal occurrence in all realms of sailing, including the Cup.
“The America’s Cup is a different game, and I can’t see women alongside guys on the boats for the next little while. But I hope that it starts changing, because there are some great yachtswomen coming through, and the guys are going to start running out of excuses. If women can sail around the world, then why can’t they do some day races in the harbour?
“It’s going to be a slow process, but this race is a really good start.”