As an eager and generous nine-year-old, Melanie Roberts posted a letter, with a $5 note, to OneAustralia’s America’s Cup team. It was 1995, and their boat had just sunk off the coast of her hometown, San Diego.
Roberts had gifted her weekly allowance with the hope it would help the team get back out on the challengers’ racecourse. She got a letter in reply from John Bertrand, skipper of OneAustralia, thanking her for “her great support”.
“It was very kind of you to send us $5,” Bertrand wrote, “but I’m pleased to say that we have not had to use your money and I am returning it to you.”
The $5 was spent long ago, but Roberts has kept the letter – and brought a copy of it to Auckland to show her boss, America’s Cup race director, Iain Murray. He was tactician on the OneAustralia the day it snapped in two.
Twenty-six years after being swept up in the America’s Cup, Roberts is now helping run the regatta for the world’s oldest sporting trophy, as assistant race director.
It’s her calm, measured voice you’ll hear across the airwaves, advising teams and others in the race that the start has been delayed, or a major wind shift has forced the course to be moved. Racing starts up again on Friday with the semifinal of the Prada Cup challengers series.
“When things aren’t going well, you’ll hear me,” she says. “When things are on time, you won’t hear from me.”
Roberts has also brought with her the letter she received from the ‘95 America’s Cup victors, Team New Zealand, thanking her for her “colourful congratulations message”, which they’d pinned to the office wall of their Shelter Island compound.
She’s kept the two scrapbooks she filled with newspaper clippings and autographs from that Cup – one of them dedicated solely to the all-women’s America3 crew on board Mighty Mary (with Kiwi Leslie Egnot was at the helm).
Roberts was an America3 “super fan”: the nine-year-old asked to race on Mighty Mary as ‘17th man’ (the guest spot on board), but instead they gave her tickets for their spectators boats to watch the defender trials. She dreamed of having her own all-women’s crew in the Cup one day.
That dream never eventuated – in fact, there are no women sailing on board any of the cutting-edge foiling monohulls in Auckland. But Roberts is one of a number of women out on the Hauraki Gulf racecourse in crucial roles ensuring racing of the AC75s goes ahead, fairly and safely.
Women like deputy race officer Maria Torrijo of Spain – one of the few people in the world who’s an international judge, umpire and race officer, Polish umpire Sofia Truchanowicz and Dunedin’s Kylie Robinson, the Race Management System operations manager, who sends out the course details electronically from the signals boat.
Aucklanders Miranda Farr and Liz Alonzi are part of the 128-strong fleet of course marshalls watching over the spectators.
From the age of seven, Roberts learned to sail at the San Diego Yacht Club in a little Sabot dinghy, then crewed in two-handed boats through high school and college. She wasn’t particularly enamoured with the sport when she started out – until the 1995 America’s Cup took place in her backyard.
It hooked her in.
This is Roberts’ third America’s Cup. Her first job out of university was race co-ordinator at the St Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco – which put her in “the right place at the right time” when 2013 the America’s Cup came along. There, she got her first role in the Cup, assisting race management.
In Bermuda in 2017, she worked alongside Murray, on software operations. “Here it’s more of a communications liaison role.” On board the signals boat, she helps Murray set the race course, sending details to the teams, marshalls and broadcasters, and she keeps track of the deltas at mark roundings.
“I keep looking up from my screen on the boat and saying: ‘This Cup is awesome’. They’re doing a tremendous job, and the racing is so close and exciting,” Roberts says.
She didn’t expect to be in Auckland. Nowadays she works on Sir Russell Coutts’ global Sail GP circuit, raced in foiling catamarans. But the cancellation of most of the season through Covid-19 meant the America’s Cup fitted in perfectly.
And she never imagined, as a nine-year-old, she’d be sitting alongside Murray – one of her early sailing heroes. “He has so much knowledge, and he’s calm cool and collected. We work well together, building up trust over the last few years,” she says.
THE COURSE TROUBLESHOOTER
Over a year ago, Miranda Farr was tasked with training a team of course marshalls for both the Prada and America’s Cups. The 128 marshalls – men and women – are all volunteers.
“A lot of them had been committed since November 2019, if not before,” she says.
There were 560 applicants, whittled down to 200 – many of them with a high level of experience on the water.
“It was amazing to have that level of commitment right through the Covid lockdowns, even when we were having to reschedule the training. The training programme was meant to be a year, but had to be crammed into three months. They’ve been amazingly positive people.”
Farr has spent most of her working life on or under the water. She has a degree in marine biology and has done scuba diving research, but she also has her commercial skipper’s ticket.
She also spent four years on land, in corporate project management. “I think the combination of my skills was good for this role,” she says.
Farr was a volunteer in race management at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron – the home of the America’s Cup – for five years before she was approached to work in the volunteers programme.
On race days, she’s on the water – in the roving course marshall vessel.
“She’s my trouble shooter,” says Martin Paget, the America’s Cup on-the-water operations manager. “If we’re getting a bit of pressure on one area of the course, and the team out there need a bit of support, Miranda will go over and help them sort it out.
“A lot of it is about trying to get ahead of the game. If you don’t deal with the trickle of water to start with, the dam breaks…”
The marshalls have been given special powers from the Harbourmaster and Auckland Council to legally direct boats into the safe areas behind the orange buoys.
“About 98 percent of people just want to know where they need to be and they’re just out there to watch the racing,” Farr says.
“We all have a background of being boaties, so we’re putting ourselves in the position of those people and thinking if we were out there watching the race, how would we want to be treated? We try to have the approach of having fun and still being safe.”
The marshalls are rostered on with four to each boat – a skipper, navigator, helm and crew. “They don’t work every day because they’re quite long days,” Farr says. “Some of them are retired, others just wanted to spend their weekends doing this. There’s a good culture – the banter is great too.”
Farr grew up wanting to be a scuba diver like her dad, and so studied marine biology. She was introduced to sailing working on sail-dive charter boats, and spent five years at the Great Barrier Reef.
“I worked in marine biology for a while, but I decided I much preferred people to counting molluscs,” she says.
The training course she led taught marshalls how to drive the 17 new 9m Rayglass Protector boats, while Maritime Police trained them in how to deal with spectators.
They also learned how to launch and retrieve the orange boundary buoys (nicknamed Teletubbies), and the massive red markers – 4m high and 800kg heavy – that the yachts race around.
“I genuinely believe every race day will get better because everyone will feel more comfortable in their role and in the systems. The public will be more comfortable too,” Farr says.
THE COURSE SCOUT
Auckland skipper Liz Alonzi is one of a handful of women in the racecourse marshall fleet. She could have simply been a spectator – taking Timberwolf, the 10.6m trimaran she brought back from the dead, out to the racecourse – but this role gets her even closer to the action.
“It just seemed like a really cool thing to be part of,” she says.
The software engineer spent last Saturday crewing in the scout boat – a smaller RIB that patrols a region of the racecourse.
“We were under North Head keeping the transit lanes clear,” Alonzi says. “The spectators were amazing. We had one guy who needed to swap his fuel tank in the middle of the course – fortunately it was long before the racing started.
“Our training was very thorough and intense and we were prepared for the worst of the worst situations, so I was expecting some challenging people out there. But so far it’s been the flipside; everyone is accommodating and chill.
“There are just good vibes all round.”
Racing in the best-of-seven Prada Cup semifinals between Luna Rossa Pirelli Prada and the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic starts on Friday at 3pm, with racing continuing on Saturday and Sunday (and Tuesday if necessary). A course locator map on the America’s Cup website helps spectator craft see the course boundaries.