A star-studded crew of New Zealand’s top sailing women have launched onto a new stage to try to close the gender gap – with the backing of two of the best male sailors in the world.

Liv Mackay can’t wait to prove the doubters wrong.  

As the skipper of an illustrious new Kiwi women’s crew about to hone their skills in high-speed foiling catamarans, to be ready to race in some of sailing’s leading regattas, Mackay wants to show the world how female sailors can foot it with their male counterparts.

The New Zealand women will race a foiling catamaran in Europe under the banner of Live Ocean Racing – a new racing team created by America’s Cup and Olympic champions Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.

The all-women’s crew are the first campaign for Live Ocean Racing, with Burling and Tuke intending to use their new sailing platform to ‘champion action for the ocean on the world stage’.

But in this case, they’re also using it to bridge the yawning gulf between professional men’s and women’s sailing – the rationale behind this campaign to accelerate the female pathway to pinnacle sailing events like SailGP and the America’s Cup.

“I really want to shed a positive light on how amazing women can be at the top level of the sport. To show, when given the opportunity, how incredible women sailors are,” Mackay says. “And if we’re able to show even a glimpse of that, I can’t wait to start.”

Mackay’s four crewmates in Live Ocean Racing are all Olympians – double Olympic medallist Jo Aleh, Olympic silver medallists Alex Maloney and Molly Meech, and Erica Dawson, who made a gutsy Games debut in Tokyo last year, with a broken leg.

And they’re all diving in the deep end together. Their first event in their new 26ft high performance catamaran, the ETF26, is in the French port of La Trinité-sur-Mer this weekend. They’re still coming to grips with the boat. 

“We’re pretty fresh, but the training this week has been great, and I’m really enjoying sailing with the team. And the boat is epic,” Mackay says. “It’s a hugely exciting project, and I’m really proud to be leading it.”

The first Live Ocean Racing team (from left) Peter Burling, Erica Dawson, Molly Meech, Liv Mackay, Jo Aleh, Alex Maloney and Blair Tuke. Photo: Joshua McCormack.

Mackay, 26, has grown used to being one of just a handful of women competing at the top of world sailing.

When she became a world champion in the globe’s largest youth sailing programme, the Red Bull Foiling Generation in 2016 (in a mixed crew with Micah Wilkinson), she was one of only two women in the finals fleet. She’s sailed in Burling and Tuke’s New Zealand team on the SailGP circuit this season, after every team expanded their crew to include at least one female sailor. So, she’s witnessed the gap first-hand.

“When the last America’s Cup was sailed in Auckland, it was highlighted there were no women on board the boats. Why was that? Some of the roles weren’t that physical,” she says.

“I believe sailing should be equal, and a woman’s skillset can rival that of a man at the top level. It’s something I’m really passionate about.”

Both Dawson and Mackay have had a taste of sailing big foiling cats, on the SailGP’s much larger F50 with Burling and Tuke. But they want to be best prepared for more. 

“Long-term, this is the start of creating a women’s team for SailGP or the America’s Cup. So everything we’ve learned so far, we can apply it on a smaller scale,” Mackay says.

The idea of an all-women’s campaign came about after both SailGP and the America’s Cup moved to become more inclusive on the water.  

The next America’s Cup in Barcelona will have a women’s regatta, sailed in the AC40 test boats, and while SailGP have their women’s pathway programme running, there are also whispers of a full women’s league in the future.

But with those announcements comes the realisation there’s a large experience gap for women,  between Olympic dinghy sailing – which has been the pinnacle for most female sailors – and sailing high performance foiling catamarans like the AC40 and the SailGP F50.

So that’s where Burling and Tuke came in.

“They’ve always been huge supporters of equal opportunities, and they’re very aware that’s still not the case in sailing,” Mackay says.

“We got talking about how would we close the gap in women’s sailing and give women the experience on a foiling cat – not only for performance but for safety? It’s a massive jump.

“Their actions speak louder than words.”

The ETF26 catamaran with its new Live Ocean Racing livery. Photo: Georgia Schofield. 

Back in Auckland, Tuke explains the idea of launching a sailing team had been part of their vision since he and Burling started the Live Ocean marine conservation foundation back in 2019.

“But it’s come around quicker than we’d thought, because we initially thought it would be a campaign we were sailing in,” Tuke says. “But we’ve seen the immediate need to give an opportunity to women to get more experience racing on foiling boats.

“It’s something very important to us. There are some great things happening in sailing for women, but there’s still a gap – mainly an experience gap.

“This isn’t the full women’s pathway for female sailors in New Zealand, but it’s a start – there’s still much more work to be done. But hopefully it will inspire more young women to stay in the sport and keep progressing.”

Mackay, who has a bachelor’s in business studies, sees this opportunity as massive: “It brings a lot of purpose to my sailing and everything else I’m doing.”  Through a couple of decades’ sailing, she’s also become passionate about sharing the message “of positive ocean action”.

She’s relishing the chance to skipper a crew, having learned from a two-time America’s Cup winning helmsman.

“I’ve been really fortunate in the last year-and-a-half to observe Pete, and see different people in the team leading in various ways, and taken those skills on board,” she says.

Liv Mackay and Peter Burling carry sails out to their SailGP F50 cat in San Francisco last month. Photo: Thomas Lovelock/SailGP.

Live Ocean Racing have bought an ETF26 one-design foiling catamaran to compete on a five-event circuit (four races are in France and one in Italy).

“These boats go really fast – the top speed is 37 knots,” Mackay says. “It’s exactly the same style of racing as SailGP.” They won’t be the only female crew among the eight racing – France have entered an all-women’s team for the first time, too.

Mackay raced on the circuit briefly last year, becoming the first woman to helm an ETF26 in the series, sailing on the Toroa Racing Team with its English-based Kiwi owner, Mark Rijkse. That started a conversation between Mackay, Burling and Tuke, on using the ETF cat to help our top Kiwi yachtswomen.  

“For three of the five events, we’ll have four women on board. But some events clash with the Olympic class circuit,” explains Mackay, who will be driving in all five events. “There might be one or two men on board in some events, but that’s a positive thing too.”

The team will be coached by Kiwi double Olympian, Jason Saunders, who sailed with Mackay in a Nacra 17.

After a baptism of fire in last year’s ETF circuit, Mackay now loves driving the speedy cat.

“It’s an awesome boat for learning. You’re so reliant on each other to make the boat go fast, the crew work is very hands-on,” she says.

“I love helming, trying to communicate in a better way. The intensity and people relying on you to make decisions really pushes me.”

Mackay says she has “huge respect” for Tuke and Burling, and their decision to help bolster women’s sailing at a professional level.

Yachting New Zealand’s high performance director Ian Stewart also applauds the project, and sees it benefiting more than just foiling sailing.  

“These opportunities for women are long overdue and Live Ocean Racing will help inspire an inclusive generation of sailors,” he says. “Many of those involved in the Live Ocean Racing team this year are also working towards the 2024 Paris Olympics and we know, managed well, this will ultimately make them better sailors.”

Molly Meech and Jo Aleh training in Auckland on their 49erFX. Photo: Georgia Schofield. 

Aleh, a veteran of three Olympics, has joined Meech in a bid to sail at the 2024 Games in an 49erFX. Maloney and her new sailing partner, Olivia Hobbs, also have an Olympic campaign in the skiff class.

Dawson is back in the Nacra 17 with Micah Wilkinson – they were 12th at the Tokyo Olympics, and were sixth at last week’s Princess Sofia Regatta in Palma.

The Live Ocean Racing women all trialled to be part of New Zealand’s SailGP crew, and while Dawson and Mackay were successful, Burling and Tuke made it clear they wouldn’t leave the other sailors high and try.

“It was their intention we’d all be at the New Zealand event of SailGP and be involved as possible,” Mackay says. (Of course, that event was cancelled when the teams couldn’t get access to MIQ spots in New Zealand).

“So the guys have lived up to their promise – they are genuine about wanting to help women’s sailing. We need people like them to lay the foundations, it’s just how the sport is right now.”

Burling and Tuke have their own personal goals with Live Ocean Racing – including a team in the round-the-world Ocean Race.

“It’s a big ambition for us in the future – there’s some unfinished business there for Pete and I,” says Tuke (both sailors have circumnavigated the globe, but in different teams). “But we’re fully committed to SailGP and the America’s Cup for the time being.”

For now, they’re fully focused on the women; as “their biggest supporters”, they’ll be watching them race online this weekend.

“We speak to Liv quite regularly, offering our support and any advice they might need,” Tuke says. “We’re just so proud to see her and the rest of the team taking this on. It’s awesome.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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