In the thrilling, supercharged world of foiling, women need to leap on every opportunity on the water, writes top Kiwi sailor Liv Mackay, to ensure female professional sailing keeps heading in the right direction

It’s an experience that’s hard to describe in words. It’s like stepping into a whole different world; high-paced, exhilarating. I can’t get enough of it. 

The F50 has some of the latest technology in the sport and SailGP is the type of sailing that once you put your helmet on, you have to be switched on, every time. You know the stakes are high.

Your adrenalin is pumping for as long as you’re racing. You have a lot of trust in each other as a team – and in all the other sailors who are out on the course. Things can go wrong quickly in these foiling machines, and the level of trust you need in those around you has to be high. And that’s what really bonds you as a team.

The speeds you’re travelling at are phenomenal, and the g-forces are so strong – there are times when you’re trying to sprint across the boat, and you’re not actually moving anywhere. Other times, you’re collecting bruises being slammed from one hull to the other.

You learn so much about yourself on the F50; more than I’ve experienced on any boat before. You’re put into these really intense situations, and you discover how you react under pressure. It’s fascinating. 

You can find yourself in some pretty hair-raising situations, too. Racing in San Francisco with the New Zealand SailGP team, we almost landed on top of the French boat.

A wave of shock comes over you at the time, but you have to carry on sailing. It’s not until you’re watching footage of the race afterwards that you realise you came this close to seriously hurting people. It’s pretty crazy.

Everyone learns from a situation like that, but at the same time, it emphasises that you’re racing in the most extreme environment in sailing right now. That’s what makes it so exciting and what we all train for. 

This is my second season racing in SailGP, and I feel I’ve come a long way in understanding what level I need to get to, in order to race the 50.   

Racing these boats is insanely cool; the technology behind them is incredible. Even what it takes to get the boat on the water is at another level.  

It’s set a whole new standard of what I want to be doing in sailing. I love everything about it.

I’m fortunate to be in a position to learn – and learn from some of the best sailors in the world. Peter Burling, Blair Tuke and the rest of the New Zealand team are really embracing having me and the other females on board, and teaching us as much as possible – they give you plenty of scope to learn and ask questions, but also hold you in high regard. They give you as much space as they can to make mistakes and learn from them. 

That’s one of the hardest things in this environment – it’s so intense and you have such short time frames when you’re with the team to get training on the boat. So it’s really hard to make mistakes because you just don’t have the time to.

But the guys in our team are really empowering, and they allow us to make a mistake – but not do it twice. And I’ve really learnt from that. 

Change is happening, and the gap between men’s and women’s sailing is gradually closing, even in just the second season of SailGP’s women’s pathway programme. Having one woman on board every boat in the nine-team series is part of the event’s strategy to promote inclusion, inspire change and provide better opportunities across all levels of sailing. 

It’s given me and Erica Dawson an unrivalled opportunity to sail these lightning-quick cats, and learn from the best. Now Jo Aleh is joining the team for this weekend’s Great Britain Sail Grand Prix in Plymouth. 

Liv Mackay (holding the Juan Sebastián de Elcano Trophy) next to Erica Dawson in the NZ SailGP Team. Photo: SailGP

I’m not sure yet what full gender equality in the sport looks like, I don’t think many people do. I do, however, strongly believe we are heading in the right direction. 

There are so many skilled and hard-working women who deserve to show they can be at the top of the sport and that will show through.

Does true equality mean mixed sailing or a clear divide between male and female? I’m not sure. I really enjoy sailing with both genders. The inequality within the SailGP teams comes with our experience level, as it’s so different to the men’s. But my experience working with Pete, Blair and the guys has only been positive – where they respect me, teach me and also value my opinion. We just need to be given those opportunities to be thrown in the deep end.

It’s also been great to meet other women who share the same values and vision as me. We want to be the best in the world, we want to sail these boats and we want to have the same opportunities male sailors have.

All females onboard the F50 are in the sixth role, called the strategist or helm assist. We’ve decided in our team that the women should steer the boat out of manoeuvres, as well taking on a communication role.

So I cross the boat with Blair before each manoeuvre, and as the boat exits, I control the wheel while Pete’s running to the other side. 

It’s fantastic to get time on the helm, and a great way to understand the feeling of the boat. Definitely my goal is to be helming one day.  

In the 6th person role, Liv Mackay helps steer and is in charge of comms during racing. Photo: SailGP

The other key part of my role onboard is communications. It’s about the language, how we contribute on the boat with what we say. That communication obviously has to be clear, calm and concise, because only one of us can talk at a time and things happen so quickly. 

My job is to paint a picture of everything that’s happening in our periphery. With boat-on-boat situations, I’m trying to paint a picture of what the rest of the fleet is doing. It’s a role that’s always developing. 

Another part of my job, which I don’t do that often, is grinding. When the winds get too light, we take two men off the boat, and the female sailor becomes a grinder. I definitely feel under-practised on the handles, but it’s an awesome challenge and I enjoy the physical aspect of it.   

On the first reach, I look around and everyone’s sending it, pushing the boat to the edge of its limits, and you think, ‘This can’t be real’. Those first few minutes of the race are so intense and you’re pushing the boat to the absolute limit – it can be ridiculously fast, but it’s such good fun. Joining the 50-knot club has definitely been a highlight. 

It’s great Pete and Blair have set up Live Ocean Racing, a commitment to help accelerate the pathway for female sailors to events like SailGP and the America’s Cup – especially now there’ll be a women’s America’s Cup regatta in Barcelona. 

I’ve loved helming the ETF26, a high performance catamaran sailed with three to four people on board. The circuit is really competitive and it’s a great opportunity to get more amazing Kiwi women high-speed foiling experience. We’ve already sailed in four events this year and the rate of learning has been massive. We’ve had nine Kiwi women involved in the team so far and hope to bring more in.

Liv Mackay helping roll the F50 out for a day’s sailing. Photo: SailGP

The positive effect the ETF, SailGP and America’s Cup announcement is starting to have on female sailors in New Zealand is really cool. Talking to some of the younger women back home, they are more motivated to get up to speed and can actually start to see a conceivable goal in sailing. Not being able to see many female role models in the sport is difficult and something I have struggled with, so hopefully that’s changing.

It’s an amazing project, and it’s just the beginning. I really want to help build a solid team, and I hope to inspire more women into the sport, especially the high performance side. It’s also going to be really exciting to see SailGP in Christchurch next March.

The change for women in sailing is happening, from high performance to grassroots. It’s hard because you want it to happen fast and it definitely feels slow-going. As long as there are women sailing on foils and pushing – through Moth sailing, ETF, SailGP, and the America’s Cup – change will come.

* Coverage of the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix in Plymouth will be on Sky Sport 1 on Sunday and Monday at 1am.

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