Kiwi sailors Erica Dawson and Micah Wilkinson are a real medal chance at the Nacra 17 world champs in Canada this week, after a hot streak in Europe. And Dawson tells Suzanne McFadden she’s loving the ride on a new pro route for women.
From Palma de Mallorca to Marseille, Nova Scotia to Saint-Tropez; Erica Dawson’s latest passport stamps read like the lives of the rich and famous.
But it’s not champagne and super yachts that have lured Dawson from one beautiful port to the next over the past six months. She’s plying her trade on board super-swift foiling yachts – and fast becoming one of the world’s best at it.
Convincing her she’s rightfully at the front of the fleet, though, is a work in progress.
Having put behind her the disappointment of last year’s Tokyo Olympics – where she competed just over a month after breaking her leg – the 28-year-old Auckland sailor is finally living her dream.
Three years ago, LockerRoom spoke to Dawson about her research travelling the country talking to girls about why they went sailing, the obstacles they faced, or why they’d dropped out altogether. The answers she collected helped form Yachting New Zealand’s women and girls strategy to help keep females in the sport; making sure they could see a pathway.
Now Dawson is trailblazing that pathway for women in professional sailing.
And she’s got the 2024 Paris Olympics, the SailGP circuit and even the America’s Cup on her radar.
“A few years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed I’d have all these opportunities to sail around the world – sailing fast foiling cats and picking up new skills,” she says. “I’m definitely living the dream.”
This week, Dawson is in Halifax, Canada, with her Olympic sailing partner, Micah Wilkinson, competing in the Nacra 17 world championships.
The pair have had a remarkable Northern Hemisphere summer in the mixed foiling multihull, leaping up the leaderboard with every regatta they’ve sailed. Starting with sixth at the Princesa Sofia regatta in Palma in April, they climbed to fifth at Hyeres, fourth at Kiel, and then last month they stepped up onto the podium for the first time at a major regatta – winning silver at the European championships.
With an eye for mathematical patterns, you might venture they’d continue their ascent to gold at these worlds.
Dawson and Wilkinson laugh at the suggestion, admitting in true Kiwi style they’re modest about their abilities.
“We’ve had an amazing upward trend this year – hopefully we’ll finish it off here on top,” Wilkinson says. “But every day we’re so critical of ourselves, we never feel like we’re sailing well, or we’re one of the best.
“Even though we were second in the Europeans, we still feel like we’re one of the teams who are still learning, just battling away.”
Others have noticed their humility, too. Like legendary sailing coach Grant Beck, who helped many Kiwis become world boardsailing champions, and has been part of Dawson and Wilkinson’s campaign.
“He told us, ‘Make sure you realise you guys deserve to be there. You’re up there now. You should be racing like you’re up there, too’,” Dawson says. “I guess we just need a change in mindset.”
The Kiwi crew’s new coach, Spaniard Anton Paz, has also urged them to think they’re fast. Paz knows his stuff, as an Olympic gold medallist in the Tornado at the 2008 Beijing Games, and World Sailor of the Year in 2005 with world champion crewmate, Echavarri Erasun.
“With all his experience, Anton tells us ‘Don’t race like you’re slow anymore’. I think that’s one of the strengths we’ve brought to this season – when we’re racing in clear air by ourselves, we’re fast,” Wilkinson says.
They can now look at their 12th placing at last year’s Olympics in a different light. After going through disappointment, they now appreciate how competitive they were, and how well they did to even make the start line, after Dawson fell overboard and fractured her leg in training just five weeks before the Games.
Dawson’s quick recovery and steely determination meant her injury was never used as an excuse. Her leg is “100 percent” now.
It’s been Wilkinson’s turn for a swift recovery at these world champs – spending last week isolating in a caravan, overcoming his first bout of Covid. He’s tried to keep his distance from Dawson – who’s yet to catch the virus – even since they’ve been back on the water together.
Their main rivals in Halifax will be Italians Ruggero Tita and Caterina Banti, who’ve dominated the class for the past couple of years, comprehensively winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics. The Italians finished a full 65 points ahead of the second-placed Kiwis at the Europeans.
“They are so, so far ahead in our fleet, we’re always trying to see what they’re doing and try to match them,” Dawson says.
What makes them faster? “I wish we knew,” says Wilkinson. “They certainly have an extra level of experience and talent, but we will get there.”
Dawson and Wilkinson’s coach at the Tokyo Olympics, Jo Aleh, is still on the road with them – but back sailing with the goal of competing at her fourth Olympics, this time in the 49erFX with Molly Meech.
But the Kiwis have quickly gelled with Paz. “He’s a cat sailor through and through, so he knows all the feelings in the boat and what a good sail shape looks like,” says Dawson.
“It was quite fun while Micah was out with Covid, Anton came sailing with me. It was good for him to get time on the boat and gain an appreciation of the physicality of it. He said he needed a few days rest afterwards.”
The Nacra 17 has become even faster this season, now it has a new adjustable rudder rake system on board. Essentially it gives the boat more power, now up on its foils most of a race.
“The boat couldn’t quite foil upwind before this change, and now we’re foiling upwind all the time in nine to 10 knots of wind,” Wilkinson says. “It’s a lot more fun. And a lot more intense.”
“It’s actually quite challenging sometimes,” Dawson adds, “because you’re so focused on making the boat go as fast as you can and keeping it on the foils, you have to keep reminding yourself to look around, find the top mark, and see where the other boats are.
“It’s taken us all some time to get used to it. And it feels like we’re finally starting to dial into the potential of the boat. Every day we’re still learning, and there’s still so far to go.”
Time on the water, particularly in Europe over the past six months, has strengthened their partnership, Wilkinson says. “As a team – especially now with Anton – we’re really gelling, and we’re balancing enjoying it with working pretty hard.”
After the worlds, there will be a lull in Nacra racing for the pair, so they’ll split off in different directions. Wilkinson’s returning home to do a 50km mountain bike race with his girlfriend and see his family in Cambridge. Dawson’s going sailing.
She crosses the Atlantic to Saint-Tropez to join Peter Burling and Blair Tuke in the New Zealand SailGP Team. The Kiwis are on a roll, having won the past two events on the SailGP circuit (two more than they’ve ever won before).
“I’m really excited for that,” Dawson says. “I haven’t done a SailGP event since this time last year, but I’m still involved with the team, joining them in the debriefs, analysing the racing with them. And I’m part of the women’s pathway programme, which is so cool.”
Then she reconnects with the Live Ocean Racing all-women’s team, set up Burling and Tuke, racing a ETF26 cat alongside a star-studded Kiwi crew of Liv Mackay, Aleh, Meech and Alex Maloney.
“It’s an amazing programme Live Ocean have started, and really cool to sail another foiling catamaran and to learn with the girls,” Dawson says. She joins the team for the final event of the ETF series in La Rochelle, France.
Paz will come down to Auckland in November and they’ll start planning for next season, and qualifying for the Olympics again. At the moment, they’re the only Kiwi crew seriously racing the Nacra.
Dawson’s also considering putting her name in the ring for the first Women’s America’s Cup in Barcelona in 2024, sailed in foiling monohulls. “I have one eye on it. But the Olympics are definitely the focus for me now,” she says.
“These are quite exciting times.” Especially to be a female foiling sailor.