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Nationals win comes after two handed Round NZ Race

by Suzanne McFadden 12 Apr 2019 22:39 BST 11 April 2019
Sally Garrett and friends leading the fleet - 2019 NZ Women's National Keelboat Championships, April 2019 © Andrew Delves

There was something extraordinary about Sally Garrett’s victory in the New Zealand women’s keelboat championships last weekend. Suzanne McFadden is the editor of LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport, reports on an courageous double.

To start with, the nucleus of her crew were old friends from the Royal Akarana Yacht Club who'd first raced together in 1999. And this was their first national title.

But what few of her competitors knew was that Garrett, the crew’s skipper - and a scientist who studies waves in the Southern Ocean – was hurting whenever the winds rose out on the Waitemata Harbour.

Her pain stemmed from an accident a month earlier, when Garrett was halfway into her voyage racing around New Zealand. She was just off Stewart Island when her boat slewed onto its side in a ‘Chinese gybe’.

Her left arm was flung backwards in the accident - the elbow hyper-extended, and her biceps tendon partially tore off the bone.

But Garrett, 42, kept on sailing with her race partner Rob Croft, and became the only woman to complete the Two-handed Round New Zealand race twice. (In fact, she’s the only woman to have ever finished the race, full stop).

The injury flared up again on the final day of the three-day national women’s keelboat regatta, when she was steering a 10m Farr MRX boat in gusty winds. But again, Garrett quietly carried on.

“It’s why she’s one of the toughest people I know,” says Garrett’s long-time crewmate Sarah Ell. She also describes Garrett as “a very calm, happy, relaxed presence on the boat. It sets the tone, so there are no prima donnas in our crew”.

Garrett is having treatment on her arm, but the exhilaration of last weekend’s victory is pushing the pain to the back of her mind.

What made winning the keelboat title so rewarding for her was doing it with a cluster of women she’d first sailed with 20 years ago. After a hiatus of 11 years – when they were otherwise occupied raising children, contesting an Olympics, or sailing offshore - they “got the band back together” last year, and now have finally won the title.

“It’s a bit of a cultural shock, after going around New Zealand and being the only female competitor!” laughs Garrett, a former commodore of Royal Akarana.

Garrett’s crew were playing their part in a major revival of women’s keelboat racing. Thirteen crews - more than 90 women - competed in the nationals this year, after years of much smaller fleets.

“While we were going through our ‘lost years’, when we weren’t racing together, women’s keelboats went through their own lost years,” explains Ell, who has two young children and has authored numerous books on sailing and New Zealand’s marine history. “Then they got some women sailors together and asked ‘What’s going on, what would make you come back?’”

The most significant change was to make chartering the race boats affordable. “You pay $1000 for the season and your entry to nationals, instead of $200 a night to race every second Tuesday,” says Ell.

“It’s brought a lot of women who were no longer sailing out of the woodwork. The top three crews had a lot of older women in their 40s and 50s. It’s great we’re still out there doing it.”

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