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Ave Gitana crewed by women - SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Week © Andrea Francolini
Ave Gitana crewed by women - SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Week © Andrea Francolini

SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Week

Double Olympian across two classes, Volvo Ocean racer, GC32 foiling cat series sailor, speed record chaser; New Zealand’s Sharon Ferris-Choat has done it all – this week she is at Townsville Yacht Club’s SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Week, skippering an all-female crew on the trimaran, Ave Gitana, and encouraging more women to sail at the elite level.

Ferris-Choat is an ambassador for the ‘Magenta Project’, set up by high-profile sailors, Libby Greenhalgh, Abby Ehler, Sally Barkow and Annie Lush, whose mission is to accelerate women to the top of sailing.

“When the Magenta Project first started, they asked several sailors to be ambassadors. They asked that when we’re away sailing, we support and help women get to the elite level – so we support and promote what they are doing,” says Ferris-Choat, who is doing an incredible job.

As much as anything else, the Kerikeri sailor has lately been doing the circuit on the Crowther 40 trimaran loaned to her by old friend, Antonio Pasquale, who encouraged her to do the 654 nautical mile Groupama Race (around New Caledonia) with a female crew.

“In March Antonio called me to see if I wanted to use his boat for the Groupama – the program started from there. He is incredibly generous, supportive – wants to help women’s sailing. Now other people want to copy what he’s doing. He is a pioneer,” Ferris Choat says.

With little time on the boat, and a female crew who had not sailed together before, it was always going to be a challenge. But the women handled themselves with aplomb to finish second multihull over the line. “We had five girls aboard – what a ride.”

After that came a speed challenge from New Caledonia to Brisbane, Australia, the Brisbane to Keppel race, another speed challenge from Keppel Island to Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays, then Hamilton Island and SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Weeks.

“Jo Breen (an Aussie who finished fourth in the 2018 Melbourne Osaka two-handed race aboard her Morning Star) and Paige Cook (a Kiwi keelboat sailor) have been the core crew.

“I’ve opened it up to other girls to gain experience and race on a really awesome boat,” says Ferris Choat, whose crew here are Breen, Cook, her sister Bianca, Australian double Olympian Krystal Weir and Aussie Hobie sailor, Sarah Pugh.

“It’s been light; all part of the test. Our handicap has rocketed, so it’s about beating the clock. It’s great racing – Mistress, we call her our baby sister (Dennis Coleman’s Corsair Sprint Mk1 which does bear a smaller resemblance to Ave Gitana) – we’ve been battling them all week.”

Today is the decider. The lead has swapped between the pair all week. Ave Gitana is currently leading on countback to Mistress, both on 11 points. Victorian club mates The Boat (Graeme Etherton) and Tyee III (John Williams/Bruce Kellermann) are nipping at their heals on 12 points each after The Boat won yesterday. “We have to sail our best,” Ferris-Choat says.

“We’re absolutely loving this regatta. It’s beautiful sailing, the organisation and variance in activities is brilliant. And just sailing where you don’t need your wet weather gear is awesome.”

The crew plan to leave late tomorrow, “after we fix the rudder and clear customs,” and sail Ave Gitana home via another speed challenge from Magnetic Island to Russell.

“We are trying to establish a demand for more speed records in the southern hemisphere,” Ferris- Choat says.

“In November we’re going to start an offshore sailing academy, where anyone from around the world can come and learn to sail offshore – on a trimaran.” (The best way to contact them is through the Ave Gitana or Thalassa Magenta Racing Facebook pages.

The highlight of her latest travels, she says, “Is seeing faces change on the girls when I’m teaching them stuff and it hasn’t computed – then you see their eyes light up and you know the penny has dropped – that’s been the big thing.”

Born in Canada, Ferris-Choat’s family moved to New Zealand before she was two. She competed at the 1996 Olympics in the Europe single-handed class, then skippering an Yngling at the 2004 Games, when all knew her as Sharon Ferris. She has since married and has two girls, 10 and 5. “I’m looking forward to heading home to see them,” she ends.

There are other female crews and skippers competing at Magnetic Island Race Week, notably two Townsville boats in SeaLink Spinnaker Division 3: Vicki Hamilton’s Akarana (sometimes father/owner Ian joins them) and Donna Dewhurst’s ‘Soul Sister’, which leaves dock each day blaring that signature tune – the crew dressed in pink as they dance out of the marina topsides.

In their division there are two other boats with female owner/skippers: Carol Roberts’ Infarrction from the Whitsundays and Toni Fox’s Xena from NSW. The best placed is Infarrction, in seventh overall, while Akarana won yesterday and Xena placed second in Race 1.

For all information including full results visit www.magneticislandraceweek.com.au

by Di Pearson, SMIRW Media

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