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'Best time ever to be a woman in sailing': Rising Kiwi star on cusp of match racing crown

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By James Boyd for Sailing Intelligence

This week’s KDY Women’s Match Race Denmark (21-24 September) at Skovshoved Harbour in Copenhagen will be the final event of the 2023 Women’s World Match Racing Tour season and promises to be a nail-biter.

But for the first time, two of the top three on the Women’s Tour leaderboard are from New Zealand. Megan Thomson’s Two Point Zero Racing holds third and presently topping the leaderboard is Celia Willison, her Edge Match Racing Team just one slender point ahead of Swede Anna Östling’s Team Wings. Östling comes with more experience having twice previously won the Women’s World Match Racing Championship and been near or at the top of the women’s leaderboard for more than a decade. Barring disaster, whoever wins between Willison and Östling will be crowned 2023 Women’s World Match Racing Tour Champion.

According to Willison some of the most exciting match racing she has ever experienced has been against her Swedish opponent. In May at the Normandie Match Cup in Le Havre, their first-to-two Petit Final went to six races. “They crashed into us and caused massive damage so we had to do re-races,” she recalls, but it wasn’t just that: “We had one race which took 40 minutes because someone was always trying to march out the other person at the top for 10 minutes. It was some of the most interesting racing I’ve done in terms of rules and tactics and match racing. Races against Anna can sometimes take a long time because she is very good at defending around the course.”

Fortunately on this occasion, and the reason Willison currently leads the Tour, is because she won.

A key reason so many Kiwis populate professional sailing and match racing globally, is the highly refined youth training program (YTP) run since 1987 by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Most top Kiwi pro-sailors have passed through the program in one way or another including world class match racers such as Gavin Brady, Adam Minoprio and two-time match racing world champion Phil Robertson, now helming the Canadian team on the SailGP circuit.

“You do a whole year of match racing,” says Willison of the well-funded (it is currently backed by Mastercard) program. “When I did it there were 40 kids – you had to be 18 to do it and you’d go and sail every weekend for the whole year. The program also pays for you to do a few overseas regattas. They sent us to a couple of women’s regattas as well. It is an amazing opportunity…”


Willison won the inaugural Casa Vela Cup in San Francisco with regular crew Serena Woodall, Charlotte Porter and Alison Kent. Photo / Simone Staff

The elite from the YTP can then graduate up to the RNZYS’s Performance Program which has its own fleet of Elliott 7s and even acquired some Flying Phantom foiling catamarans to emulate the evolution of America’s Cup yachts. “With the Performance Program they encourage you to put your own team together and get some really good coaching,” says Willison. In 2018, aged 19, she formed her Edge Match Racing Team at the same as Megan Thomson was forming her team. “We have been racing against one another since we sailed Optis against one another. It is cool to see her team coming up…”

Willison’s first overseas Grade One event was the Helsinki Women’s Match in 2018 where she finished seventh, plus three events in Australia, finishing second at the Australian Women’s Match Racing Championship.

Edge Match Racing Team’s first international season was in 2019 when they started strongly winning the New Zealand Women’s Match Racing Championship. They competed in at the Oakcliff International in Oyster Bay, New York and they lined up against an international cast at the Nordea Women’s Trophy in Marstrand. Despite racing the M32 catamarans being used on the WMRT at the time, they finished a promising second. “It was great fun but quite terrifying boats!” she recalls of her first catamaran match race on the famous Swedish fjord. “It is a completely different style but it did provide useful skills for the faster boats such as what we are seeing now on the America’s Cup.”

Her progress ground to a halt for two years during the pandemic when her professional training as a nurse was called upon. “In fact my whole team works in healthcare. I am an emergency nurse. One of my trimmers is a nurse. Another is a paramedic and one is a physiotherapist.”

As luck would have it, she and her whole team have boyfriends based in Europe and as the pandemic came to an end they all hightailed it to the Old World from where they decided to reignite their campaign. In 2022, they competed in the latter two of the four event Women’s Tour –  the EUROSAF Women’s Championship in Corfu Greece and the Women’s Match Racing World Championship in New Zealand –finishing the inaugural Women’s World Match Racing Tour season (and the Auckland event) second overall to Pauline Courtois’ French team. “We really knew the boats well and the conditions. Auckland was a very cool venue for us,” Willison recalls.

This season they have gone all in, committing to all four events. In the first two, both held in four person J/22s, Willison won April’s inaugural Casa Vela Cup hosted at the St Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, but finished second to Östling at the Santa Maria Cup in Annapolis the week after. American Nicole Breault’s Vela Racing team was third and Thomson fourth.


Celia Willison. Photo / Women's World Match Racing Tour

At the third tour stage, the Normandie Match Cup in Le Havre at the end of May, Pauline Courtois again proved her skill and local knowledge, winning the final against Thomson on homewaters, leaving Willison and Östling to slog it out in their epic Petit Final. Not on the Tour, but they also competed at the 2023 Women’s Match Racing World Championship in Middelfart, Denmark finishing fourth. “It was a bit of a shambles!” recalls Willison.

Next up is the concluding event of the 2023 Women’s World Match Racing Tour. In the ever evolving world of match racing crew, for this event Willison has one of Courtois’ trimmers (the defending champion herself is not racing there). This will add to her team’s international mix: two other Kiwis,  Serena Woodall and Charlotte Porter sailed with her on the US events along with American Alison Kent, while in her Le Havre crew was Laurane Mettraux, youngest of the famous Swiss sailing siblings.

After Copenhagen, Courtois, Willison and Östling are all on the women’s card at the 71st edition of the Bermuda Gold Cup on the Open World Match Racing Tour from 2-7 October and, subject to qualifying enough points, may well find themselves Open WMRT Final in Shenzhen, China from 12-17 December.

Willison has enjoyed the biggest successes in her own right match racing. As other mainstream sports are starting to achieve, she would love the Women’s Tour to reach the same level as the Men’s Tour has in the past when it was possible to earn a living from the prize money earned racing. Just in its second year, the Women’s World Match Racing Tour is currently the only global professional series for women in sailing, and the tour organisation led by WMRT’s James Pleasance in the UK are working hard to attract new sponsors to take the Women’s Tour to its next and deserved level in the sport. For now, however, Willison has to spend half her year back down under working as a nurse.

However, her goal is to become a pro-sailor. While this has been incredibly hard, recent developments, spurred by the Women’s World Match Racing Tour, and the addition of female crew on the Ocean Race, have made this slightly less so. There is the Magenta Project which supported Willison, teaming her up with Emma Sanderson  (previously round the world sailor Emma Richards) which helped, but Willison advises: “I think you have to have the right attitude. There are girls who carry on ‘I am not on a boat, because I am a girl’, but right now it is literally the best time ever to be a woman in sailing. You just have to have the right attitude and not be a sensitive little something. This is the way the industry is and you have to mould yourself into it.”

In the UK post-COVID as a crew, she won the J/70 Worlds and Cape 31’s. This season she is racing on the one design owner-driver 44Cup which is encouraging teams to include a female sailor in their crew. Willison sails with the Swiss Black Star Sailing Team which is unique in having two female crew – on board Willison works the bow – the only female bow-person on the circuit.

However a bigger prize may be on the horizon. Willison has been trialling to be on the Emirates Team New Zealand AC40 for both or either the youth or the female America’s Cup. “I am young enough by just two days so I can do the youth and the women’s teams…” she explains: Potentially a very bright and exciting future for this 24-year-old female sailor.