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Liv Mackay and Micah Wilkinson

Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta represents milestone for Nacra pair

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Liv Mackay and Micah Wilkinson don't have particularly fond memories of last year's Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta but the Nacra 17 pair are hoping next month's event at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club will be a lot more satisfying.

Mackay hurt her hip at the 2018 Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta, an injury that badly affected her ability to sail for the next six months before she made the call to have surgery. She's now back to nearly 100 percent and the upcoming Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta on February 1-3 represents the first regatta for her and Wilkinson since the sailing world championships in Aarhus in August.

The pair were 11th in Aarhus, one place ahead of fellow Kiwis Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders who are their training partners but also rivals for the sole New Zealand spot in the Nacra 17 at next year's Tokyo Olympics. Those two crews will be joined on the start line at Akarana by the new pairing of Erica Dawson, who has switched from the 49erFX, and Henry Haslett.

"It’s not just the Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta," Wilkinson said. "It's a good opportunity to prove ourselves. The end of the year is going to come down to being the best New Zealand boat on the water and this regatta is an opportunity to show our form.

"It’s also the same place where the [49er, 49erFX and Nacra 17] world championships will be which are also the Olympic trials so, for us, it’s the first hitout on the field where we are going to be competing for our spot for the Tokyo Olympics. It’s really exciting and we’d love to start the year well and stamp a little bit of authority going into 2019."

Mackay and Wilkinson won't be the only crew making a comeback at the Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta and there will be considerable interest in how Olympic and four-time 49er world champions Peter Burling and Blair Tuke perform in their return to competition.

As many as 150 sailors are expected to compete at Akarana. Along with the Nacra 17 and 49er, there will also be racing in the 49erFX, Laser, Laser Radial, RS:X 9.5, 470, 29er, 420, Nacra 15 and RS:X 8.5. There will also be a kite racing test event.

Mackay says she feels "1000 times better" than she did six months ago but tried to use the enforced break meaningfully. 

"It was frustrating but I tried to look at it a different way and use it as an opportunity to learn in other areas," she said. "I would say the six months we were sailing when I was injured were more frustrating because we couldn’t train or sail at our full potential. It just felt like we were stuck in one place. I feel great in the boat now, so it’s really exciting."

Wilkinson tried to keep sailing, and won the junior title at last year's A-Class world championships in Australia (and was 15th overall) and then sailed with the Red Bull Sailing Team at rounds of the Extreme Sailing Series in San Diego and Mexico.

"Realising I had three months [off sailing with Mackay] was a bit of shock so I went about trying to learn as much as I could," he said. "For me, that was spending a bit of time helming again, sailing whatever matched a Nacra so the A-Class worlds was perfect. The time with the Red Bull team was totally different. It was cool to see how big teams interact and how the pro guys run their operations day to day. 

"I learned a lot and it really lit the fire to get back into it after watching all the other Nacra teams train hard."

Training for Mackay and Wilkinson is now done under the guidance of new coach Jo Aleh, who is also working with the other two New Zealand Nacra teams.

They're also hopeful of setting up training blocks with Australian combinations Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin as well as Nathan and Haylee Outteridge as they work towards the main ambition of gaining selection for the Tokyo Olympics.

The Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta is a small part of that puzzle and Mackay and Wilkinson are intent on making sure it's a memorable event for good reasons.