Stella Bilger did what the New Zealand team narrowly failed to do at the SailGP season finale in San Francisco – win a title.
The 18-year-old Aucklander claimed the women’s SailGP Inspire Waszp crown, beating seven other competitors from around the globe in a boat she only started sailing again recently following an 18-month hiatus.
Bilger had only returned to the single-handed foiler a few days before SailGP’s New Zealand debut in Christchurch in March after a nudge from Waszp world champion Elise Beavis.
“I stopped sailing the Waszp at the end of 2021 but then I heard about the Christchurch event from Elise. She emailed my dad saying what a great opportunity it could be and I eventually decided to sign up for it,” said Bilger, a first-year business student at Auckland University.
“I planned to set aside some time for training, but I got busy with university stuff and ended up not doing much sailing at all. We went down to Christchurch a few days before the SailGP event and that’s when I got back into it.”
She qualified for San Francisco after finishing first female in Lyttelton Harbour, with Noah Malpot booking his spot in the decider by winning the men’s title.
“Things just got crazy after Christchurch - next thing I knew we arrived in San Francisco thinking I would just give it my best shot as I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know any of my competitors,” Bilger said.
“We had a practice race on Wednesday, where we had 15 knots for about 40 minutes, and it went pretty well. I was quite surprised and that was the first time I thought: ‘This could be on’.”
Bilger dominated in 22 slalom races across Friday and Saturday (NZ time), defeating Bermuda’s Rachael Betschart by five points, with Hedvig Doksrod of Denmark third.
Malpot finished third overall in the nine-boat men’s fleet.
Bilger didn’t have much time to celebrate her win before cheering on the New Zealand team in the SailGP grand final – with Peter Burling and his crew narrowly missing out to Australia in a heartstopping winner-takes-all $1 million race on Monday (NZ time).
“We were all sitting right on the rocks, watching the boats come through the finish. I was sitting next to the Australian girl and we were both going crazy,” she said.
Her victory means Bilger will be joining the New Zealand SailGP team for one event next season.
“I don't know much of the detail yet but I think I’ll be helping out as part of the shore crew for one of the events, which would be pretty cool.
“The whole SailGP Inspire experience has been so much fun – racing in front of a big crowd and working under that kind of pressure and at the same time meeting so many incredible people.”
While Bilger’s passion for the Waszp has been rekindled by her success in San Francisco, her immediate priority remains the iQFOIL – the class made popular in New Zealand by the recent success of Veerle ten Have and Josh Armit and that is set for its Olympic debut in Paris next year.
“I would love to keep doing the IQ and to really nail it and the dream is to one day sail on one of the F50s they use in SailGP," she said.
"But any boat or board would be awesome - as long as I can keep foiling. It literally feels like you are flying out there. Even the worst day of racing is still fun and that's a feeling I want to hang on to for as long as I can."