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Wingfoil champ Sean Herbert on dominating fleet, making history and 'having no quit'

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It's New Zealand's fastest-evolving sailing class, with the rate of development unlike any seen in the sport for decades. Yet, one name has been a constant near the top of fleets from Manly to Maraetai this season.

Sean Herbert is now also the latest name on the trophy for the overall national wingfoil champion after he won the event in emphatic fashion at the weekend.

Herbert beat 2023 champion Josh Armit and over 30 others, including past and current Olympians, and several different class national champions, to add another entry to his growing list of sailing achievements.

But, as Herbert explains, it was almost a very different outcome.

"One of my role models is [Canadian professional bodybuilder] Chris Bumstead, who often talks about having what he calls a champion mentality," Herbert said.

"There was one moment early on at these nationals where one of his quotes really resonated with me - 'It's not about winning, it's not about a trophy, it's about having no quit.'

"In the first race, I was moving into the lead, and a wipeout saw me finish 10th. With my back against the wall out of the gates, I regrouped, went after it, and here we are!"

Herbert finished second to Jake Pye in races 2 and 3 and closed out the event with three consecutive bullets to take the overall win - 12 months after finishing ninth in the inaugural nationals.

Pye finished eighth overall, with Kosta Gladiadis second (and first youth) and Jack Bennett third.

"The level of competition is a tremendous step up from last year," Herbert said. "You saw speeds on the reaches in down-range conditions that were peak speeds in upper-range conditions last year and the fleet shuffle also showed the progress of the individuals and the competitive spirit building in wingfoiling."

Not that the 22-year-old Aucklander is a slouch on the water...

"Two weeks out from the nationals, I improved my top speed by 0.7 knots to 34.7 knots with a 10-second average of 32.3. This was a positive boost leading up to the event, and it was reflected in being in the top three to the first mark in the three slalom races."

Herbert also cleaned up in the Triple Crown series against many of the same competitors earlier this year, winning all three events at Manly Sailing Club, Maraetai Sailing Club, and Wakatere Boating Club to establish himself as one of the country's top wingfoilers.


Sean Herbert won the 2024 NZ wingfoil national championships. Photos / Wingfoil New Zealand

He credits long hours on the water and a strong support network for his success.

"My environment has made a big difference. I appreciate the support of those around me - my gear partners, especially North Foils, my training partners, and my mates. If every session is a send, I will keep pushing and wanting more, so I have been on the water as much as possible.

"Being partnered with North Foils testing prototypes means frequent time on the water in a training environment, and riding their gear competitively meant I had seven regattas this season."

Herbert started sailing at 9 and was soon competing internationally in the (then) O'pen BIC - placing first in the under-12 division at his first Australian nationals in 2011. He won the O'pen BIC worlds the following year and again in 2017 and made New Zealand history by becoming the first sailor to win the Starling national championships three times in succession.

Titles in the Waszp followed at the SailGP Inspire event in Sydney in 2020, the NZ class nationals (2021) and the SailGP Grand Final in San Francisco (2022), while he's been the open teams racing national champion on several occasions. 

"I have also spent a bunch of time sailing other boats - like the RS Feva, 29er, 420, Zephyr and keelboats, as well as windsurfing and windfoiling," Herbert said.

"At the moment my time is split between wingfoiling and sailing the Moth, with the Moth world championships off Manly at the end of the year a primary focus."

Being an accomplished dinghy sailor gives him an advantage, Herbert believes.

"Yes, gear has advanced quickly, especially hand wings, but rider skill has significantly improved in the last 12 months," he said.

"The top riders are pushing 30 knots regularly and are now making tactical decisions on the racecourse, whereas it often used to be about just getting yourself around the course.

"Tactically, now that the fleet is sailing well, this [dinghy experience] provides an edge. The ability to keep one's head up and work the ladders made a difference over the regatta."


The event attracted close to 80 competitors. Photos / Wingfoil New Zealand

When he's not on the water, Herbert, who has a Diploma in Electrical Engineering, works as a composite laminator for Kiwi aerospace manufacturing firm Rocket Lab. 

Apart from the Moth worlds in December, he is also targeting wingfoiling success abroad in the near future.

"I have yet to compete internationally on the wing, but this is on the cards after the weekend," he said.

"Racing against competitors who have been to the Australian nationals and World Tour events provides an exciting vision of where I could get to!"

Final results and standings from the 2024 NZ wingfoil national championships at Manly Sailing Club:

Open fleet (33 boards)
1. Sean Herbert (Manly Sailing Club) (10) 2 2 1 1 1 - 7 points
2. Kosta Gladiadis (Manly Sailing Club) 4 6 3 4 (9) 2 - 19 pts
3. Jack Bennett (Manly Sailing Club) 5 (34UFD) 4 3 3 5 - 20 pts

Race/masters fleet (45 boards)
1. Alex Yakimkin (Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club) 1 2 1 1 1 (15) - 6 pts
2. Jon Bilger (RNZYS) 3 4 (32) 3 2 2 - 14 pts
3. Oscar Gunn (Murrays Bay Sailing Club) 4 1 (19) 2 6 3 - 16 pts
9. Barbara Kendall (Manly Sailing Club) 11 15 12 (16) 7 11 - 56 pts
26. Emma Webb (Belmont 16ft Sailing Club) 18 20 29 (46DNC) 46DNC 46DNC - 159 pts
30. Brianna Orams (Wakatere Boating Club) 17 (46DNS) 17 46DNC 46DNC 46DNC - 172 pts

Full results here.