In 1983, Australia won the America’s Cup for the first – and only – time. In 2024, the America’s Cup will host an inaugural women’s race, and Australia is plotting its campaign to take the Cup back. The first two team members of the Australian team: Olympic medallists Olivia Price and Nina Curtis share the dream.
Forbes Australia issue 3 is out now. You can pick up your copy at all good newsagents or become a member here.
In September 2022, a landmark announcement regarding the America’s Cup was made. The 2024 series for ‘the Auld Mug’, to be held at Barcelona’s Port Olímpic, would include a Women’s America’s Cup for the first time in its 170-year history.
The significance of this, being the oldest sporting race in the world, cannot be understated, Olympic sailing medalist and skipper of the Australian Women’s America’s Cup team, Olivia Price says.
“I’ll be honest,” she says, “I was in disbelief. This has been such a long time coming – a little bit too late, in my opinion, but it’s super exciting. I know we’ve got the depth, the talent and the right people to win this.”
“You’ve got to be mentally rock solid to put these boats in the right spot at the right time to win this race.”– Olivia Price, skipper for the Australian Women’s America’s Cup team
Price has been sailing since she was a kid, heading into the sport full-time when she was just 16. Then, she was the youngest by at least three or four years, often training with or competing against women 20 years her senior.
“You kind of get thrown in the deep end,” she says. “It’s just about how you respond. My attitude has always been to just go with it and learn as much as you can.”
This attitude took Price to the London 2012 Olympics, where she competed in the women’s Elliot 6m match racing event. Price and her teammates, Nina Curtis and Lucinda Whitty, won a silver medal, losing out to Spain. The United States came fifth.
“It was obviously an exciting moment,” Price says. “We went there for gold but It was just not enough.” But there’s a lesson, she says: “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had won gold. It all builds character and attitude.”
Shortly after, match racing was removed from the Olympics, so Price had to change classes into skiff sailing 49erFXs – women’s two-person, high-performance Olympic-class boats. There’s a skipper who steers the boats and makes the decisions and a crew who works with the sails and speed of the boat. Price was a skipper. She would miss the Rio Olympics, taking time off to finish university, coach girls in sailing and ultimately give herself a break from the competitive nature of her career.
Five years later – and just one year ago – Price returned to the water to sail competitively.
“It’s brought a little bit of new perspective,” she muses. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved it more.”
Price isn’t just taking on the America’s Cup in 2024, she’s also competing in the Paris Olympics – albeit without Curtis, who has retired from Olympic sailing and competes in the SailGP. But the opportunity to participate in the America’s Cup visibly excites her more.
It must be said that the America’s Cup has never expressly denied entry to women – in fact, some women have competed in past challenges. But it is much more difficult for women to earn their place in the event, Price and Curtis say.
“There’s a trend where, even at the grassroots level, females are thought to be too emotional to be decision-makers. Then you move into the mid-levels, and the physical difference becomes more apparent. We’re not physically strong enough. So we can’t get onto the programs because we don’t have the strength or the weight,” Price says.
“Then when you get to the elite level of the sport, the America’s Cup, you can’t get on boats because you don’t have the experience. So there’s a disadvantage.”
For Curtis, who has also been sailing since she was a kid, working her way up the ranks in local squads, the America’s Cup represents a long-standing dream.
“Have you tried to get on the team?” I ask.
“Tooth and nail,” she says.
It isn’t just the America’s Cup event, either. Curtis says she applied for SailGP prior to the women’s pathway and was refused a trial. The average weight required for a crew member on the boats was 90 kilograms.
“I don’t know that many female athletes that weigh 90 kilograms.” She says. “It limits a huge chunk of the female population.”
Curtis joined the SailGP women’s team in 2021. She became the first female athlete in history to win a SailGP event. But she’s candid about the financial inequities of the sport, too. She recalls her first paid gig was the Volvo Ocean Race in 2018. She’s been sailing full-time since 2008 – that’s ten years without a paid job.
“There’s nothing wrong with the skill-level of Australians – they are highly sought after in these high-performance events.”– Iain Murray, Australian sailor
“It’s so frustrating with a sport like sailing when physicality isn’t the limiting factor.”
So what has changed to finally allow a sport like sailing – and an event like the America’s Cup – to introduce a women’s race? Famed Australian sailor and America’s Cup alumni Iain Murray says it is thanks to the advent of a new, high-tech, high-powered boat that requires more brains than brawn: the AC40s.
“They look like somewhere between a sailing boat and a pod racer you see on Star Wars,” Murray says. “Clearly there’s a lot of electronics, a lot of assisted power and a lot of balance,
forethought and technical skill required to sail these boats. It’s more like being a fighter pilot than a sailor.”
The AC40 hull is based on the design of the 36th America’s Cup winner, Emirates Team New Zealand’s Te Rehutai. It was designed by the same team and built by McConaghy Boats. At 11.8m long (40ft), it’s made of carbon composite and equipped with self-tacking headsails and batteries. The boats will be sailed by a crew of four and can reach top speeds of 45+ knots (nearly 85km/hour). But its autopilot function levels the playing field – sailors without foiling experience can get a handle on things quickly.
“It does look like a bit of a spaceship – a bit of a beast,” Price says. “To harness that, and to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and then to execute on that… I’m so excited to get my hands on one of those machines.”
Murray, an independent regatta director of the 37th America’s Cup (a role he also played in the 36th America’s cup), says a win would be significant for the sport in Australia.
“There’s nothing wrong with the skill-level of Australians – they are highly sought after in these high-performance events,” he caveats.
“What we haven’t been able to do is compete because we don’t have the wherewithal to put on an incredibly expensive, long-duration America’s Cup campaign together. I think having a great Australian women’s team, it’s certainly getting the support and the public refamiliarised and conditioned to the fact that we can compete in those events and be successful.”
For context, reports show Alan Bond’s successful 1983 campaign cost around $US5 million (then). Bill Koch’s win-back of the trophy in 1987 cost $US65 million. Back then, the CEO of Prada said challengers collectively spent $US500 million to compete.
It isn’t just investment in the campaign – hosting cities are required to fork out millions – if not hundreds of millions – as well. An Auckland Council operations report stated the Crown spent $NZ133 million on infrastructure to host the 2021 Cup. But the cost is generally recouped. For Bermuda, which hosted the Cup in 2017, the post-event report claimed a return of over $US5 for every $US1 invested.
Murray believes Price and Curtis have the skills to build the right crew and lead it to a win. More than that, he believes Australia’s in the “top echelon” in terms of talent. SailGP in particular, Murray says, is the closest thing to America’s Cup, and in that he believes the women have performed incredibly well.
“I think we’ve got the experience on our team to know what’s important in this campaign and execute when it comes down to it,” Price says.
“You’ve got to be mentally rock solid to put these boats in the right spot at the right time to win
The team is currently seeking sponsors to finance Australia’s campaign. Unlike the men’s event, the AC40s (the boats) will be provided for the Women’s Cup, which means the cash required is a fraction of that for the men’s campaign – and achievable, the team believes.
But the sailor selection process will be thorough, Curtis adds. “We’ve got some huge names in Australian women’s sailing. We are going to cast the net far and wide – I’m hoping we find some future sailing champions.”
What is the America’s Cup?
- The America’s Cup is a trophy awarded in the sport of sailing. It’s the world’s oldest international sporting competition (it was first raced in England in 1851).
- The Cup match is between two sailing yachts: the defender of the trophy, and the challenger.
- The defender is always guaranteed a spot in the final match, and the defender usually hosts the event on home waters (though not always).
- The challenger teams must battle each other out to determine which one wins the right to take on the defender.
- The challenger matches are a series of racing events called the America’s Cup World Series.
- There is no fixed schedule to the Cup, but it’s usually held every three to four years.
- Currently, the Cup is held by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
Look back on the week that was with hand-picked articles from Australia and around the world. Sign up to the Forbes Australia newsletter here.