Trading Muscle for Mental Strength

Published on August 17th, 2017

Kiwi Jo Aleh twice skippered a 470 to the Olympic podium, and now hopes to make the transition to another mountain in the sport – the Volvo Ocean Race. Suzanne McFadden reports on Aleh’s journey.

Jo Aleh had to seriously ask herself why she was sailing around the southern coast of England, wet, cold and miserable in the dead of night – so far removed from the comfort zone of her dinghy.

Every manoeuvre on board the Volvo Ocean 65 yacht was hard work; hauling on ropes, lugging 400kg of sodden gear from one side of the deck to the other. For almost three days at sea, sleep was a distant memory.

“I was doing it thinking ‘This is just stupid, why am I doing this?’ There was no respite; when it finished I was trashed,” she says. But then I woke up the next morning and I’m like: ‘Oh, that was cool. When are we going again?’ It just sucks you in.”

The Kiwi Olympic gold and silver medallist wanted something completely different from 470 dinghy sailing, and found it in the last few weeks on board Team Brunel – as the 20m Dutch yacht competed in the legendary Fastnet and Round the Isle of Wight races.

Aleh, 31, was literally learning the ropes as she trialled for a place in the Brunel crew that will start in the Volvo Ocean Race, leaving Alicante in October.

It’s an opportunity that Aleh – who quit Olympic sailing after collecting silver in Rio last year – thought she’d never have. But a new rule introduced for this edition of the Volvo race to “create a clearer pathway for female sailors to take part”, offers incentives for teams who choose to have a mixed gender crew.

More Southern Ocean racing this time means teams are likely to face gruelling conditions for longer, so skippers can take up to two extra sailors – as long as they’re women. Teams who choose to stick with a male crew are limited to seven pairs of hands on board.

“There’s one boat that’s chosen not to take women so far, and they’re getting last all the time… which I quite enjoy!” Aleh laughs.

She admits, however, to being in two minds about the inducements offered to selecting a mixed crew. “In some ways I wish there didn’t have to be a rule, because it’s saying: ‘Everyone has seven guys, and oh, if you want, you get to take a couple of girls for free’,” she says.

“But I also see that if there wasn’t the rule, there probably wouldn’t be any women in the race. So I’m really glad they did it.

“On Brunel, Bouwe [Bekking, the skipper] has been great. He was once pretty opposed to sailing with girls; he had done it in the past and didn’t really want to again. But after sailing with us for a week or two, he was like, ‘I can see it will work, you guys are just crew.’ It’s a really positive move, even if it just changes the viewpoint.

“We actually bring a different vibe to the boat, we change the atmosphere. I hope they go back to their guys-only boats and say, ‘Well actually it was a lot more fun with the girls on board’.”

Aleh admits she doesn’t have the muscle to match most of the men on a Volvo boat, but she brings her own set of strengths to the crew.

“I may be 40kg smaller than the guys, but it’s about being smart in where I fit in on the boat. My strengths are more mental,” she says. – Full report

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