It is a class that has been dominated by the men in our sport, but now three Australian Olympian women, headed by Beijing gold medallist Tessa PARKINSON, are going where most women have feared to tread; they are to take on some of the world's most elite male sailors at the Audi Etchells Worlds in March.
Due to power and weight required to sail them, the Etchells keelboat has been a male bastion and normally sailed by three beefy sailors. Around 2004, lighter-weight crews opted to add a fourth person, giving not only the extra weight needed, but an extra pair of hands, eyes and ears.
Returning from China, members of the Australian Sailing Team, of which Audi is a sponsor, have investigated classes different to those they sail at Olympic level. The three women contesting the Audi Etchells Worlds have arguably chosen the toughest class they possibly could, or more correctly, it chose them.
Skip LISSIMAN (AUS), who was crew aboard Australia II which won the America's Cup in 1983, asked Tessa PARKINSON
(AUS), Beijing Olympic gold medallist in the Women's 470, if she would sail with him and the answer was a resounding "yes!"
The bubbly 22 year-old, who was overjoyed to be awarded a brand new Audi A3 for winning her gold medal, says: "I used to work for Skip; he's great and was a mentor to me when I was younger. I'm so excited to be able sail at such a high level and against different people to what I am used to."
Like Sarah BLANCK
(AUS) and Angela FARRELL
(AUS), the other two Olympic women joining her at the Audi Etchells Worlds, PARKINSON's role is to help with tactics and strategy; key roles on any boat. She will also move to the bow downwind, using the same expertise that helped win her gold medal.
"It will be different. On the 470 dinghy you had to do a bit of everything, whereas with a team of four, I'll be able to concentrate on just some of those jobs,"
PARKINSON, who is also a dab hand on the helm, describes their West Australian crew as: "super competitive - and the guys are all really talented."
LISSIMAN has opted for a young crew. He and PARKINSON are joined by America's Cup sailor Andy FETHERS (AUS) and Keith SWINTON
(AUS), who recently joined the pro-match racing circuit.
Enjoying the opportunity of sailing a completely different style of boat, PARKINSON explains: "The Etchells is a keelboat and the tacking angles and speed of the boat are quite different what I'm used to. It's a completely different perspective."
BLANCK has the past two Olympic Games behind her. She sailed in the Europe and Laser Radial single-handed dinghy classes respectively, and won a Europe world title. The Victorian will sail on the lone Hong Kong entry skippered by Mark THORNBURROW
Offered the position when one of THORNBURROW's regular crew was unable to commit, BLANCK says: "I'm really loving it. We haven't done as much training compared to the crews that have been together a long time, but we raced on Port Phillip last weekend and only a Black Flag [disqualification for starting early] stopped us from finishing fifth."
The 32 year-old concedes she is nervous about sailing against so many elite sailors in a class she had not raced in before: "I'm learning so much from these guys, they have years of experience and talent. It helps that the Audi Etchells Worlds are being held on my local waters and that I know so many of the competitors."
BLANCK says too, it will feel strange to sail against her Beijing Olympic team mates. "In the Olympics we sail in separate classes, so we never race against each other. It will be very different. We trained with Nocka [Anthony NOSSITER (AUS)] last week and that was fun."
NOSSITER retorts: "I've always wanted to have a duel against the Queens of the Australian Sailing Team, but those opportunities rarely present themselves. However, the Audi Etchells Worlds will make it possible.
"The girls are definitely skilled and tough enough to hose the blokes. While I found a good wind shift hard to pick, the girls seemed very comfortable finding the good side of our Port Phillip Bay courses."
At the Beijing Games, FARRELL worked the bow on the Yngling women's three-person keelboat, so her experience will be handy when she gets to the start line.
The 27 year-old from Pittwater in Sydney is surrounded by champions on her boat; Julian PLANTE
is the skipper and the other crew comprises Michael COXON
and Michael DUNSTAN
, all from Sydney.
PLANTE is prize winning Etchells, big boat and One-Design sailor who works for North Sails in Sydney, of which COXON, one of Australia's most capped sailors in a variety of classes, is Director. DUNSTAN is also a successful big boat sailor, but best known for his match racing expertise.
"I've known Julian for a while, but I'd never sailed with him. I ran into him at a friend's wedding and he asked me to join them. I had my first training session with them a couple of months ago.
"I really like racing on the Etchells. There's no room for mistakes and you have to make calculated and correct decisions fairly quickly; it sharpens your skills,"
"It's good having four people crew in this overpowered class. We finished 11th last weekend in Melbourne, but expect to do better at the Worlds. The guys on my boat know the boat and the fleet, and they know what they're doing."
The Audi Etchells Worlds, to be held from 5-14 March, with race one scheduled for Monday 9 March, is organized by the Melbourne Etchells Fleet in conjunction with the Royal Brighton Yacht Club.
Follow the action at: www.audietchellsworlds2009.com.au