Sunday, 10 April 2011

Interview with Jo Aleh, NZ's Laser Radial Olympian and now Multiple 470 Medallist

Jo Aleh is, without doubt, New Zealand's current foremost female Olympic sailor. In 2002 she won the P-Class Tanner Cup, the first female to do so since its inception in 1945! Jo Aleh went on to take the silver medal at the ISAF Youth Worlds in Poland in the Laser Radial. She then competed in the Laser Radial at the Olympic Games 2008 in Qingdao, nudging the medal slots but finishing 7th after the medal race.

Since this time Jo has teamed up with Polly Powrie to form Team Jolly, one of the top Women's 470 teams in the World, campaigning for the Weymouth Olympics in 2012. Together they gained Silver at the 2010 Worlds to long-standing class leaders, Dutch sailors Lisa Westerhof and Lobke Berkhout. Further, with Jo's win of the Laser Radial Nationals, and Polly helming with Jo amongst the crew for the Women's National Match Racing, as well as sailing in the 470 Women's Nationals, they have won the NZ National Championships in no less than three Olympic classes over the past NZ summer sailing season!

Jo Aleh. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

Jo talks about her sailing background, from the inspiration of Black Magic winning the America's Cup in San Diego in 1995, to her being the first female to win the P-Class Tanner Cup in 2002. She also discusses the Olympic classes, and presents reasoned views for the best slate option for the 2016 Olympics, expressing particular enthusiasm for the inclusion of a women's skiff

Anne Hinton caught up with Jo Aleh just before the Trofeo Princesa Sofia MAPFRE Olympic classes regatta in Palma, Mallorca, Spain, where she was sailing with Bianca Barbarich-Bacher as a last minute replacement for an injured Polly Powrie. A late replacement crew did not prevent Jo Aleh from taking out the Gold medal in the Women's 470 class at the Trofeo Princesa Sofia MAPFRE Olympic classes regatta stage of the ISAF Sailing World Cup!

Part One

AH: Jo – you were inspired to take up sailing as a result of watching the America’s Cup in San Diego in 1995 on TV back home in New Zealand. What was it, in particular, that inspired you about that victory?

JA: I think watching the America’s Cup was the first time I really saw a NZ team taking on the world and beating them all so convincingly. Also I always had a slight fascination with boats from an early age, so I guess it was the push that I needed to get even more obsessed with boats!

AH: What was it that caught your imagination about sailing?

JA: I always like playing around in the water, and the simple act of sailing, using only wind to move, I always found fascinating. As a young child I read every sailing book imaginable, starting with Arthur Ransom and “Swallows and Amazons”, and moving on to books by every sailor I could find, with a large collection of Peter Blake’s books, and every book by an Olympic medallist I could find.

Jo Aleh with other Kiwi Olympians in 2008. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: How did you go about learning to sail as a result? Where, and in what classes, did you sail, and with support from whom, please?

JA: I went straight to my dad, and told him I wanted to learn how to sail. So we went down to Pupuke to watch a regatta on the lake, which started my love of the P-Class, and he talked to some people, who told him to try Ponsonby Cruising Club, as you didn’t have to own a boat to learn there.
I started my first learn to sail course at PCC in late 1996, and was taught there by Raynor Smeal, who funnily enough I ended up meeting again years later on the European circuit, when she was sailing with Sharon Ferris in the Yngling. I stayed at Ponsonby and completed more learn to sail and race courses before getting my own Optimist and moving to Kohimarama in 1997.

Jo Aleh accepts her nomination for the ISAF Youth Worlds at the selection event in New Zealand (with Tom Schnackenberg on the left). Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: What was your progression in sailing through boats/classes, please?

JA: I started out in an Opti at Kohimarama, moving up through the club divisions rather quickly, and within a year I was one of the top girls in most of the regattas. I did my first nationas in Christchurch in 1998, then I quickly moved to a split season approach (doing P-Class till January, then Opti through to April). I was lucky enough in my junior years to have amazingly helpful people who lent me their boats, as there was no way we could afford to have a racing fit Opti, P and Starling at the same time. I sailed all year round as much as I could. I remember in the P-Class during the school holidays, my mum would drop me off at Kohi in the morning, and come back and pick me up in the afternoon, I would sail all day, usually by myself... I just loved it!
From there winning the Tanner Cup was the highlight of my junior years, and it helped me get overseas for my first international event in Canada, with the St John's Rotary foundation sending me over as an up and coming young sailor. From there I made it into the NZL ISAF Youth Worlds team, and the rest just followed on!
Some of my results from those days are:
1999 Optimist Nationals: 24th (3rd female)
2000 Tauranga Cup (P-Class) 68th
2000 Optimist Nationals: 27th (1st female)
2001 Tauranga Cup: 6th (2nd female)
2001 Starling Nationals: 34thst (6th female)
2001 Optimist Nationals: 13th (1st female)
2002 Tanner Cup: 1st
2002 Tauranga Cup: 3rd (2nd female)
2002 Starling Nationals:
2002 Europe Class Nationals: 3rd overall
2002 CORK Week (Canada - Byte Class): 1st overall in open and youth.
2003 Starling Nationals: 4th overall (1st female)
2003 YNZ Youthsail: 1st
2003 ISAF Youth World Championships (Laser Radial): 6th
2004 YNZ Youthsail: 1st
2004 ISAF Youth World Championshps (Laser Radial): 2nd

AH: How did your Olympic ambitions form?

JA: I am pretty sure these came from reading about famous New Zealand sailors, I read Russell Coutts’ book quite early on – as he was the one I saw skippering Black Magic, so anything he had done seemed like a good idea to me! So Gold medal was put on my next to do list!

Jo Aleh in the boat park in Poland for the ISAF Youth Worlds in 2004. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: Who have been the most influential people in your sailing career?

JA: Leslie Egnot – the first woman to win the Tauranga Cup, and Silver medallist in the 470 – still the only women’s dinghy medal we have... Leslie gave a talk at one of the first girls regattas I ever did, and I remember being completely inspired to try and follow her path.
John Morgan was a coach at Kohimarama when I started sailing, and he obviously saw something in me, as he helped me straight away, and continues to do so. I credit him with all my early success, as he was the one who pushed me to sail lots of different youth classes at the same time while other kids were busy specializing in just the Opti, or P-Class. I tried to do as many different Nationals as possible, jumping out of the Opti, straight to P-Class, Starling, and even the Europe class. I think this experience of being able to jump into different boats and make them go fast has helped me more than anything in the long run.

AH: From who/where have you obtained support/sponsorship for your sailing, please?

JA: I have been very lucky throughout my career so far. The first help I got was from the St John's Rotary with a scholarship to Canada for my first international regatta, then the International Yachting Trust and Yachting New Zealand helped me get to my two ISAF Youth Worlds.
Since then I have been extremely lucky, and in my first year of Laser Radial campaigning a guy called Colin Caldwell, who was the current head of sales at TV3, helped me to sort a three year deal with TV3 and Fisher and Paykel, who supported me through to the Beijing Olympics.
Sponsorship has been a lot harder in the last few years, and Polly and I have no title sponsor, with SPARC and Yachting New Zealand helping us make it overseas. We have however been lucky enough to have many product sponsors including Harken, Donaghys, Kaenon Sunglasses and Zhik.

Jo Aleh receives the silver medal at the ISAF Youth Worlds in Poland in 2004. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: How did you come to sail the Laser Radial?

JA: I did the 2003 YNZ Youth trials for the youth team, in the Europe (which was the trial boat for some unknown reason) and then had to learn how to sail a Radial in 8 weeks, so that I could go and represent NZ at the 2003 ISAF Youth Worlds, which were held in Madeira. It was a rough way to learn how to sail what is a very physically demanding boat!

Jo Aleh sails the Laser Radial at the Qingdao Olympics. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: Why the change to the 470 after the Qingdao Olympics?

JA: I came home from the Beijing Games severely disappointed, I was not at all happy with how I had done, and it took a long time to really figure out where I had gone wrong. I finally came to the conclusion that I should have figured out long before the Games, that I had one strong weakness in the Radial. I was simply not heavy enough to really be competitive in the breeze, I got away with it as I was a weapon in the light, and had always managed to hold on for the windier races, but with Weymouth 2012 looking like a breezier venue, I was not sure that I could get big enough to be able to tick off that weakness.
So a few people had suggested the 470, and I had been thinking about it for a while after winning the 2007 420 Worlds with Polly, so I asked her if she would try it out with me for a year, and see how it went.. but after a few weeks we were hooked, and the rest is history!

AH: Who do you train with/against? Is this just other women sailors, or men too?

JA: We train with any other 470s we can find in New Zealand – usually the men, as there are not actually any other women’s 470 teams sailing in NZ. Overseas we tend to stick with the Kiwi guys, as well as joining in with a few of the other countries, but pretty much we try and keep to our immediate team.

Jo Aleh and Olivia (Polly) Powrie. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: Do you notice any differences between the ways in which men and women approach Olympic campaigns in the same class?

JA: I definitely notice differences in how the way we approach our campaign differs from the other NZ 470s, but then again I am not quite sure if this is a guys/girls thing, or just different people approaching things differently. The only consistent difference is the target weights, which I have never fully understood, seeing as we are sailing the same boat!

AH: Do you think that having separate men’s and women’s events is beneficial in the 470?

JA: Yes, I think the opportunity to be able to compete with the men, in the same class is hugely beneficial, especially somewhere like NZ, where if we were to sail our own individual class, we would be sailing around by ourselves the whole time. Also the fact that the 470 does cater for a huge variety of sizes, which, if the men’s and women’s fleets were mixed, I am sure a lot of people would miss, and really there are not many options for the smaller sailors out there!

New Zealand Olympic team member, Jo Aleh. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: If you had the choice, which classes would you include in the Olympics, please, and would these be single sex, or mixed/open?

JA: If I could name the 2016 line up:
Double Handed Skiff: Women: 49er with smaller rig, Men: 49er
Single handed: Women: Laser Radial, Men: Laser
Windsurfing: RSX for Men and Women
Double Handed Spinnaker: Men: 470, Women: 470 (but finally make a carbon rig or something, so the class is more one design)
Mixed Catamaran
Heavy weight single-handed men: Musto Skiff (way more exciting than a Finn!)
I’m just very keen on a women’s skiff! It is about time women got something fun and fast to sail... And keeping the classes as similar as possible for men and women is hugely beneficial to smaller nations like NZ, as your can share hulls, etc.
[Note from SailRaceWin: The keeness for the introduction of a women's skiff, something fun and exciting for women to sail, at the Olympics has been reflected across the spectrum of women sailors in a number of countries to whom we have spoken about Olympic classes. Let's hope that ISAF takes note!]

Note from SailRaceWin: Our thanks to Jodie Bakewell-White for looking out a number of photos of Jo Aleh for this piece.

Part Two of this interview will be published tomorrow

Jo Aleh
Team Jolly