Another year, another chance for Dutchwoman Carolijn Brouwer to rewrite sailing’s record books.
The 45-year-old is on track to become the first woman in history to helm an America’s Cup challenger yacht after being named in the inaugural Dutch team to compete for the Auld Mug.
Last summer, Brouwer, along with crew mate Marie Riou of France, became the first female winners of the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race with the Dongfeng Race Team.
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Brouwer, a two-time world sailor of the year, is used to trailblazing.
“I have competed in three Olympic Games and sailed the Volvo Ocean Race three times,” Brouwer told CNN Sport by phone from her home in Sydney, Australia. “The America’s Cup is something you want to be part of as a professional sailor.
“I can’t imagine anything more special than this, this trophy has been around for 168 years and the Netherlands has never taken part.”
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The America’s Cup may have a long and rich history but very rarely have women played a significant role in it. US-born New Zealander Leslie Egnot was the first principal helmswoman in the competition when she steered the Mighty Mary in 1995, but the mostly female crew lost in the Citizen Cup, the series to decide which US team would defend the America’s Cup.
Brouwer is, therefore, in pole position to make history when the six challengers compete for the right to take on defender Emirates Team New Zealand in the 36th America’s Cup in Auckland in 2021.
She may be widely regarded as a pioneer, but fighting through the glass ceiling of gender inequality was never her main motivation.
“If me winning the Volvo Ocean Race and being at the helm of an America’s Cup boat will inspire young girls and women, who may see me as an example, that will of course be really amazing, but it is not the reason why I am doing it,” she said.
“I am doing it because sailing is my passion, I am super competitive and I want to win.”
While women and men have equal opportunities to compete at an Olympic level, there is a limited career path for female sailors when it comes to big international yacht races. For example, the 2016-17 edition of the solo non-stop round-the-world Vendee Globe had no women sailors for the first time since 1992.
However, last year’s Volvo Ocean Race attracted a host of women sailors after a rule change that encouraged team owners to employ mixed-gender crews.
“Gender inequality is a complex problem. It’s entrenched in generations of “that’s how it’s always been,” double Olympic sailing champion Shirley Robertson wrote in a 2017 CNN opinion piece about gender equality in the sport. “But if nothing changes, sailing will remain a man’s world. The issue is endemic: from the lack of women coaches to the lack of women involved in the running of the sport.”
The boats, chosen by Team New Zealand and principal challenger Luna Rossa of Italy, will be radical new foiling 75 foot monohulls. Brouwer is the leading contender for the role of helm, a job she combined with mainsail trimming in the Volvo Ocean Race.
“The problem is that of the 11 positions on board, eight will have to be crew members that weigh between 90-100 kilos (198-220 pounds),” she said.
“They have to be real powerhouses, and I think it will be very hard to find women for those roles. But the remaining three positions - helm, mainsail trimmer and flight control - are less physically demanding, which means you could hire women for those positions.”
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‘A proper job’
Brouwer was born in Leiden, southwest of Amsterdam, as the daughter of two competitive rowers and club sailors. But she fell in love with sailing when she was 10 years old and living in Rio de Janeiro with her family in the early 1980s.
When she finished her Latin American languages and cultures degree at the University of Leiden in the late 1990s, her geologist father insisted on her finding “a proper job,” she said. Instead, Brouwer persuaded him to let her sail for one more year. “It was my best year ever,” she said, as she became European and world champion.
Brouwer, who now lives in Australia with her partner, multiple world sailing champion Darren Bundock, and their young son Kyle, never looked back.
In 1998, she was named the ISAF Sailor of the Year, an award she won for the second time in 2018.
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Brouwer’s new team DutchSail, led by Simeon Tienpont, is a late entry into the America’s Cup, where it will be up against Luna Rossa, US entries American Magic and Stars & Stripes Team USA, INEOS Team UK and Malta Altus Challenge.
“It is the holy grail of all sports events,” Tienpont, a two-time America’s Cup winner with Oracle Team USA, told Dutch state broadcaster NOS at the team presentation. “It is the holy grail of innovation. It is the most powerful thing you can win as a country.”
Sailing is a popular sport in the Netherlands, a country of 17.1 million residents with a long and fiercely proud maritime history. In 2015, Sail Amsterdam, a maritime event showcasing tall ships from all over the world, attracted 1.2 million visitors. In June, the finish of the Volvo Ocean Race in the coastal town of Scheveningen was watched by half a million spectators.
However, DutchSail has some catching up to do with some of the other America’s Cup syndicates.
“The start of the America’s Cup is precisely two years away, this sounds like a lot but it really isn’t,” Brouwer said. “We are well aware of the fact some of the other teams are at a much more advanced stage than we are.”
Brouwer said DutchSail plans to buy a simulator program and design package from Cup defender New Zealand.
This will allow the team to start training on dry land in the next 12 months while their boat is being built in the Netherlands. The yacht probably won’t be ready until February or March next year, Brouwer said.
Although the team is starting late, Brouwer is optimistic DutchSail will be a contender.
“The Netherlands has a lot of expertise in sailing,” she said. “We are the best boat builders in the world, we have a very strong maritime industry and vast knowledge of hydraulics and aerodynamics. It’s not just about the sailors on the boat, but also about research and development and design.”
As the mother of an eight-year-old boy mad about Dutch soccer team Ajax, Brouwer has enjoyed spending a bit more time at home with her family this year.
“I had six kids running around here today on a play date, and I spent two hours tidying up all their stuff afterwards,” she said with a laugh.
Making America’s Cup history should be child’s play.