SAN DIEGO (AP) - Olympian and round-the-world sailor Marie Riou of France is the first female crew member to be announced for the new SailGP global racing league, which will begin competition next year in fast, foiling 50-foot catamarans.
The 37-year-old Riou will be flight controller for France SailGP Team, which will be skippered by her Olympic partner, Billy Besson. The five-person team was announced Tuesday on Marseille Harbor, which will host the final regatta of the inaugural season, concluding with a $1 million, winner-take-all match race between the two top teams.
Riou said she was “deeply honored to be the first woman aboard the F50 and hope there will be others to follow as this inclusive league continues to build.”
She will control the hydrofoils on the French boat. The F50s are a supercharged version of the 50-foot cats used in the 2017 America’s Cup.
SailGP was founded by American software tycoon Larry Ellison and New Zealander Russell Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup winner. Ellison and Coutts’ Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup in 2010 and 2013 before losing it last year to Emirates Team New Zealand.
“It’s fantastic that Marie is on board,” Coutts said. “She is an incredible athlete and rightfully earned a place on the France SailGP Team based on the merits of her extremely successful sailing career.
“Sailing is one of the only sports in which men and women are able to compete together,” Coutts said. “We think it’s incredibly important to offer talented female sailors the same high-level opportunities afforded to their male counterparts. By offering training and development to young women around the world, we also hope to expand the pipeline and increase female participation in all types and levels of sailing.”
Besson and Riou have teamed up to win four world titles in the Nacra 17 catamaran class. They finished sixth in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and are campaigning for a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Riou was on the winning Dongfeng Race Team in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race.
The U.S., British and Australian teams don’t have any female crew members. Teams from Japan and China have yet to be announced.
Dawn Riley, who has spent her career fighting to get women on boats in top events, called it “a little bit of a ‘duh’ moment.”
Riley said she was at the news conference in New York to introduce the U.S. SailGP team earlier this month.
“Each sailor introduced himself and when Hans Henken said, ‘The way I was introduced to sailing was by my mother,’ the crowd went wild,” Riley said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I walked up to Russell afterward and said: ‘I didn’t say it, the crowd said it. You need women on the boats.’ He gave me a preview that Marie would be on the French boat.
“To Russell’s credit, he heard the crowd loud and clear,” Riley said. “I believe he’ll be doing more in youth sailing and exhibitions and being proactive in getting women on other teams.”
Riley was with America3 during the 1992 America’s Cup but didn’t sail in the finals. In 1995, she was captain of what was the first all-women’s America’s Cup team until Dave Dellenbaugh replaced J.J. Fetter as starting helmsman and tactician.
In 2000, Riley was the first woman to manage an America’s Cup syndicate, serving as CEO and captain of America True. She also sailed in two editions of the Volvo Ocean Race. She is executive director of Oakcliff Sailing in Oak Harbor, New York, which is an official training partner of American Magic, the New York Yacht Club’s team for the 2021 America’s Cup.
Fetter, the most successful U.S. female Olympic sailor with two medals, said Riou making the French team is “definitely the direction we all should go with these events. There are a number of women who have the strength and expertise. Look at the women who sailed in the Volvo Ocean Race and they were very valuable members of the team.
“I’d love to see other countries follow that example,” said Fetter, who is vice chair of the Olympic Sailing Committee and chair of the Olympic Selection Committee for U.S. Sailing.
Riou said women belong on top-level sailing teams and added, “The most important thing on the boat is not to have a woman and men on board, the most important thing is to have a good spirit on the team and we believe we have that.”
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