Richard Dodson, two-time America’s Cup Winner and former owner of North Sails in New Zealand, was forced to stop competitive sailing due to MS. Here he tells us of his journey into Paralympic sailing, and the motivation to claim New Zealand’s first-ever Paralympic gold.
Richard, please tell us about your journey from the America’s Cup to the Paralympics?
I progressed from AC sailing to the J boats which was a good progression for the changes MS was having on my sight and balance (my two worst symptoms). Sailing with MS got a little tricky especially at the top level. One World was my last AC Campaign. It took a little convincing to try Para-sailing, as I didn’t appreciate the high level Para-sailing was at. David Abercrombie, CEO of Yachting NZ, suggested David Barnes (my previous team mate who is also ex AC and has MS. David’s MS has progressed to the stage he had to pull out of the campaign) and I give Para-sailing a go as they felt it was not recognized enough in NZ and having two well known yachties involved would heighten the profile of Para-sailing in NZ. NZ is top in the world at sailing and blind sailing, but has never really been recognized in Para-sailing. After our first Para-sailing regatta in Ireland three years ago we realized the incredibly high caliber of the sailors we were to start competing against.
After that first regatta I was blown away by the positive, happy, upbeat attitude of the Para sailors. However, they are still highly competitive and as tough as any in the protest room. At this regatta, which was the Para-Worlds in Ireland, I thought we would either come first or second. We finished eighth. The competition was so much higher than first anticipated. That wiped the grin off our faces, and got the competitive juices flowing again.
How has Paralympic sailing influenced your life after such a successful sailing career before you were diagnosed with MS?
You either embrace it and take it on or you don’t, and you let life pass you by.
How does it feel to represent your country once again at the highest level?
It feels great to be representing New Zealand at this level again. There has been a massive amount of interest and support for our team. Quite mind blowing, and makes us feel extremely humbled. For instance, last night we had a meeting with Russell Coutts, Joey Allen, Matthew Mason and my brother Tom Dodson. Amazing line-up of talent coming out on a wet winter night to debrief our Rio test event and give us words of support and advice for Rio. As we told them, the support from the NZ yachting community and NZ AC yachties is astounding.
Once we had to wet sand the bottom of the boat and Matty Mason said he would rally some guys to help us. This was shortly after the AC in San Fran. We had Simon Daubney, Warwick Fleury and Matthew Mason from Oracle sanding alongside Richard Meacham and James Dagg from Team NZ. We also often will have mixed crew from different AC teams on our number two boat.
The New Zealand Sonar crew looks to be a very strong team. What are your goals, who are the big threats and where do you see your strengths on the water?
We have a fast boat. North Sails New Zealand, with technical advice from our coach Don Cowie, have built us FAST sails. Dimension Polyant has kindly supplied cloth free of charge during the whole campaign. Until very recently we had our office at North Sails in the Auckland Viaduct which they gave us at no charge.
We have had the top sailors in the world to train against. However, being on the other side of the world means we have not competed in many overseas regattas. So whilst we have tough opposition here it is still only the two Sonars to line up and start against. So we really miss not having one design fleet racing. We sail against the RNZYS Youth fleet in their Elliot 7ms and they like nothing better than to give the “old boys” a hard time.
Our goal is the same as the whole fleet. To podium. It’s in the lap of the Gods (or Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio :). The difference is we are the new kids on the block. Almost the whole fleet is capable of winning Gold. And they have all competed in Paralympics at least once.
We have a great team around us. Between them and Paralympic NZ team they have everything in place we could possibly need to take any stress or unexpected issues out of play.
Have you had a chance to train in the bay in Rio? What are your expectations for the racing conditions and will this play to your strengths?
We have just returned from Rio where we had 14 races in 7 days. The Paras will be 11 races over 6 days. The tides are extremely tricky and frustrating, but it’s the same for everyone. We are lucky that our coach has spent a great deal of time in Rio coaching Torben Grael’s kids so knows the area well. On the start line you can have one end of the line with the tide going out and on the other end the tide coming in. Takes a bit of getting used to.
It’s a beautiful venue to sail, and we’re really looking forward to September.
We know it’s going to be light, which suits us as we are a light crew. The winds are quite fluky which we are OK with.
The Paralympics has a unique and inspirational atmosphere – what are you most excited about for Rio 2016?
We’re staying at the village which sounds amazing and will be great to get involved in the atmosphere and see all the other teams and NZ Paralympians who have achieved so much. I’m looking forward to the opening Ceremony which should be exciting.
New Zealand has a proud sailing heritage and has huge support. What will it mean to claim Gold in Rio?
I couldn’t begin to tell you how many people have supported our team, not only financially but also morally. It would be great to be able to pay this back and be the first ever NZ Para-Sailing team to win a medal.
We are extremely disappointed that Para-sailing has been dropped from Tokyo, as there is a very large disabled sailing community in NZ. We just hope this doesn’t make anyone drop the sport for another. It is always great to have a goal to work toward and it will be hard for those that don’t have the pinnacle of all sport, the Olympics or in this case the Paralympics to work toward. It’s a hard road being disabled but this is just another unnecessary hurdle.
You have had a long relationship with North Sails in New Zealand, which boasts some of the best sailors in the world and brightest minds in the sport. What makes North Sails stand out and attract such talent?
I have been involved with the North Sails family since I was 27 sailing Finns against my brother Tom. We became involved when Tom Schnackenberg was in Perth working with Alan Bond’s Australian AC campaign, and he needed someone here in NZ as his partner to run the loft, so brother Tom and I bought half off him. That’s approximately 30 years with the company. There is no doubt North Sails is the leading sailmaker in the world which makes me proud to be involved. For any sailor or sailmaker it is the most prestigious company to work for.
We imagine you still follow the Cup closely – what do you make of the current state of the oldest trophy in sport?
I love the fact they are sailing cats now, it’s extremely exciting to watch. Just because we’re getting old and a little fragile and can’t stay involved, that’s fine. We can be armchair admirals.
Follow Rick, Andrew and Chris via their website, kiwigoldsailing.co.nz
All images © Ainhoa Sanchez / courtesy of Kiwi Gold Sailing