One on One with Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron Commodore Aaron Young
This article was originally published by Live Sail Die
Aaron Young is the Commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS), which is the current home of the America’s Cup. If you haven’t been following along with the latest America’s Cup news, we’ll sum it up for you – a lot is going on. In a recent announcement, RNZYS and RYS gave us a sneak peek into the protocols for the next America’s Cup. It outlines the Youth America’s Cup and introduced a Women’s America’s Cup. Before the last Youth America’s Cup was cancelled, RNZYS had great expectations for their youth sailors in that event and are confident in the next generation.
RNZYS is home to one of the most widely recognised youth training programmes in the world and has just won the US Grand Slam Series for the third time in a row. Aaron opens up about what makes the training programme so successful and how RNZYS continues to create pathways for their youth and women sailors.
LSD: The RNZYS Mastercard Youth Training Programme (MCYTP) is one of the highest regarded programmes for youth sailors in the world. How is the programme structured to create great sailors?
Aaron: Established in 1987, it now has well over 1000 graduates. World-class coaching, facilities and equipment are all part of what makes up the Mastercard Youth Training Programme. The programme offers exceptional value and scholarships are given to the 40-50 sailors in MCYTP annually which cover about 80% of the actual cost of running the programme. Keeping the cost in check is obviously helped by our major sponsors Mastercard, individual boat sponsors, members themselves and also the RNZYS International Sailing Fund that raises money annually at a corporate event. Aside from sailing, the youth learn about boat preparation, maintenance, fitness, discipline, table manners, sponsorship, sustainability and public speaking and are encouraged to race on RNZYS member’s boats on their days off to work as a team and with owners.
LSD: What sets the sailors who graduate from the MCYTP apart?
Aaron: The MCYTP has been around for over 35 years now and has since the very early days produced top sailors. Arguably the most successful youth training programme in the world. But it hasn’t and isn’t simply about training the best to become professionals, it has been about bridging the gap and building a pathway for dinghy sailors or the younger group to learn and enhance their sailing and keelboat skills. It is also far more than just sailing 40 weeks a year, with the club creating networks and support for the youth. We work on a mantra of better people make better sailors. Some graduates of the MCYTP now also go through the RNZYS Performance Programme (PP) (started with members contributing to the Foiling family) which was set up as a transition to the professional environment.
LSD: There was enough talent for two RNZYS Youth AC teams last year before the event was cancelled, do you see that same level of talent for the next event?
Aaron: Absolutely. The MCYTP and PP have continued their growth and success despite the pandemic that has stopped many of the programme from travelling. Last time around, in selecting the team to sail the Yachting Developments built AC9F for the later cancelled YAC 2021, we had a very tough decision on who to select. We ended up selecting two teams because of the talent we had available and even then had some very unlucky people. We also felt that the two teams could help each other training-wise. One key area that I think Reuben Corbett as head coach has done particularly well at is building depth – not just one or two rockstars but great internal competition and camaraderie. And I might add, amongst both the guys and the girls.
LSD: There has been a lot of chat around women being included in these top-level regattas – how does the MCYTP focus on that?
Aaron: In the early years, we had a few females involved. Today we have around 30% females in both the MCYTP and 30% also the Performance Programme. We select mixed crews, female crews, male crews to participate at various regattas – it is always different. Not that long ago, the premier few were chosen to sail at almost every event, but that does nothing for the growth of the sport or the wider group. Every weekend our group is sailing together and against each other in a mixed format and all have equal opportunity.
LSD: What does having a Women’s America’s Cup mean for the future of women in sailing and was this always the plan for the 37th?
Aaron: Thanks for the tricky question! So a disclaimer – I am not an expert here! It’s long been a controversial discussion as the best way to encourage genuine diversity into our sport, let alone involvement in the pinnacle being the America’s Cup. Bluntly, I don’t see complete equality and diversity in the 37th America’s Cup, but I think it is significant progress in the right direction. Some will say that there should be a minimum number of females on an AC75 for AC37 but I also know as a boat owner myself with women on board, the females involved don’t want to be there just to make up the numbers. But by creating a women’s only event alongside a Youth America’s Cup, there is genuine intent to try and be far more inclusive.
I should also reiterate that the AC and Youth AC are both open to both women and men and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some crews mixed in the next event. With the new proposed AC40, we should see less physicality needed on board so this could help to remove some of that requirement for male “grunt.” But what an opportunity that all the sailors have now – to sail the fastest 40 footers in the world, amongst the worlds fastest yachts and have these events as part of the next protocol.
LSD: What would you say to the women in sailing who are hoping to be included in the America’s Cup event?
Aaron: If we take sailing, and in my case the RNZYS, we have seen (and still see) a significant increase in female members and those that sail. Our Learn to Sail program had over 400 through it last summer and around 30% were female. The RNZYS membership has 973 female members currently and we have events such as a 50/50 where mixed crews are a prerequisite. As a club, we see women and families as very important to the future of our sport.
There is absolutely no reason why women can’t be selected to sail in the actual AC event at all. It could well happen in AC37, there are a lot of great sailors out there right now. We have had women sailing in past America’s Cups and although I am unlikely to have much to do with an event beyond AC37, you’d have to think we will see women sailing in future editions of the AC. I would say the same as I would say to anyone in business and sport – never give up, stop talking and start doing. The more we talk about it the less we do about it.
LSD: If America’s Cup isn’t a goal, what other skill sets do the sailors in the MCYTP gain to achieve other sailing goals?
Aaron: Match racing internationally has stood out over the years with a lot of time and coaching in this space and this has led to a number of the MCYTP becoming the very best in the world. My own view is that the sport needs a little more clarity around pathways and goals to share with the youth. In NZ as an example, kids may want to become an All Black, an All White or a Silver Fern or a Football Fern. The path is pretty well set and clear – school, club, region, country, world cup. Sailing has a lot of overlap and a lot of choice – be it the Olympics, Offshore, Sail GP, Maxi, Superyachts, TP 52, Etchells, World match racing, and the America’s Cup. Each area requires different skills, practice and time and it’s difficult to say one is better than the next. I’ve spoken to many of our YTP and PP groups myself and have a few sail with me – they just want to sail as something they love and enjoy; they are always looking to improve and with that attitude, they can achieve their dream. It’s the sports administrators and leaders that need to make the dream clearer by working together and creating a structured calendar and defined array of events for our youth to chase. That said, the sport continues to develop and evolve (eg foiling) and that in itself creates further opportunity.
LSD: Since we have you, there has been a lot of drama around the venue of the Cup. A lot of speculation is being thrown around….do you think it’s a distraction/do these claims have any merit?
Aaron: You’re about a day or two early in asking me! The AC has and always will be full of drama, politics and money as much as sailing and, in a way, that’s what makes it so unique, and so hard to win at the same time. I can assure you that it’s not an easy or straightforward event to be involved in. When the racing starts, it’s actually a brief respite from the ongoing speculation!
We have made no secret that our preference was to see the AC37 in Auckland. If it wasn’t for Covid and that causing a lack of international visitors, superyachts, and cancelled events, etc the AC36 would have looked totally different financially. And if that were the case the most likely outcome would have seen Auckland host AC37 again in a few years. We are working with our contracted team TNZ closely to finalise the few options with a view to creating a successful defence and event. The really key date for us at the RNZYS, together with RYS as the Challenger of Record is to announce the protocol on November 17, 2021, which has all the detail for the next event. From there we look forward to opening entries for the America’s Cup. And as a sailor myself, I look forward to seeing the sailing start and the drama subside!