The stuff of champions: Pig of a thing deserves credit

By David Leggat

Olympian Jo Aleh rolls back the years as she tries out her old P Class yacht. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Olympian Jo Aleh rolls back the years as she tries out her old P Class yacht. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In a three-part series Herald chief sports writer David Leggat looks at the secret of success of some of New Zealand's greatest ever athletes.

You may not know the name Isaac McHardie. The young Hamilton sailor this year won the Tanner and Tauranga Cups and earned the right to be rated the country's finest P Class sailor.

You may come to know the name in the years ahead. There is something distinctly New Zealand about the P Class.

For one thing, it's sailed and raced only in this country. For another, most, if not all, of the country's finest sailors made their bones in the P, or "Pig" as it is affectionately known.

Why? For its quirky nature and difficulty to master. Like a cantankerous grandparent, it can be hard to bend to a young sailor's will; but equally, on reflection, they speak fondly of it.

Run an eye down the list of Tauranga (open) and Tanner (interprovincial) champions. The age limit is 17. David Barnes, Chris Dickson, Russell Coutts, Craig Monk, Dean Barker and Adam Minoprio are all on the honours board.

The class was designed in New Zealand in 1924. As a training tool, with all the sailing nuances it brings, it is hard to better.

In his book Course to Victory, Coutts wrote: "It's an amazing little craft. It has no self-draining system and you have to bail the water out continuously when sailing in strong winds ... downwind in strong winds they frequently nose dive. It's such a complicated boat in terms of balance, sail shapes and tuning that there's no doubt that if you can master it you can sail almost any boat."

Jo Aleh, Olympic champion in the women's 470 with Olivia Powrie this year, agrees. She insists her favourite memories of youth sailing were in the "mighty Pig".

She doesn't come from a sailing background, but was captivated as a 9-year-old watching Team New Zealand win the America's Cup in 1995. Her imagination was lit; she read the books and set her mind to the job.

Learn-to-sail programmes were done in the easier-to-handle Optimist, but Aleh always wanted a challenge.

"It's a horrible boat a lot of the time. It controls you for the first year or two," Aleh said. She started aged about 11 and in 2002 became the first woman to win the Tanner Cup.

The P Class has a tall mast with a boom longer than the boat. It has a lot of sail area for a small boat and, as Aleh puts it, "it wasn't designed with balance in mind".

Capsizing, often, was inevitable. When Aleh won the Tanner Cup there was "the personal satisfaction of taming the pig a little bit", she says.

Among the delights of the P Class is that boats get handed down through the generations. They aren't meant to sit and gather moss beneath a house. Aleh and Powrie sailed their old boats - now in younger, greener hands - at the Kohimarama Yacht Club last month. Aleh chuckled as memories of the old difficulties came back. She wondered how she'd managed it first time around.

There is a threat to the P Class, though. The Optimists have international regattas. The temptation for the impressionable is the lure of overseas adventure. Numbers have dwindled, but Aleh, whose first overseas trip was at 16 or 17, has a cautionary word.

"I always thought being able to sail properly means a lot more than competing internationally when you're 13 or 14. Having coached kids who have sailed Opti and P class, you can tell straight away. Lessons you learn out of the P class are transferable to other boats; Optis can only take you so far."

Aleh can trace a line directly from the P Class to the top of the Olympic dais at Weymouth. "You do end up loving it. Everyone who sails a P class usually looks back at it pretty fondly."

Long may the 'mighty Pig' be around to prepare and inspire young sailors.

- NZ Herald

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