Bianca Cook is still struggling with the idea that she belongs.
Even as the boats were hurtling around the globe in the Volvo Ocean Race, she privately wondered if she was good enough to be there. Now she's a little starstruck to have been invited to sail with the first all-female professional outfit to tackle the famed Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, which starts today.
But Cook is a highly accomplished offshore sailor and came recommended when Turn the Tide on Plastic were looking for another female to join their team. And it's highly likely she will be involved in the next Volvo Ocean Race, perhaps even with an all-Kiwi team if the project can get off the ground.
It still hasn't been easy, though, to pick up work and it's why she jumped at the chance to join Ocean Respect Racing for the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
The team was formed by Stacey Jackson, who sailed on Vestas 11th Hour Racing during the last Volvo Ocean Race, and includes sailors with a combined experience of 68 Sydney Hobart Yacht Races and 17 Volvo Ocean Races. Also among the 13-strong crew are World Sailor of the Year Carolijn Brouwer, Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper Dee Caffari, navigator Libby Greenhalgh as well as New Zealand's Keryn McMaster.
"The goal is to prove that, because it's the first female professional team doing the Sydney Hobart, we are more than capable and can sail fast," Cook says. "The aim is definitely to win [the Tattersall Cup]."
It helps they will be racing on Wild Oats X, the mini maxi that was originally built for Australia's Admirals Cup defence and was sixth overall in last year's Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Many will be hoping they do well to help further break down barriers that still exist for women in sailing.
"I'd always wanted to do the Sydney Hobart," Cook says. "I actually thought my chances of doing the Sydney Hobart were a lot higher than doing the Volvo itself but I could never find a ride. I thought this year, now that I've done the Volvo, I might actually be able to find a ride but the rides aren't coming very fast.
"It comes down to changing people's minds on females, that we are capable, we can sail and we have a good brain on our shoulders. It's still very much a man's club."
Cook knows she was the beneficiary of Volvo Ocean Race rules that required teams to include females. She would prefer teams to be encouraged rather than forced to include women but feels progress is being made.
"Unfortunately, we're just not quite there yet. At least we are having the conversations and people are more aware of it."
People are also becoming more aware of the need to look after our oceans and Cook came back from the Volvo Ocean race both disturbed about the level of pollution around the world but also encouraged by efforts to improve.
Her involvement with Turn the Tide on Plastic encouraged family and friends to make positive changes and she's become more active in encouraging others to think more about the environment through things like talks at schools and her work as a Yachting New Zealand environmental ambassador.
Conversations often revert back to the Volvo Ocean Race and what it was like to be involved in the most competitive edition in history and Cook has fond memories – mostly.
"Honestly, I look back on it and I have times when I really miss it and just can't wait to get ready for the next one," she says. "And there are other times when I'm in a hot shower, sleeping in a nice bed or eating normal food - I definitely don't miss the freeze-dried food. I loved most of it. There were definitely times when you were sleep deprived and hungry and wanted it all to be over.
"My biggest struggle was at the start of the race when I was struggling to believe that I was good enough to be there, that I was supposed to be there. I always thought there was someone better who should be there. I didn't feel like I was in the right place.
"Once we sailed into Auckland, I knew exactly where I was meant to be. It took a while for me to get the confidence in myself. After a while, I realised I was more than capable of doing the job. The race is very much a psychological challenge as it is a physical one."
The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is a much smaller version of that, with the fastest boats expected to take less than two days to sail the 628 nautical miles.
It's appropriate the women's team are backed by Ocean Respect Racing because, as well as increased awareness of environmental issues, the team are also looking for respect as sailors. If they can achieve that in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, it will just add to Cook's feeling of belonging.
- Michael Brown is Yachting New Zealand's communications manager.