In February, on impulse, Zoe Hawkins-Wilde bought a brand-new RS Aero sailing dinghy. For a 40-something-year-old female with a dud back, purchasing a high-performance dinghy designed for speed and agility was perhaps an unusual choice. But let her explain…
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with dinghy sailing. I love it when it’s going well. But I resent and am scared of it in equal measures when I am cold, tired and faced with the prospect of a mark rounding and a downhill run to get back to shore.
I didn’t sail as a child, but while my peers enjoyed OEs I discovered sailing and spent much of my twenties racing and crewing keelboats – including my own – before settling down to raise a family.
But 15 years later, I feel I still have unresolved business with small boats. My kids were taking their own first steps in sailing and I found myself puddling around in their Optimists when they were finished with them. In February 2020 I bought an RS Neo – an entry-level cousin to the Aero that is a strong ‘intermediate-level’ performer and still very capable of putting a huge smile on my face.
I got in a few great sails in the Neo before we went into lockdown but unfortunately a few months later, I went through a massive back injury that saw me in hospital, unable to walk, and with a fairly long recovery ahead.
The injury, and my father’s early death before Christmas, forced me to look at what was important: less rushing around, eating better food and making time for the things that I love doing.
I wanted to sail more, and that made me think about what was stopping me from getting on the water. If I could eliminate the practical blockages… Getting the much-loved but heavier RS Neo on and off the trailer with my twitchy back was one of the limitations. My ability to sail in anything approaching 15 knots another – I am still not in a position to hike hard and may never be.
Researching the RS Aero online I asked Google probing questions like ‘is it more difficult to sail than a Laser?’ and came across online forums for the RS Aero. People much older than me said that sailing the dinghy provided a reason for them to stay strong and healthy.
In my case, I have been a runner and swimmer for years and had been diligent about my injury rehab and planned to continue to be so. I didn’t need another reason to keep going, but the boat seemed like a great reward for doing so.
The RS Aero is very light. Fully rigged it weighs around the same as an Optimist. Getting it on and off the trailer – and around the boat ramp – is much easier than any boat I have had before. In fact, I can do it by myself. A big tick.
It also has different sail options. I opted for a 5m2 and a 7m2 sail, but a 9m2 version is also available. This extends my wind range and means there are fewer days where I’ll be sitting on shore watching while braver, stronger people head out sailing. Sailing at French Bay in the Manukau, with its reliable sea breeze, I am glad to have the smaller option.
The sail controls come back to the cockpit. It’s easy for me to pull the vang, cunningham and outhaul on and off without planning a massive logistics mission forward to the mast: and doing so flattens and depowers the sail considerably, although with its flexible carbon rig there are some tricks to getting the combination right.
The hull is ergonomic too – it’s a far cry from the hard lines of the Laser hull and the deck/gunwhale is perfectly curved so the boat is very comfortable to sail. It’s also self draining, and the raised boom takes the main dangers away.
I also wanted to race with other boats at my home club – a mix of J14s, full-rigged Lasers and Laser Radials, 3.7s and youth classes. And now, I can. While my boat-handling needs work I love the art of sail trim and tactics and the Aero lets me really put my mind to these, cutting through the water nicely.
It rewards me when I sail well. It will also give me a good ticking off when I don’t! I have the option of joining in with Aero class events, including national championships, and the owners are actively sailing, enthusiastic, and communicate via a Whatsapp group to arrange get-togethers. Two of them have joined me at French Bay already.
I am enjoying it: it’s giving me focus. I raced yesterday and am covered with bruises this morning. I shed blood on the boat and both my knees and shins are grazed. But this afternoon I headed out to practice tacking and to experiment with the cunningham/vang combination so crucial to mastering this dinghy.
All going well, as I improve I’ll bash myself around less.
The boat is not as difficult to sail as I had thought it might be and it helps to be part of an incredibly supportive sailing club at French Bay, where people are hugely generous with their advice and practical support.
Anyone with a chronic injury knows that recognising their limitations is important. My personal limitations include a wind limit of 14.9 knots (preferably a few knots below that), and being aware of what my back is telling me. If it starts to twinge, it’s time to go in.
That might be after 30 minutes or after four hours. Some days if I am feeling wobbly, it means not going out at all. To a certain extent it depends on whether I can sit on the side of the boat, or if I have to sit in the boat. A wind vane on top of the mast is a big NO because it makes me crane my neck. I know it will be hard to get back in if I capsize, but the solution to that is to stay upright (so far, so good).
I may not be out there for as long or going as hard as stronger sailors. I can’t hike like I need to and that shows in my performance. But I am having a blast.
Could I have done all this in an older, cheaper boat? Yes, for the most part. But life is too short to sail a slow boat. Or to spend time on boat maintenance. My parents lived happy lives, but not long ones, and I am aware every day of the importance of following your dreams, and living every day. Sailing, and the RS Aero, is going to be one ingredient in this for the foreseeable future.
About the Aero
The RS Aero is billed as a simple, responsive single-hander that provides maximum exhilaration. It’s nearly 50 years since the Laser was designed, and the team behind the Aero has taken contemporary design principles and designed them to a much-improved single-hander that doesn’t compromise needlessly.
Crew weight 35-95kg
Hull weight 33kg
Sail area 4/7/9m2
Price from $16,000
Visit www.nzsailcraft.co.nz for info.