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Californian Melanie Roberts: Globetrotting Race Committee Official

When the boats cross the starting line at the 36th America’s Cup Final on March 10, San Diego sailor and race official Melanie Roberts will be one of the very few Americans on the course as Emirates Team New Zealand prepares to defend the Auld Mug from its hard-charging challengers. Melanie is proud testimony to the tenacity of a young girl’s dream to be a part of the international racing circuit, albeit from the deck of a race committee boat rather than the cockpit of a racing craft.

three people racing
Melanie races with Bill Hardesty and Ty Reed in the 2019 San Diego Yacht Club Championships — which the team won.
© 2021 San Diego Yacht Club

Melanie’s journey to the pinnacle of her sport started when she was a junior sailor, barely old enough to see over the transom of her Sabot dinghy, at San Diego Yacht Club. The budding 9-year-old sailor was heartbroken when she witnessed the Australian entry, oneAustralia, break in half and sink off the coast of San Diego. She was so distressed that she sent a letter, along with $5, to the Australian team to help with the rebuild.

Team oneAustralia skipper John Bertrand returned her money with a note of encouragement that read in part, “It was very kind of you to send us $5, but I am pleased to say that we have not had to use your money and I am returning it to you.”

Australia One Letter

It seems the young sailor was a voracious letter writer. She also penned a note of congratulations to New Zealand’s winning team. The Kiwi team tacked the missive to the wall of their Shelter Island compound and replied with their own note of thanks to the young sailor.

Roberts has brought both of these notes to Auckland as she begins her third stint as an America’s Cup race official. It is no small coincidence that her boss, America’s Cup race director Iain Murray, was on board oneAustralia when it sank in 1995.

“He’s the best boss to work for,” Roberts says. “He was one of my early sailing heroes. Now to be working side by side with him is an honor and a privilege.”

Murray is eager to return the compliment. “Having someone like Melanie on the committee boat makes my job that much easier. I depend on her for calm communications with the boats. The fact that we have worked together before makes it all the better.”

Iain Murray and Melanie Roberts
Melanie onboard the signals boat with race director Iain Murray.
© 2021 Craig Ligibel

The 35-year-old Roberts has sailed competitively all her life. She got into race committee work when she took a job as race coordinator at St. Francis YC in San Francisco after she finished college at USC.

When the Cup came to San Francisco in 2013, she “was in the right place at the right time” to sign up for the race committee. “I never gave up communicating with race officials,” she said. “I just kept at it until someone noticed my interest and gave me a chance.”

Roberts signed on to work with Murray as a software operations liaison in the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda.

In Auckland, she functions as de facto assistant race director. Her job aboard the signals boat is to communicate with the teams and keep track of mark roundings and course corrections. It is her calm and collected voice that can be heard in on-site broadcasts as she relays key information to the boats on the course. “Most times,” she says, “I text the coaches rather than interrupting the team’s onboard coms. You would think this would be a very stressful job, but I am so busy with my communications that the only time I get to watch the races is after the fact on the video replays.”

race committee signal boat for Prada Cup
On board the America’s Cup signals boat in Auckland.
© 2021 Studio Borlenghi

Race day for Roberts starts the night before, when she and Murray set the course for the next day’s races. In Auckland, there are five possible race venues. Which one is selected is determined by wind, waves and on-site conditions. “We tell the teams what we are thinking by 8 p.m. the night before. Then, we firm it all up the next day at the 10:30 briefing.”

The five-person crew of the signals boat “gets out on the water about two hours prior to race time. We make any last-minute course adjustments at that time and communicate it all to the teams.”

Thus far into the 36th edition of the America’s Cup, the race committee has not had to deal with major rules infractions. “The computer calls the fouls and boundary incursions. We just have to communicate in a clear and concise manner to the teams when necessary.”

The RC did make a somewhat controversial call regarding which course to race during the last day of the Prada Cup Finals. The ultimate decision which course to race was dictated as much by COVID restrictions as by race conditions. Some INEOS Team UK backers say the course chosen favored the “faster boat,” while the course the teams utilized the day before favored “the better sailors.” In the end, it didn’t matter. Italy’s Luna Rossa soundly defeated the Brits 7-1 in the best-of-13 matches.

Roberts says her job isn’t much different in this Cup versus her role in Bermuda. “But the fact that these AC75s are so fast makes everything we do more time-sensitive.”

“Being a race official is like being chess master. You always have to be thinking a few moves ahead to get ready to complete one race and get ready for the next.”

She also says that the necessity of running a race “on time to coordinate with broadcasting schedules” sometimes creates a conflict between running a quality race and sticking to a schedule.

Roberts has been in New Zealand since early December. She will stay until the America’s Cup concludes in mid- to late March.

She was on the water when New York YC’s American Magic Patriot almost sank after capsizing during the round robins of the Prada Cup. “We got up there after we finished the race with Luna Rossa. We stood by to assist in any way we could. It was a real bummer to see that boat almost go under.”

Interestingly, Roberts says that she and American Magic skipper Terry Hutchinson have continued to keep in touch during subsequent races. “Terry texted me the other day from the Village about a change he was seeing in the race conditions. I was glad to get that update, as we didn’t have a good idea of what to expect at that particular time.”

“After the Cup concludes,” she says, “it’s off to Bermuda, where I will be working the race committee boat for the SailGP Series.” Roberts has been involved with this high-octane racing circuit since its debut two years ago. She’s excited to see what this year’s expanded schedule and increased number of teams will bring.

This year, eight ‘national’ teams of sailors will compete in a winner-take-all series of races with a $1,000,000 prize. Venues for this year’s events will be in Bermuda, Australia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and the US. The Australian team, captained by Tom Slingsby, won the inaugural edition of the series.

“I’ve got my bags packed and my passport ready,” says the globetrotting Roberts. “The racing will be close and competitive.” She says it’s a who’s who of racing’s elite with Jimmy Spithill, Nathan Outterridge, Tom Slingsby, Ben Ainslie and Peter Burling squaring off. “It’s anybody’s guess who will come out on top.”

Roberts is optimistic about more women obtaining roles in race management and/or participating in performance sailing at the international level. “While there aren’t any women on the crews of the America’s Cup teams, there are lots of women in leadership roles within the teams themselves — in design, communications, events, logistics. That all helps and creates a pathway for future gender equality.”

Roberts notes that several women are signed on as sailing crew members with the new edition of the SailGP series. “The Magenta Project will go a long way toward creating more opportunities for women in all aspects of the sport. I hope that in the years to come we’ll see an all-female boat competing for the Cup — with a full complement of female race committee members as well.”

For the time being, Roberts is proud to hold one of the most prestigious spots in international race management. “At the end of the day, I’m just a race official doing my job to the best of my ability. It doesn’t matter if I’m a man or a woman. The rules rule in America’s Cup racing. I’m just happy to do my part to put on a great race for the participants and the fans all across the world.”


  1. ML Higgins 3 years ago

    Great to see the update on Melanie. She was always a joy to work with at St.FYC. Very proud of what she has achieved.

  2. ML Higgins 3 years ago

    Thanks for the piece on Melanie Roberts. She was always a joy to work with at St.FYC. Very proud of what she has achieved.

  3. paul 3 years ago


    • Christine Weaver 3 years ago

      Thanks Paul; changed UCLA to USC.

  4. Lauren Knobel and Mark Dallow 3 years ago

    Stumbled across her name in my phone the other day and started thinking about our volunteer time together in 2013 so it’s fantastic to see what she’s accomplished- BRAVO Melanie!

  5. Susi Graff 3 years ago

    Congratulations again to Melanie (or MelBel as I’ve known her since her childhood). What a role model for creating the life you want to live…

  6. Carolyn Sherman 3 years ago

    Congratulations to Melanie (and to proud Mom, Jill). It’s a steep hill to climb and I’m certain there’s more to come.

  7. Renie Martin 3 years ago

    So proud of the way Melanie found her passion and didn’t give up in pursuing it!

  8. Sharon Hewitt 3 years ago

    Thank you for sharing this incredible and wonderful life story! It is an amazing commitment, adventure, a dream of life long learning and sharing. Wishing you a continued long life of happiness and success.

  9. Roxana Martes 3 years ago

    Wow…Melanie! What a thrill to read this article about you and this incredible endeavor. So proud of you…as I can’t even imagine what it takes to do your job and execute it so professionally. Enjoy the ride!

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