The Kiwi sailor racing for Japan

A lifetime of sailing has brought Leonard Takahashi to the world stage - in not one, but two international competitions.

The Japanese-Kiwi is about to compete in the Olympics and in the international SailGP Championship - representing Japan in both.

Takahashi was born in the seaside town of Atami in Japan but moved to New Zealand when he was eight. By the time he was nine, he was learning the ropes down at Murrays Bay Sailing Club – a club that has produced its fair share of sailing legends, including America’s Cup yachtsman Dean Barker.  

Takahashi is set on following that tradition: he and his teammate Ibuki Koizumi qualified for the Tokyo Olympics early last year. The pair have been sailing together for the last five years - since Koizumi started living in Auckland too. 

Ibuki (Ibu) Koizumi, left, and Leonard Takahashi. Image @bulkheadjapan 

That means the pair have found themselves in the strange position of representing Japan but training on the opposite side of the Pacific, in New Zealand waters. 

“Yeah, it makes people scratch their heads a little bit,” Takahashi says. 

“We say it's better conditions and there are more teams to train with, which is quite an advantage for us and for the Kiwi teams to have another extra boat to play or train with as well,” Takahashi says.  

Takahashi and Koizumi will be racing on July 27 in the 49er class, at the Olympic venue at Enoshima. They'll be up against the likes of Kiwi gold medallists Peter Burling and Blair Tuke - some stiff competition. Takahashi says he and Koizumi will be out there racing with the goal of doing their best, but they’re approaching the race with their eyes on future goals. 

“We've got the Paris Games in three years. That's probably the event that we want to be performing the best at.”

Leonard Takahashi Image: @sailgp

But however the Olympic races unfold, there’s more than enough sailing at an international level throughout the rest of 2021 and beyond to keep Takahashi busy. 

Straight after the Olympics, Takahashi will spend his August in Denmark racing an F50 catamaran in the international SailGP Championship – a competition where again, he’ll be representing Japan. 

Eight teams are competing in the SailGP Championship: Australia, Denmark, France, Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and the United States. The teams race in nine sailing events, with each event taking place in a different course around the world. Originally, Takahashi was meant to be racing with the Japan team during 2020, but Covid postponed the season to 2021 and into early 2022.  

“There's nothing like [the competition] anywhere else in the world," Takahashi says, "The boats go so fast that it's just such high adrenaline and there's so much going on, there's no shortage of action.” 

The F50 catamaran design that all teams use is based on the AC50 – a yacht used in the 2017 America’s Cup - and they can hit up to 50 knots, close to 100 kilometres an hour.  

The catamarans used in SailGP, which can reach up to 50 knots. Image @sailgp

But in comparison to America’s Cup, Takahashi said the SailGP races were a lot more action-packed for sports fans. 

“It’s a lot more interesting watching eight boats race against each other rather than two.” 

In the SailGP Championship, Takahashi races as a grinder under team captain Nathan Outteridge - himself a gold-medal-winning Olympian in the 49er class of the 2012 Olympics.

Takahashi has already competed in some SailGP races – in Bermuda in April – but has put others on hold while the Olympics dominate the racing horizon. 

But post-Olympics, he’ll be straight back into it, racing in Denmark in August, France in September and Spain in October. In early 2022, Kiwis will get the chance to catch a race too, as the championship holds one of its races in Lyttleton Harbour. 


Takahashi and Koizumi training for the Olympics on their 49er. Image @joshuamccormac

In the meantime, Takahashi hopes to build up support for sailing in Japan through both the Olympics and SailGP competition. 

Despite the oceans surrounding Japan, sailing has yet to take off in the country – something Takahashi hopes will change. 

“It's definitely got potential with how much ocean there is. But there's no reason it shouldn't be as popular as it is in New Zealand. 

“It's just a matter of making it more interesting in Japan.” 

He says he hopes the SailGP Championship will go to Japan at some point – originally the organisers had been hoping to secure an event there for 2021 but the postponed Olympics meant finding venues was an issue. 

“Our big plan is to secure an event for next year in Tokyo or somewhere big like that. That’ll be the best way to showcase the sport,” Takahashi says. 

Banner image: @joshuamccormac

- Asia Media Centre