“Hey, You Can’t Do That!”

Published on March 18th, 2015

by Joe Cooper, WindCheck Magazine
By any measure, sailing is a male-dominated activity. This is slowly changing. In over 35 years in the sail & boat game I had not had one woman call me to inquire about equipment for herself. Yet in the past 12 months I’ve received calls from four women, and after chatting for a few minutes it was obvious they were shopping on their own account for sails for their own boats.

Racing is, with few exceptions, co-ed. There is high school and college sailing, and the Nacra co-ed catamaran in the Olympics. You will find women in the crew and occasionally steering at regattas large and small. The entry list for Block Island Race Week 2015 includes, so far, three boats entered under a woman’s name. And for the three of us who follow such races, the Vendée Globe has had women in the last few editions and there is a women sailing in the Barcelona World Race right now, as one member of a double-handed crew.

I coach the Prout School Sailing Team in Wakefield, RI, and more than half the team are girls. All of this has me thinking about mentoring for young girls interested in sailing, which led me to call one of the most experienced female sailors in the US.

Martha Parker has sailed on the bow of more boats than most guys, let alone girls, and runs her extremely successful Team One business in Newport. She’s enjoyed a long career as a sailing instructor, professional sailor, sailing retailer and industry leader, and I figured her experience might shed some light on how to get more women into big boats.

To the question: “How did you get to the bow?” she laughed, “To escape my brothers!” She was one of six kids, so she and her sister used to head to the bow to get away from four brothers when sailing on the family yacht. By default, this gave her experience in a traditionally male-dominated position. I asked her for advice to teenage girls who sail and want to do more, but might feel overwhelmed by the predominance of males on a boat.

“Make sure you really love sailing. If you do, the rest will follow. Sailboat racing is a true meritocracy and attitude counts for a lot. Even if you’re not the absolute best skilled person for the spot, if you can do the job and have the right attitude 99% of male sailors will in essence pay no attention to the fact you are a woman. Rather, you are part of the crew – one of the guys.”

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