Where the FIGAWI with Women in Sailing

Published on May 27th, 2015

by Kate Wilson – Newport, RI
The 44th Annual Figawi Race Weekend on May 23-25 kicks off the Cape Cod and Nantucket summer season, attracting over 200 entries for a weekend of fun racing from Hyannis to Nantucket. It was for this notable event that I chartered a Beneteau 423 for my best friend’s Bachelorette Party.

The bride and I, both now 28, grew up sailing together, own our own 30-something foot cruising boats, race extensively around our home of Newport, and have worked in the marine industry throughout our post-college years.

There were 12 of us in total on the boat (yes, 12 girls all sleeping and eating aboard for 4 days) with various degrees of sailing experience from certified captains to day sailors. Donned in our bright pink fleeces, we definitely stood out among the other race boats as the only all women’s crew.

Despite an OCS, (because, yes, we were pushing the line even in a fun pursuit race) we passed all the other Beneteau 423s that had been chartered from the same company. While we were happy with our result, like any competitor, we were bummed we hadn’t done better in our class by catching any of the boats with higher PHRF ratings who started before us.

But most importantly, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves throughout the weekend from the 70-mile deliveries to the race itself and all the other regatta festivities in between. However, despite all the fun, I was struck by the multitude of comments both on the docks and in the rum tent post-racing:

“WOW! I can’t believe you girls made it!”
“You didn’t have a captain or guy on board to help?”
“What a great bachelorette party idea to take the ferry out to join us for the party.”
“You ladies can sail!” (said with a disbelief look of wide eyes and raised eyebrows)

One other skipper pulled me aside to tell me he had planned to protest us as he thought we had the engine on, but then realized we didn’t when he dropped in behind our stern during the 27-mile race to see the exhaust was not pushing out water.

Internally, my initial reaction to these comments was a middle finger and expletive, but I held back those urges and replied with a ladylike “thank you.” However, I was still very perturbed on the inside.

Now, reflecting on the weekend and nursing a slight headache on the delivery back to Newport, I realized the question I wished I had asked each one of men and women who shared their “praise” with us was: “Would you have said that if we had been a Bachelor party?”

I understand people didn’t actually mean what they said to be taken as anything but positive, but it really sheds light on how a great majority of our community, both men and women, view women in sailing.

How can we expect there ever to be more women competing at high levels in the sport if we treat their participation with surprise? And why are we so surprised? I feel it’s because we just do not see women in those positions frequently. At the dinghy levels, there are many opportunities for women, but in the world of big boats, those numbers drop significantly.

We are seeing this with at the top level with Team SCA in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15. Those women sailors are doing something most men could never do yet they are criticized for being down in the offshore standings. But with each passing nautical mile, they are playing catch up to gain the offshore experience that could kick ass against a men’s team in the future. They have already proven themselves as the only team to have won two In-Port Races to sit third overall, and their Leg 7 finish from Newport to Lisbon was their closest to date. Progress!

I have also had a similar experience at the midlevel of our sport during 2014 J/24 Worlds in Newport. Five ladies and myself got a berth because the class reserved two spots for all women boats. However, we didn’t want to just compete, we wanted to have a decent finish overall.

After of 5 days of racing, on the last leg of the last race, we were in the top 10 going upwind. As we crossed the bows of other teams, those crews was shouting words of encouragement at us which was nice yet I had that same mixed feeling. While their validation as a competitor was appreciated, why does their need to be recognition for ladies beating them?

For us, this was our first world level event due the advantage of being in our backyard and the berth from the class. Thanks to those factors, we walked away with knowledge and experience that you can only get if you compete in such a regatta.

Lastly, I even see this at the younger level. As a high school sailing coach, I normally have to beg the girls to take the helm, whereas with the boys, I have to break up fights for them to share it. It’s an interesting dynamic, where the confidence in girls to take on the responsibility for a boat is lacking at first, but once the girls get over that initial hesitancy, they become the most confident, hardworking, and confident sailors on the team.

What all these examples tell me is that as a sailing community, we need to stop acting so shocked or praising toward women for JUST competing as it stunts the growth of women in the sport. Instead, let us make EQUAL opportunities and ENCOURAGE both men and women to sail and thrive in all types of boats, positions onboard, and races.

When we returned to Newport on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon, tired but no worse for wear, we passed right next to the windward mark of College Women’s Nationals. There were 72 women hiking their butts off to get around that mark. Back in 2008, I was also one of those women struggling to keep the boat flat in Newport’s famous 18+ knot sea breeze. I just hope in another seven years, all those ladies are still trying to kick butt in sailing no matter the race and no one is surprised.

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