Has Team SCA moved forward women’s sailing?

Published on June 1st, 2015

Dee Caffari (GBR) is no stranger to ocean racing, having competed in the Vendée Globe Race, BT Global Challenges, Barcelona World Race and four transatlantic races. Here she comments about being a crew on the all-female Team SCA for the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15, and how she thinks this campaign will help women’s sailing going forward…

The only gender-related limitation for Team SCA is the physicality. We are never going to match the boys in that regard, which is why they give us extra people (3 more than the men). But giving us extra people doesn’t change the number of handles on the boat. There are still just six handles to fill, so you can only have six people grinding, regardless of gender.

But I think over time, and we see it in the In-Port Races, racing these boats well is more about not making mistakes, and keeping the boat performing, than it is about muscle. We have beaten the guys in the In-Port Races; this is no longer a hurdle. But what we can’t do is to sustain that level of performance when sailing offshore.

We lose small percentages here and there, and over time it adds up. I am hoping now as the legs get shorter, we will be more able to sustain the kind of pace that will lead to a good result. We are eager to show the doubters that we can race at this level. We already see how our performance has improved in each leg, but unless you are onboard you don’t see it.

It is quite important to remain positive as it is possible to be frustrated in how our end result is not improving. Our coaches have been great about this, about showing all the good things that we have been achieving. I think there is no reason why, over time, what the gender is onboard should matter. Whether it’s a boy’s team, a girl’s team, or a mixed team, the performance can be the same.

Dongfeng is an example of how inexperience can be overcome, as they have some Chinese crew with limited sailing experience. Perhaps a mixed team is the solution to overcome the physicality issue. But for us, we as a group of girls are having to bridge a 12-year gap from the last time an all-female team competed in this race.

What’s important now is that we maintain the momentum. It is not so much now about our performance in this race, but rather enabling future girls to come up and gain similar experience as the guys. If we can do that, then that will be the big impact of Team SCA.

But none of this works unless the opportunities for women improve. There are already questions now amongst our team about what they will be doing next. Unlike the guys, we won’t be able to so easily carry on in this level of sailing, whereas the guys will be going right back into their racing circuit, joining again the big boats that they are previously known on.

So the question then becomes, has Team SCA moved forward women’s sailing? That will depend simply on whether we can continue sailing. The concern is, and the pressure is, will SCA or another sponsor step forward to support another all-female team, so as to keep the momentum going. Have we have done enough to encourage this plan again?

The fact is that Team SCA will only have bridged this massive 12-year gap if it carries on. If it doesn’t, we will not have made much of a difference for the future girls. The idea of Team SCA improving the future of women’s sailing sounds nice, but it only will occur if it happens in reality.

Progress will begin when people view a mixed team as a normal environment. Sailing with mixed crew is very normal to me, and I have found that the guys willing to sail with mixed teams are very nice people to sail with. Mixed teams operate like all-female teams where you coordinate each person’s strengths and weaknesses. You are not going to have the girls on the handles all the time, but there’s no reason they can’t do the pit or drive or navigate. There are plenty of jobs on the boat that don’t require excessive strength.

Maybe the Volvo Ocean Race rule needs to encourage mixed teams. The race already has the under 30 year old crew requirement for the same reason. There were so many salty guys doing numerous editions of the race and it was restricting the entrance of new blood. That rule now helps attract young people into offshore racing, so why not the same type of rule to bring more women into sailing?

So we are all just wondering now about the future. We can splinter apart into the sport, or we can try to maintain a core to continue what we have built on, but this would require a sponsor that believes in it to make it happen. There is a lot of enthusiasm, but we need someone as bold as SCA to take it on.

It is notable in how Alvimedica is similarly inexperienced in this race as we are, and they too are struggling to find their feet, but the highlight is on us because we are girls. We need to get away from looking at gender, but to do that we need to make it normal so people just see sailors. However, this will take time, and the girls need the opportunities for that to occur.

If we have accomplished anything, it is within this race, and against this group of sailors. They see us now as someone competitive; we have earned some respect. It is not so notable now to have been beaten by us. We are just people, sailing the same boat in the same patch of water. The wind and waves have no interest in gender, and hopefully others will be less concerned with it too.

Team SCARace websiteTrackingScoreboardVideos

Background: The 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race began in Alicante, Spain on Oct. 11 with the final finish on June 27 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Racing the new one design Volvo Ocean 65, seven teams will be scoring points in 9 offshore legs to determine the overall Volvo Ocean Race winner. Additionally, the teams will compete in 10 In-Port races at each stopover for a separate competition, the Volvo Ocean Race In-Port Series.

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