Sailing: A Woman’s Place?

Published on January 20th, 2016

by Molly Mulhern
You couldn’t miss the huge Team SCA support during the 2015 Volvo Ocean Race stop in Newport—the magenta-shouldered vests, the Team SCA banners waving from nearly every group lined along the Fort Adams shore during the fantastic in-port races. Large screen, high-definition shots of women up the mast and getting blasted by Southern Ocean waves kept visitors jamming into the SCA pavilion.

Team SCA was clearly our families’ favorite, and many others’. The women had pluck, humility, and their sponsors gave out a lot of cool goodies at the race village: a jigsaw puzzle showing a great shot of the boat blasting along, lapel pins, cardboard boat models you could mail to a friend or build when you got home.

What many of us also liked was their attempt to fill the void left by 12 years without a woman’s boat in the Volvo Ocean Race. It certainly was about time, yet theirs’ was a challenging task.

How do you put together a credible campaign when you don’t have a strong legacy of women’s distance sailboat racing to draw upon? Where do you look for those racers? Some of the men competing in the Volvo have rounded Cape Horn 5 or 6 times. Good luck finding a woman who has done that.

This gap, of course, is exactly what skipper Sam Davies and Team SCA set out to try to fill. With Volvo veterans as coaches, they trained for a full year before the event—a better-organized and funded campaign than most, if not all, the other Volvo boats. The race rules were also in their favor—they were allowed one more crew in their roster, a concession to women’s perceived diminished strength capacity.

We pride ourselves on our gender-neutrality in sailing. In most races women don’t enter races in male or female categories. And yet, gender biases creep in. Hard for them not to.

The same year Moitissier and Knox-Johnston were attempting to sail solo around the world for the first time, Katherine Switzer was getting chased off the Boston Marathon course—women weren’t deemed capable of running that far. We absorb the trends of our culture. Boat ownership is still heavily male-dominated. Women aboard the fast race boats are rarely in captain slots.

We sailors don’t know the history of women sailors and their accomplishments nearly as readily as we know of their male counterparts. Take a quiz to find out your deficiencies. You know the names of Slocum, Moitessier, Knox-Johnston. Who were their female counterparts? Or how many other women’s boats have there been over the course of the Volvo (previously the Whitbread)? (Quiz answers below.)

And what about big events like Americas’ Cup—who can you name as top female in the current edition of this, our ‘premier’ sailing event? And there are no women yet signed up to compete in the 2016 Vendee Globe—and only 6 women in total have completed that race in its 25-year history.

We can improve this.

We can invite more women to cruise with us. We can encourage long-distance racing in more young women sailors. We can set up women’s sailing mentoring programs through our yacht clubs and community sailing programs.

We can get the women’s sailing stories back into print; we can translate the sailing narratives by French sailing legends Autissier, Arthaud, and Chabuad so that tomorrow’s generation of women sailors know their history and have role models.

And we need to make sure there is another Team SCA in the next Volvo Ocean Race, so that your family and mine can make them our favorite when they come back to Newport.

Quiz answers:
The first solo circumnavigation around the capes by a woman was Naomi James, in 1978-79—it was not non-stop. The first nonstop solo circumnavigation via the five capes was by Australian Kay Cottee in 1988. There were other notable five-cape solo circumnavigators—Lisa Clayton in 1995 (anchored in Capetown, so not nonstop); and the first female Vendee competitor was Catherine Chabaud aboard Whirlpool Europe 2 in 1996—she came in 6th place, rounding the world in 140 days, nonstop, all five capes. Polish sailor, naval architect, Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz was the first woman to sail alone around the world—sailing through the canals, finishing April 21, 1978.

Women’s Volvo/Whitbread history is small: In 1978-79 Clare Francis skippered ADC Accutrac, the crew was mixed. In the 1985-86 Volvo there were only 5 women competitors, one of them Tracy Edwards, as cook. The all-female Volvo teams were: Maiden in 1989-90, skippered by 27-year-old Tracy Edwards (whose crew included 25-year-old Dawn Riley); U.S. Women’s Challenge/Heineken in 1993-94, skippered by Nance Frank who was replaced by Dawn Riley after Leg 1; in 1997-98 it was EF Education skippered by Christine Guillo. The 2001-02 was the last year with an all-female crew before Team SCA: AmerSports, Too, skippered by Lisa MacDonald. (Her crew included Emma Richards, who went on to compete in the 2002 Around Alone.) The 2005-06 Volvo included only one female competitor—Australian Adrienne Cahalan, who had been aboard U.S. Women’s Challenge in 1993.

Molly Mulhern is a nautical publisher, writer, and editor who lives and sails out of Camden, Maine.

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