Women at the Helm: The Importance of Pathways

Published on April 17th, 2017

Deborah Bennett Elfers reports from legendary Buzzards Bay how her club has been so successful in bringing women into the sport.

I’m a huge fan of The Magenta Project, and admire the important work they are doing to help women sailors forge a pathway toward participation in the highest levels of sailboat racing. Their mission is simple but powerful: “To build a network of female athletes committed to competing at an elite level whilst inspiring and supporting others to follow.”

It’s wonderful to see what they are doing around the world, and the much-needed change they are helping to create. As you might imagine, all of the women sailors that I know are closely following their progress, and it’s certainly empowering to see more women participating at those top levels. But what about the women sailors, just joining the sport, who are looking for the pathways at the Club level that will help enable them to become the sailor that they aspire to be?

I’m mostly referring to those women, who, usually for family reasons, haven’t had the leisure time to develop their sailing skills, and have been bitten by the racing bug in their 30s, 40s, 50s — and even beyond. That was my experience, and is a common one among the women with whom I race.

In the beginning, many are held back by the mindset that since they didn’t start racing and sailing when they were children, or even as young adults, they can never catch up to be good enough to compete successfully. This is where the magic comes in — because just as The Magenta Project sailors offer a helping hand to those who want to race at the top levels, so, too, are there women at the Club level who are committed to offering a helping hand by mentoring and supporting those who have only recently joined the sport.

As is all too often the case, these new sailors struggle to get enough time on the tiller to discover what they are capable of. They crave the chance to learn, and grow, and excel, but there are few ways for them to develop their skills on the water, and the confidence that comes from having the opportunity to do so.

That’s where women’s sailing programs can be the most helpful: in developing skills and instilling the confidence to stretch further. For many, all-women’s training and racing is a valuable stepping-stone to their ultimate goal of racing with and against their male counterparts, who have often had the privilege of much more time on the helm.

At Beverly Yacht Club, in Marion, Massachusetts, we have been fortunate to have a long history of women at the helm, racing all manner of boats (and winning) since the late 1800s. Way back in 1925, the Club inaugurated a very competitive women’s racing series, and it has produced some amazingly talented skippers over the years.

Today, 92 years later, that same series enjoys robust and competitive participation, with nearly 30 boats on the line every week. It’s important to note that the majority of these women are participating in the other club racing, as well, and competing successfully with their male fleet mates.

What’s the secret to our success? In large part, it’s been because we have been able to build upon a proud Club tradition of women at the helm, but also, it’s been because we work hard to provide clear pathways toward success which encourage and motivate the women who come to race and learn. To that end, we offer educational opportunities such as clinics, tactics and rules seminars, race management, team development, and demonstrations on boat tuning and rigging.

But the most powerful tool we have in our kit is an ingenious one: the second race of the day is not scored, because it is raced with the crew at the helm, with intensive coaching from the skipper. With the support of their mentor-skipper, these newer sailors have time on the helm – they are testing their limits, learning their weaknesses, and developing a custom-tailored game plan to move themselves forward. We’ve simply provided the pathway – they do the rest.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen several new skippers emerging from their former crew positions, buying their own boats, having been emboldened by their weekly training in a real racing situation. It’s a model that really works, and one that would also work for both men and women in mixed fleets. It also has the added benefit of bolstering your efforts if you’re in fleet-building mode – and who isn’t in fleet building mode these days?

There’s been a lot of talk about “saving sailing,” and figuring out where the next generation of new sailors would come from. According to research done by Nick Hayes, women over the age of 25 were the fastest growing segment of the sport, which is incredibly important because it means we have the opportunity to make a huge positive difference in getting more women to take the tiller — simply by providing ways to encourage them.

To echo the words of The Magenta Project: what we need to do is build a network of female sailors, at the Club level, who can inspire and support other women to follow. A good mentoring program, coupled with thoughtful educational opportunities, and a culture of mutual support, provides all the necessary fuel.

Yes, it’s a lot of work to coordinate, but the payoff can be huge, especially in terms of helping move the needle farther ahead on women’s representation in the sport – particularly for those who have their eye on taking the helm.

This summer, I’m excited that I’ll be racing my new boat PEREGRINE (an Alerion 33), in the Wednesday night PHRF races. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be the only woman at the helm, but, hey – I’ve worked hard and learned a lot these past several years, and I’m ready.

Looking back, there’s one thing I know for sure: without that well-worn pathway from crew to skipper in our women’s racing fleet, and a lot of encouragement along the way, I certainly wouldn’t be daring to try. And that’s why these pathways are so important – at every level.

So, who’s in your network? And who are you able to help along the pathway? Remember: your accomplishments, however small they might seem to you, are an inspiration to someone just starting out, and your helping hand can make all the difference in the world to them. Who knows where it might lead?

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