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Where Are All The Women In Sailing?

Published on April 19th, 2017

Shirley Robertson is a two-time Olympic champion sailor and presenter of Mainsail, CNN’s monthly sailing show. Here she reports on the April program.


Shirley Robertson

Making this month’s Women in Sailing edition of Mainsail has been something of a personal voyage. It was an idea that began last year, during a dramatic afternoon on the edge of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic sailing course.

The medals were rolling in, but the Olympic regatta had saved the best until last. Local girls Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze took gold for the host nation, sailing straight into Brazilian sporting folklore.

I’d been following the young Grael’s career for some time, since her early days under the shadow of her legendary father and two-time Olympic champion Torben. I could see she had something special. Martine was going places, and had her sights fixed on success in Rio. But what would she do next?

Winning Olympic gold can be a whirlwind of parties, television interviews, photo shoots and more parties. But it goes by in a flash.

A couple of days later, during a quiet moment with the British gold medalists Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, the thought of what comes next for sailing’s female stars nagged at me again. I’d asked the pair about their future plans. They had just reached the pinnacle of their sport and they weren’t sure what lay ahead.

In contrast, many of the male winners were turning their attention to the upcoming America’s Cup.

Giles Scott was heading back to England to re-join Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR team.
Pete Burling and Blair Tuke were back to Emirates Team New Zealand but what about the women?

On the start line for the Vendee Globe, an epic round-the-world race, it struck me once again — no women. One of the biggest fleets this magnificent, solo endeavor has ever seen and not one woman competing for the first time since 1992.

The most successful woman in the history of the Vendee is the inspirational Ellen MacArthur. At 24, she took on the mighty, non-stop race and finished second.

“For me it is out there for the taking if you want to sail around the world, then sail around the world,” Briton MacArthur told CNN. “If you don’t, don’t. Just make a decision and make it happen.

“I don’t see it being any different for a man, woman, girl, boy or someone in their 60s. It is out there for the taking. It is incredibly difficult to find a sponsor and get to the start line, but it is there for the taking.”

Whether it’s offshore sailing or the Olympic Games, the sport has produced some incredible female talent. As every Olympic cycle goes by, the standard of the female fleets improves.

Yet after the hunt for medals is over, there is nowhere left for women to compete. There are no women in the America’s Cup, and only a sprinkling of women on the big boat circuit. Ultimately, there is no career path.

It’s hard to stand on that Olympic podium, having fulfilled the ultimate sporting goal, in the knowledge there’s nowhere left to go. A sentiment echoed by New Zealand Olympic champion Jo Aleh, fresh from Olympic medal No. 2 in Rio.

“I guess coming from an Olympic background I realize how lucky I am in the Olympic arena that it’s actually very even,” she said.

“Women and men have the same opportunities. Women and men are on the same level playing field. Women and men are trying to perform to that top level.

“But as soon as you try to step outside that Olympic arena, it’s quite difficult. There is no pathway. Or I haven’t found a way as yet, as a woman in sailing, to make that next step forward, and that is pretty hard.”

To discuss this topic properly, I wanted to be thorough. So I sought a male perspective.
I asked Kenny Read, twice Volvo Ocean Race skipper and CEO of North Sails, if sailing is a “boys’ club.”

“I don’t think it’s as much as boys’ club as a strength club,” he responded.

Jimmy Spithill, skipper of America’s Cup defenders Oracle, said it was like asking why there are no women on an NFL roster.

Both are viable answers. Sailing, particularly big boat sailing, requires big strong people. Big, strong female sailors are rare and, to our detriment, we don’t do a good job of encouraging bigger women into the sport.

The maximum weight of women sailors in the Olympics would be in the low 70kg range — the current disciplines are all for smaller women.

Gender inequality is a complex problem. It’s entrenched in generations of ‘that’s how it’s always been’.

But if nothing changes, sailing will remain a man’s world. The issue is endemic: from the lack of women coaches to the lack of women involved in the running of the sport.

Recent announcements from the Volvo Ocean Race have seen a step forward. The next edition will see women mixing it up with the men onboard, making it hard for any of the teams to go around the planet with an exclusively male crew.

According to race CEO Mark Turner, sailing needs a nudge towards gender equality.

As a competitive sailor myself, I have nothing but respect for the men who push the boundaries of our sport. The professionalism and dedication at the elite level fills me with pride and excitement.

But for the first time in a long time, there is a lack of female role models to inspire the next generation. And that has to change. Grael has inspired those back in Brazil; she’s a household name with a massive following and a bright future.

But there’s a whole bunch of strong, talented, female sailors out there. They’re not asking for anyone to hold the door open for them, but they do want it to be unlocked. Once it is, just watch what they can achieve.

Editor’s note: While Shirley wonders about the professional opportunities for Women, she is only looking at the top of the pyramid. We need to look at the entire pyramid. The lack of opportunities for women at the top of the sport is obvious, but is it a reflection of female accomplishments throughout the pyramid? Do more women need to accomplish more in non-gender based, open events to change the paradigm? Send us your thoughts.

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