Getting more girls into sailing

Published on December 5th, 2018

As the interest of the International Olympic Committee seeks to ensure equal opportunities for men and women, the international sporting federations have been motivated now to fulfill this proposition.

For Sailing at the Olympic Games, this means equal participation for men and women with equal medals for each. Additionally, the gender balance is to extend to race officials and team support.

For Sailing, this is a brilliant shift. One only needs to glance at the sport at all levels to see it is exceedingly male dominated, and encouraging more women to participate means overall growth for the sport.

But that in there lies the dilemma. How do you balance genders at the top of the pyramid when the base is not balanced? You do as the New Zealand sailing federation is doing. You roll up your sleeves and get to work.

At the 2018 Sir Peter Blake Regatta held December 1-2 in Auckland, Yachting New Zealand was asking female competitors why they sail as part of a wider project looking into how to attract and then keep more females in the sport of sailing.

Erica Dawson, who has enjoyed good success in sailing as a former Tanner Cup winner and who has since finished in the top 15 at the 49erFX world championships, is heading up the six-month project.

She’s already talked to a host of youngsters, parents and coaches, former high performance sailors and counterparts from other sporting codes such as New Zealand Football who have undertaken similar research and have successful programmes in place. Dawson will also circulate a survey in the New Year which she hopes past and present sailors will answer.

“We really want to know what drives girls to the sport of sailing and what they love about it,” Dawson said. “We also want to know what barriers they face and why many subsequently leave the sport. This will give us a better understanding of how we, and the system, can support them through the path in sailing they would like to take.

“One thing that’s come through strongly is that girls need a really strong group of friends around them they can go through with. The social aspect and keeping the whole of the sailing experience fun is crucial in keeping girls sailing. As parents and coaches, this is an area where we can really help nurture and facilitate.

“While the focus of this project is on females, and their experiences in particular, we believe the strategies that come out of the findings will be relevant for all sailors.”

The opportunities for female sailors are opening up all the time on the high performance side, especially with a move to have gender equality at the 2024 Paris Olympics and more female involvement in events like the Volvo Ocean Race.

“It’s a great time to be involved in the sport,” Yachting New Zealand talent development manager Geoff Woolley said. “There are lots more avenues and pathways for girls, whether it’s in the Olympic classes, keelboats, offshore sailing, dinghies, kiteboarding and windsurfing or in the marine industry as a whole.”

One individual who responded to the question, ‘why do I sail?’ already has her sights on competing at the highest level but sailing also means much more to her than that.

“It is so different to every other sport,” she wrote. “The independence from looking after my boat from a young age has helped me grow.”

Anyone keen to be involved in the women’s sailing initiative or to offer ideas, please contact erica@yachtingnz.org.nz.

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