Empowering women to sail offshore

Published on January 16th, 2020

Meg Reilly is a circumnavigator who runs an international sailing team, Ocean Racers, with her partner Morgen Watson on their Pogo 12.50 Hermes. This week, she leaves Morgen at the docks, taking on a new co-skipper and a crew full of women for a special offshore training program.

Thirty years after Maiden set off on a bold round-the-world race mission, a boat full of women still brings pause. Why are we still wowed by women sailing, and why has it not yet become a norm?

This week I am embarking on a more modest, yet similar mission, as skipper of our own bit of WOW – Women’s Offshore Week. I teamed up with Tasha Hacker (Turf to Surf / Chase the Story) as my co-skipper; together we battled the Southern Ocean on the Clipper Race, so leading a bunch of ladies offshore shouldn’t be too big of a leap.

Our original Women’s Offshore Week (WOW) was scheduled for January 18-24 Bahamas to Turks & Caicos, but the program was so popular we extended it for an additional week, taking WOW 2 all the way to the BVIs for a combined total of 1000nm. Most of them have completed ASA levels up to Bareboat cruising, but these ladies have joined WOW for a unique opportunity to build confidence and independence offshore — on a race boat nonetheless!

Access and opportunity are the biggest barriers for most getting into offshore sailing and racing, regardless of gender. Of course there are imbalances of representation onboard, but races like the Ocean Race and World Sailing have sought to make rules to level the playing field.

But for the women joining our WOW program, they aren’t seeking to compete with or against men. Rather, they want a chance to develop and excel in a comfortable and non-competitive environment. Some are looking to gain independence and rely less on their male partners and crew. All are on their own personal journeys of growth, and believe an all-female crew is the best environment to help them achieve their goals.

Offshore sailing is where women have great opportunity to develop and perform, but they need the opportunity and support to do so. Men and women have different skills to offer offshore, and physical strength becomes less of dominating factor. Mental and emotional strength, prudence, problem solving, attention to detail, foresight and thinking in systems are all valuable skills in offshore sailing, and where women can perform at a high level.

I run mixed team offshore training programs, and I find that while the men and women who join us are usually at the same sailing skill level, the biggest difference is confidence. Guys tend to buff up their skills, while the gals down play there’s.

This happens beyond boats to businesses, but the important learning is how to teach, coach and motivate men and women differently. A male ego can be big but tender, while a female’s needs to be built up and fed. It can sometimes be hard for men and women to sail and race together if they don’t understand and respect these differences.

But I beg you, please don’t send your female crew to the galley or down below for sail repair. While we ladies might inherently be more skilled in these departments, men should also have the equal opportunity to learn!

All joking aside, I know many professional female sailors seeking additional skills like navigation and rigging so that they may have a wider, more attractive skill set — but this is a good strategy for any developing sailor. The point is to put yourself out there, try new things; and for owners, skippers and coaches to give those eager an opportunity and supportive environment to do so.

I asked our WOWzers, as I lovingly call our crew, to share with me their ‘WOW’ reason. I share with you their responses; some you might relate to, some may even inspire you:

I’m doing WOW because I couldn’t imagine a cooler way to gain offshore experience, exit my comfort zone, and build more of the confidence and sailing skills I’ll need to eventually sail the world (my big dream). – Catherine L; Toronto, CANADA

I want to transform myself on and off a boat. Gaining more experience and learning from a group of awesome women will be an amazing experience. – Judith K; Dallas, TX

I want to learn and connect with awesome women sailors! – Mallory K; NYC, NY

To get comfortable and confident sailing skills to be able to take charge versus relying on my husband. – Jeannine M; Chicago, IL

I’m a feminist sailor looking to challenge myself, support other woman who sail and make new friends on the water – Amy G; Waukegan, IL

I’m doing WOW because it’s empowering to learn alongside other women – especially when stepping outside of your comfort zone. – Ashley C; Toronto, CANADA

Learning from badass women sailors and building my confidence/skills is an opportunity I would be crazy to ever pass up. – Jen R; Tampa, FL

I want to sail a modern, fast boat, tuned and responsive to wind and waves. I want to live in that environment for long enough to learn if it suits me. I think it might… and if it does, I’ll keep moving towards my own boat and my own adventures in the future. – Chris B; Seattle, WA

My WOW reason: to push yourself to the edge of your limits. That’s how they expand. – Alia R; Seattle, WA

As badass as these women are, they have real and relatable fears. From sleep deprivation and going overboard to nighttime squalls and heavy weather, the unknown is what we all fear most. ATTENTION: This is NOT a cruise. These ladies join me on my Pogo 12.50 race boat to push their boundaries and develop as better sailors.

Follow our WOW ladies these next two weeks as they face their fears, sailing further and faster than they ever have before: Instagram & Facebook @oceanracers.

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