Maternity & Parental Policies in Sailing
Published on February 18th, 2023
The Magenta Project, which seeks to develop pathways and generate opportunities for more equity and inclusion in sailing, leading with gender, offers this commentary by Meg Reilly on recent issues in offshore racing:
On February 2, professional offshore IMOCA sailor Clarisse Crémer announced on her personal social media accounts that her established sponsor for the 2024 Vendée Globe Race, Banque Populaire, had “left her at the dock” and would not be continuing their campaign with Clarisse as skipper. This decision was made as she was about to return to work from maternity leave.
In their own statement, Banque Populaire cited recent qualifying rule changes for the 2024 solo, nonstop round the world race “forced” them to choose a new skipper, since Clarisse had missed the early qualifying events, due to the birth of her first child.
Although Clarisse was transparent with her motherhood, postpartum recovery, and training plans to still qualify for the 2024 Vendée Globe, the events missed and risk to qualify was deemed too much risk for the banking conglomerate. On February 17, Banque Populaire announced their withdrawal from a 2024 Vendée Globe pursuit.
A new rule, which has sent unintended ripples through the industry, established a miles race to capture one of the 39 coveted spots to race in the 2024 Vendée Globe. After a series of qualifying events between 2021-2024, qualifying entry will be based on total weighted miles sailed, making it critical to participate in all or most of the events.
The final 40th spot is reserved for a “wild card” – a loophole to the rule that Clarisse and her sponsor proposed as a potential solution to her situation, but one the Vendée Globe organization could not guarantee.
Under previous rules, a past Vendée Globe finisher automatically qualified for the following event. This would have been the case with Clarisse, who finished 12th in the 2020 edition . The rule change was intended to raise the level of competition and professionalism of the event, in a class that continues to grow and advance. Instead, it unintentionally ruled out one of the top female talents in the sport.
Running every four years, similar to the Olympic cycle, the opportunities to compete in the Vendée Globe are few and far between. Much like the Olympians who also pursue motherhood, professional offshore sailors like Clarisse and Sam Davies had their pregnancies line up with the ‘down time’ in their competitive event cycle to provide enough time to recover, train, return and perform by ‘game time.’
Sam Davies reflected on pitching potential 2012 Vendée Globe sponsors while pregnant:
“It was between two Vendée Globes, my first and second, and I was pregnant for the first time. In so many pitches, the sponsors would ask me: ‘Are you sure?’
“You hear when you become a mum everything changes, and some career women, when they have their first child, can change their mind. You still have doubts, you don’t know. But it’s just like you don’t know before you do your first Vendée Globe. I had to be really committed.”
The previous past qualifier rule for the Vendée provided Sam Davies with a less, albeit still, risky maternity leave than Clarisse is currently managing. It was already difficult to convince sponsors to support a pregnant athlete, but the promise of qualification and Sam’s plans for her postpartum recovery and training were enough for Sam to secure Savéol as a sponsor for the 2012 Vendée Globe.
Thus, it is not only the Vendée Globe and other event organizers who are responsible for writing rules and policies to support competitors who choose parenthood, but also sponsors and the individual athletes themselves.
Ruled out: Vendée Globe & event organizers
Each event has its own set of rules, qualification procedures, and timelines between events that will influence how they may adopt or adapt maternity policies. In professional sports, some may argue that motherhood is a choice, and special rules or allowances for those who choose motherhood would not be fair to other competitors.
However, it is the responsibility of these organizations to establish rules that are not discriminatory and would help provide more equity in the sport.
When world tennis champion Serena Williams returned to competing in 2017 following the birth of her child, she was unseeded as the greatest tennis player in the world. In an op-ed on Women’s Day for Fortune Magazine in 2019, Serena stated: “When I returned to tennis from maternity leave, I was penalized for taking time off: my ranking dropped from #1 in the world to #453,”
The professional organization Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) responded by making changes to the special ranking rule. Under the new rule, a player’s ranking freezes in the event of injury, illness, or pregnancy for a three-year period.
In the case of the Vendée Globe, Sam Davies presents a unique solution to leverage the often unspoken ‘reserve skipper’ concept. Currently a reserve skipper is not compulsory, and they are there to race if the primary skipper is unable to race due to injury or other emergency circumstances. A reserve skipper must qualify as an individual, but the primary skipper must individually qualify and also log enough race miles to earn one of the 40 race spots.
A small rule modification for 2028 allowing the reserve skipper to contribute to the boat qualifying miles would provide a safety net, not only for skippers, but also their sponsors. This could open a pathway for rising talents as reserve skippers, but also could have kept the path open for Clarisse during her maternity leave.
“Pregnancy is not an illness or injury and therefore cannot be treated in the same way in the qualification rules,” says Clarisse. “Being pregnant and returning to the highest level is already a huge challenge: for about one year we learn a lot less than our male counterparts, and when we come back we have our body still in recovery. To help us at least have a place when we come back, it’s not an “easy way in” as some may say.”
Other events could craft their own policy modeled after other sports such as the WTA and marathons like the London and Boston Marathons, who have recently established qualification deferment periods for pregnancy for one to three years.
Whether it be a deferment rule, prorated qualification allowances or other tailored policies, all events should have maternity policies as part of their core event or organization documents.
Ruled out: Sponsors
Banque Populaire is not the only sponsor who has faced backlash for issues surrounding a sponsored athlete who paused competing for having a child. In a May 2019 NY Times op-ed, Olympic track runner Allyson Felix revealed her pregnancy story with Nike as a sponsor, who refused to protect her performance payment rates after her pregnancy.
While the pair did not resolve the relationship, there was public outcry and by August 2019 Nike expanded their policies to protect a longer postpartum recovery period – up to 18 months. Professional athletes are essentially employed by sponsors, and while a corporate HR maternity policy would not apply, a policy that does not financially discriminate and fairly protects postpartum recovery time would better suit both sponsor and athlete.
Sam Davies pointed out some impactful ways that her sponsors have supported her as a mother and an athlete while competing. During the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race, Team SCA sponsor had a family budget as part of their contract, all family members were welcome at team meals, and the team’s doctor also served as the family doctor.
Sam reflected on the immeasurable value of this level of support: “When you step offshore you have to forget you’re a mum, you can’t feel guilty, you have to put 100% energy into the crew, boat, and race. You can only do that if you know your kid is being looked after, and that takes a lot.”
Sam’s past sponsors Savéol and SCA were both family-oriented companies, and this alignment of values proves very valuable to both sponsors and sailors. This is not always the case, as many sponsors do not work with female athletes at all due to the risks and difficulties associated with the potential of becoming pregnant or already being a mother, though companies would never say that is the reason.
So while Banque Populaire mishandled the situation with Clarisse, they also were one of the few companies who sponsored a female in the last Vendee Globe.
As more sponsors are seeking more diverse sailors and story lines, it is critical that they also make maternity policies part of their corporate and sponsorship story line. Certainly most sponsors have maternity policies for their business employees, as such there should be one in place for their sponsored athletes.
Ruled out: Mums
Women must also advocate for themselves and families when choosing the challenging path of balancing professional sports careers and motherhood. Female athletes should feel comfortable asking for family benefits and protections in their contracts with sponsors.
Having clauses that specifically outline maternity leave time, allowances, protections, and other details can empower new mothers and establish clear agreements between parties. This can prevent future losses – both financially and publicly – for both mums and sponsors, as the policies and risks assumed by all are clear and legally protected.
Beyond contracts, setting out plans for pregnancy, recovery, training, and return to competition is imperative for athlete mums and sponsors to be happy and aligned.
Sam Davies shared, “I adapted my game” by sailing on J/80s fully crewed while pregnant, and having a plan for postpartum recovery and training based on guidance from doctors and trainers. Time out of the game is a risk for the sailor’s career, but improper time dedicated to rest, recovery and training can be even riskier to the sailor’s health.
Having all of these policies and plans in place with the sports’ stakeholders will create an environment that is more supportive for female sailors choosing motherhood, and will inevitably allow more women to become professional sailors.
The Magenta Project is working with the World Sailing Trust, IMOCA, Vendee Globe, and other stakeholders and athletes to develop a series of guidelines for sponsors, event organizers, class associations, teams and individual athletes to better support professional sailing mothers, fathers and their families.
“Our challenge as one of the few mixed sports is to write rules of equity to drive more diversity. It is essential that we work with men and women in IMOCA, and all stakeholders to institute change,” says Antoine Mermod, President of the IMOCA class.
“We have partnered with The Magenta Project to develop more pathways and support for women in the class, from our first career development and networking program at the 2022 Route du Rhum to the establishment of an advisory committee to work on the evolution of rules.”
The Magenta Project strongly recommends that all stakeholders – sponsors, event organizers, class associations, National Governing bodies, teams and individual athletes – outline their own maternity and family policies.
Organizations, teams or individuals looking for help in establishing fair policies for more equity and inclusion in sailing are welcome to reach out to The Magenta Project: email@example.com.