Moving sport forward for women

Published on February 5th, 2024

It is rare that offshore accomplishments get recognized for the US Sailing Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year Awards, and never yet had a woman been the recipient. That changed for the 2023 awards, but as Libby Johnson McKee points out, there is still work to be done:

We were glued to the video livestream of the award ceremony held at Savannah Yacht Club, on Feb 1st. We were so excited to see the envelope open and the announcement made that our friend, Christina Wolfe was the winner…wow!

The Yachtswoman of the Year award going to an offshore racer and one who showed so much grace, stamina, and success was just amazing. Our home celebration ensued, even though we were miles away in Seattle. We called everyone we knew, including Chris herself to share our joy and pride in her accomplishments.

Prior to the announcement of the winners, however, the MC interviewed the three finalists, asking questions about their careers and their accomplishments in 2023. His final question was directed to Chris:

“I’m only going to ask this so I can actually sleep well tonight. So, there are two on the boat. Is one person actually in charge?”

I froze. My throat became constricted. I was holding my breath. Chris handled it with grace saying, “We both are in charge.” And the night moved on.

Chris has sailed doublehand with her husband, Justin, since the day they met 29 years ago. They have sailed together to Hawaii three times, crossed the Atlantic once, raced around Vancouver Island, and they have participated in races on Puget Sound, and in Italy, to name a few.

Three years ago, Chris and Justin partnered with my husband, Jonathan McKee, and Alyosha Strum-Palerm to buy a SunFast 3300 called Red Ruby. The boat lives in Europe and each pair sails roughly half the races on Red Ruby in the thriving UK and European doublehanded fleet.

On occasion, when logistics haven’t worked for Alyosha, Jonathan has invited some of his old friends to sail with him like Carl Buchan and Peter Isler. That said, it’s more than just a boat share. All four of them debrief every race, discuss sail plans, improvements, maintenance, logistics, navigation, and tactics with the express goal of getting better, going faster, and learning.

On the night of the US Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman/Yachtsman of the Year Awards, I couldn’t just move on or just pass off his question as a joke. Even during the joy of watching Chris accept her award, that question of “Who’s in charge?” gnawed away at me.

I’m pretty sure the MC would not have asked Jonathan, Alyosha, Justin, Carl, or Peter that burning question on his mind. That’s because—embedded in it—are assumptions about hierarchy between men and women, and hierarchy in a marriage. It’s akin to asking, “who wears the pants in the family?”- a derogatory question about power, control, and importance.

Perhaps even at its core, the question belies a belief about the inability of women to be true equals on a boat – or on land – with a man. By leaving these assumptions and beliefs unexamined and without reflection, the MC and our community at large holds back our sport, and the role women sailors play in it.

We need to actively engage in moving our sport forward in this regard. I am willing to bet my reaction to this moment was shared by many other women – and men – watching the presentation.

The accomplishments of Chris and the other Yachtswoman of the Year nominees are not extraordinary because they were achieved by women. They are extraordinary because of the accomplishments themselves – what these people have achieved. These women are not exceptions to the rule. They are exceptional sailors.

Sailing, especially offshore racing, has real potential to be the sport where everyone can participate/be competitive, given an opportunity. Just look at the IMOCA fleet-Sam Davies, Clarisse Cremer, Pip Hare, and Justine Mettraux are currently ranked 4, 6, 13, and 14 out of 85 in a very male-dominated, physical singlehanded fleet.

It’s time to move beyond the old patterns of gender stereotypes and celebrate the incredible successes of these athletes – as sailors in their chosen disciplines.

There are plenty of things to ask about if you leave behind the bias and the gender assumptions.

For example, how do you make it safe to give and receive constructive feedback about your sailing performance with your best friend and/or life partner? How do you build enough trust and respect in a partnership to go below in 30 knots for much-needed rest and leave your safety, the safety of the boat, and the fate of the race to that lone person on deck? When one of you makes a mistake, how do you build back the confidence to trust them again and hand off the watch with full responsibility?

To me, these are the types of questions that we should be pondering in the middle of the night, not who’s wearing the pants.

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