Let’s talk about performance sailing. Specifically, women’s involvement on the big boats.
The idea of inclusive sailing at the highest level is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, in 1900 (yes, you read that right, 122 years ago) Hélène de Pourtalè was the first woman to ever receive a gold medal in the Olympics for being part of the three-sailor crew of Lérina, which won the 1-2 Ton class. In 1989, Tracy Edwards famously assembled her all-female crew for the Whitbread Ocean Race. In 1995, there was an all-female America’s Cup team. Isabelle Autissier and Catherine Chabaud both raced in the Vendee Globe in 1996.
But for all the good things happening in the final decades of the 20th century, the first two decades of the 21st century have been a little rocky. The Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread) took an entire decade off from having women involved, while the America’s Cup saw a dramatic lock out of female sailors as the boats got higher tech and required more “manpower” to sail.
That’s not to say that women haven’t fought fiercely for their spots on the start line (Team SCA, Pip Hare, Sam Davies, Sally Barkow, Isabelle Joschke, just to name a few) and there haven’t been powerful advocates for women looking to advance in the sport (see the Magenta Project).
But many have criticized the lack of opportunity in mid-level competition for creating an unbridgeable experience gap between male pros and their would-be female counterparts. To fix this, the big races have introduced a variety of programs to get women involved. However, some, I would argue, more effective than others.
Let’s start with The Ocean Race (formerly the Volvo, Whitbread). In 2016, Race CEO Mark Turner threatened to call off the race if there were no women on the rosters. Some crews were more reluctant than others, but eventually, all found a female addition to round out their crew. The mixed crew requirement outlived Turner’s involvement with the event, but all crews since have/will include women. This no-holds-barred stance got women on the boats immediately and, though it may have been a trial by fire for some of them, they integrated with the teams and did just fine.
Critiques of this approach included that it was tokenizing to be included just to check a diversity box, however in recent years this approach has gained some momentum, and programs like the New York Yacht Club’s IC37 fleet are adopting a mandatory mixed crew requirement for the coming season. My opinion? It’s an excellent effort from the Volvo—successful, easily replicable, with no additional resources expended.
Moving from ocean racing to grand prix, SailGP has addressed the lack of opportunities for women with the recent addition of an integrated women’s program, which trains female sailors as members of the existing teams. This addresses the lack of training opportunities while, notably, these women also sail as part of the F50 crew in their light air configuration. Though we’re still seeing this program mature, it is successfully developing opportunities for women in grand prix racing that would’ve been unimaginable ten years ago. There are, of course, additional resources that go into creating a program like this, and it wouldn’t work for most non-pro circuits, but good on SailGP for investing in it. Overall, this approach seems like a great option.
Which brings me to the good Auld Mug. The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron announced that next cycle it would be adding a Women’s America’s Cup (and also a youth one) to the next America’s Cup. The female teams will train and compete aboard the AC40, which has been described as the “little sister” to AC75 that the men’s races will be sailed on. Some have praised the effort to create opportunities for women, but I personally can’t help but feeling like it’s also working to delay the integration of the Cup. The Defender gets a pat on the back for doing something, but they don't actually have to let women into the club. You’re telling me that with a typically 3-4 year cycle, there’s not a single female sailor out there who could be trained and ready by the next edition? We know race organizations have the power to mandate inclusive teams right now, but that’s not the route the America’s Cup has chosen.
That critique aside, slow progress is better than no progress, and it must be acknowledged that RNYS may not even be running the Cup in five years’ time. Investing in the kind of infrastructure and process that SailGP has may not make sense for a program that could move owners, staff and even countries every few years (though their women’s circuit surely is no small investment either).
The truth is there’s no one-sized-fits-all-regattas solution, and the more events working towards inclusion (even slowly or clumsily) the more opportunities women have to get experience and prove themselves on the water. Plus, female sailors are not a monolithic community, and some will benefit more from one kind of program or the other. This is not a less is more situation.
In all of the above approaches, people have fought hard to get integration on the agenda, and we should celebrate their efforts and the groundwork laid by sailors past and present to make our sport a more equitable one. Tides are changing.
Photos by Lydia Mullan