The current edition of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) has a remarkable 22 women competing across the seven-boat fleet. This is a fantastic breakthrough in women’s sailing. To learn how to make even more difference in the future, we need to revisit the past. What has changed and how did we get here?
At the recent Auckland stopover in the VOR, The Magenta Project held a “Celebration of women in sailing – past, present and future”, bringing together inspirational female offshore sailors to discuss the complications and successes of reaching the pinnacle of our sport.
The event begun with a video link to female sailing pioneer Tracy Edwards MBE, who sets an excellent example to aspiring female sailors today.
Tracy took time out of her current initiative, the Maiden Factor and talked to us about launching her Whitbread campaign (predecessor to the Volvo Ocean Race) in 1989-90 and how hindsight has helped her focus on positive change, today.
Her plans were met with huge scepticism because of her inexperience at the time. Furthermore, no female team had entered the race before.
However, ambition can defeat many prevailing factors and through determination and tenacity, she steered her passion into a reality. Tracy and her crew kickstarted a huge drive to put women in the spotlight of offshore sailing but nothing substantial followed it. She commented:
“What I really wish I had known or understood at the time was how important it was to keep the momentum going. There was no continuity, there was no sense of girls going from one thing to the next”
It wasn’t until the 2001-2002 race that another all-female team entered the Whitbread. Lisa Macdonald skippered Amer Sports Too with crew including Leah Fanstone, Carolijn Brouwer and Abby Ehler. We were fortunate enough to have all of them join us to give more insight into the challenges for top female sailors reaching for opportunities.
By 2001, the men had accumulated 12 years more offshore racing experience in comparison to the drought of opportunities available to top female sailors.
Its impossible to put a value on experience in racing these boats. Lisa Macdonald remembers the challenges with putting a team together. She recalls:
“[It was tough] getting the people through the training program with the most experience possible – and a lot of that is time on the water, in anything and everything.”
Another 12 years later, Team SCA launched their all-female VOR campaign. It was entirely different from previous ones – time, money and belief were all contributing factors to the team’s success.
Brouwer, a crew member on Team SCA commented:
“[It] was a first-class campaign. We had all the facilities and we had the best people around us. We had the full shore team. They were like mentors to us. We had great coaches.”
Skippered by Sam Davies, Team SCA trained and raced hard. Winning leg 8 from Lisbon to Lorient was a huge moment for the team and gender equality in offshore racing. However, on other legs of the race it proved too challenging to remain in touch with the rest of the fleet. So what was missing?
Carolijn reflected on the campaign:
“We had what we thought was our great asset, which was time. It was the experience that we missed. In the end it doesn’t matter how much you train, you have to get out there and you have to experience it.”
“You have to go into the southern ocean, you have to do your broaches, you have to do your Chinese gybes. Time doesn’t replace the real experience of being out there and racing these boats. When we crossed the finish line in Gothenburg [at the end of the race], we said ‘and now we’re ready to race’”
So where to now? All-female teams have cultivated a concept of women competing in races like the Volvo Ocean Race but to race against the men is not the aim – it’s to race together where gender is not a factor in team selection, rather skill and experience playing a vital role.
The VOR made an important and progressive step when they introduced rule changes for the current edition of the race, to reward mixed teams by increasing permitted crew numbers. Because of this, 22 women are competing in the current race, spread across all seven boats. It’s outstanding but it’s all about continuity and drive, looking forward.
Learning from the hardship of inexperience for female sailors 15+ years ago, Hannah Diamond who’s currently racing in her first VOR, has recently moved from Olympic sailing. She worked tirelessly to generate countless opportunities for herself. It wasn’t straight-forward, but it gave her the best chance to be selected for a team. Hannah said:
“I basically spent 12 months saying yes to every opportunity I got. I spoke to as many big names as I could, to find out what skills I needed and experience to be a successful big boat sailor.”
This is something other female athletes can learn from. It might also help illustrate to others, the importance of nurturing female talent, to other participants in our sport.
The Magenta Project welcomed Richard Brisius, president of the Volvo Ocean Race, to the event. He took time to speak about the Magenta Project, of which he is a great supporter. He had this to say:
“One thing I’ve learned through working with men and women is the power of diversity – age, gender and cultural. If you make a diverse team work very well together, you increase the performance.”
To make our sport stronger, to help advance performance and innovation, we need to support change and continue with what works. Brisius continued:
“Looking ahead – we will gather everyone together and ask what we have learned and what can we do to improve it even more to allow the sport to perform well for everyone.”
Learning what has and hasn’t worked is critical so we can move forwards. It will improve the sport and open doors for more individuals, regardless of gender.
The underlying message from the event, which perfectly coincided with International Women’s Day, is to continue the progression of our sport. World Sailing have taken a significant step in the direction of supporting gender equality in Olympic events by creating a mandatory mixed crew in the Nacra 17 class. Its normal now – nobody mentions it.
The VOR has set the example for others to follow. Who next? The Extreme Series? The America’s Cup? Let’s continue to make this happen. There are plentiful opportunities to be reached, with some encouragement from the wider sailing community.
Nurturing talent within the youngest pool of sailors is also vital in the pursuit of momentum. We need to ensure there is no gap between generations of talented women sailors.
Abby Ehler concluded:
“We need your support and your drive to make a lasting change. Make this International Women’s Day the day you decide to bring our sport into the 21st century and make next generation wonder what all the fuss was about!”
So – how can YOU help? Providing an opportunity for even one female sailor to generate some valuable experience is a great start. This could be through providing a boat, funding an offshore race or simply orchestrating communication between women sailors and a helpful contact. Alternatively, can you help develop clear pathways for the stars of tomorrow?
Written by Rebecca Reynolds Jones
Rebecca Reynolds Jones has raced smaller and big boats for many years, from 470s, to competing on the match racing circuit. She came 4th in the Match Racing Worlds in 2008, on bow with Magenta Project director Josie Gliddon. More recently, she won the Dubarry Women’s Open Keelboat championships in 2017. Through her passion for women’s sailing, she is working with the Magenta Project to deliver more pathways for women to the top of sailing.
What are the main hurdles for female sailors and how can we overcome them?
Hannah Diamond: When it becomes the norm and not something that we have to talk about, that will be a huge help. Everyone asked after we won leg 1 what it was like to have women on the boat but it was normal – they sailed it like anyone else would have. This is a huge step in the right direction and with this momentum, who knows where we can get to?
What have you learned along the way that you’d like to share with the younger ones here today?
Carolijn Brouwer: Don’t take no for an answer! Annemieke Bes is a good example. After missing out on narrowly on the SCA trials, she didn’t give up. By the end of the race, she had sailed on more boats and got more gigs than we could have dreamed of. She had one dream to compete in the VOR and now she’s living that dream.
How do you negotiate a package on a race boat for women?
Carolijn Brouwer: There’s no difference between men and women on our boat. There’s more cultural and age differences. We are one team. There’s no discussion about it. It’s no different to any profession in daily life. We value everyone in the team whether they are a sailor, on the shore team or on the logistics team.