Women In Sailing: Upwind Battle to Parity

Last week, I went to Nassau to write about first-timers sailing the 2019 Star Sailors League Finals. This was the fifth edition of what’s become a must-watch regatta for me; elegant Stars and sailing heroes, filmed well enough to actually follow the racing from my desk. This year I was onboard the press boat, heart in throat, when the three podium finishers crossed the finish line—so tightly overlapped, we had to wait for the race committee to tell us who’d won. The racing was intense, and the competitors were respectful of both each other and the press. It was a great experience—and a nice four days of sunshine.

Shirley Robertson interviews SSL winners Iain Percy and Anders Ekstrom
Moments after an incredibly close finish, Shirley Robertson climbed onboard the winning Star to interview Iain Percy and Anders Ekstrom, cheered on by a boatful of young sailors.

Between interviews with regatta “newbies,” I found myself considering a totally different question: how do we achieve parity between men and women in our sport? It was the first time I’d ever attended a “men’s-only” regatta; women were invited this year, but none accepted. While scheduling conflicts were cited, I find it difficult to believe that any of our female sailing heroes would see this regatta as a likely boost for their CVs. Instead, the current setup might reinforce assumptions that women can’t compete equally with men, because the Star requires more size and strength than most women have. (On the windiest day last week, even winner Iain Percy admitted to trouble trimming that enormous—and gorgeous—mainsail.)

I certainly wasn’t the only one thinking about the best way to include the top sailors in the world who happen to be female; it was a much-discussed topic. One guy casually asked if I really thought there were enough women interested in Olympic campaigns to ever make equal numbers at the Games realistic! (Beyond a shocked “yes of course,” I struggled to answer a question that contained so many basic assumptions different from my own.)

Out of 30,000 sailors in the SSL Global Rankings, there are currently two women in the top ten and six in the top twenty (though all of those numbers may have changed by the time you read this). A Finals that determines the best sailors in the world should give everyone at the top of its own rankings a fair shot, regardless of size and strength (and gender). So what’s the best way to make this regatta a true showdown between the biggest heroes of our sport, not just the largest men? 

The most talked-about option is to lower the total crew weight limit (which doesn’t solve the Star mainsail trimming challenge). Another much-discussed idea is adding a separate all-female final, possibly in the Snipe. I’d rather see a combination of the two: a separate class, but differentiated by weight rather than gender. One of the many advantages of the Snipe is that teams can set up their boats to match their size and strength, returning the focus to where it should be: the fascinating (and gender-neutral) chess match of spectacular sailing.

Two weight classes would help downplay innate assumptions about which of the two Finals is “better” or more important. It would also help promote mixed teams and competition, which has proved a successful recent addition to both the Pan Am Games and the Olympics. And if we succeed in growing the sport, there could even be a third class created.

As the aft half of a small Snipe team, I already have a decade of data about the challenges of competing against taller, stronger, heavier teams. Righting moment (a combination of height, weight, and fitness) becomes more valuable as wind and waves increase. Gender doesn’t matter, but size and strength do. And after ten years of racing around the world, Kim and I are now treated like fellow sailors by our (mostly male) competition. Which makes it all too easy for me to forget that at many regattas, “sailors” still means “men.”

The Star Sailors League has quickly become a leader in our sport, so their choices will be carefully watched—and maybe copied—by other regattas. Solving the parity problem will not happen overnight, but the longer it takes us the more generations will grow up thinking that sailing heroes are male. And the easier it will be to assume that there aren’t enough women who want to play the game, when all they need to start showing up is a level playing field.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, so please share them in the comments below. I read and appreciate every single reply, thanks.

12 Replies to “Women In Sailing: Upwind Battle to Parity”

  1. Nice piece, Carol. I expect / hope that it will entice a lively conversation and movement in this matter.

    1. Thanks Art. In my usual Snipe bubble I forget this is still something that needs to be “fixed”… 🙂

    1. Thanks Lynne. It’s so easy to go off into our “safety zones” where the respect has already been earned!

  2. I totally agree with you and my friend John Rousmaniere.
    As a sidelight to this, I’m always disappointed (or annoyed) with both men and women calling women sailors “Girls”–as in “sailor girl.” I know it’s supposed to be affectionate and cute, but if ever had a time, that time is long gone.

  3. This is a challenge. There is no one right answer, nor one simple quick fix. And as Lincoln said, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Well intentioned efforts please some and tick off others -of both sexes!

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that providing more opportunities for women in sailboat racing is a step in the right direction, whatever they are. Separate events, additional scoring within a bigger fleet, mandated inclusion, whatever.

    While we still have a long way to go, I’ve observed attitudes change for the better over the years. More women racing leads to more women racing…

    1. Dan, great points and agreed: let’s get more women out there without worrying too much about the details. That’s what’s been happening in the Snipe, and now we don’t have to talk about it so much anymore which is a relief!

  4. How about we find the boat that works for our body type. You start putting in weight requirements you are going the other direction which would be excluding people rather than including them. Let people choose the boat that works for them.

  5. Great article. I had a woman driving my Star all summer and she loved it. Weight limits would help most sailing couples and collegiate age sailors looking to enter an excellent international class.

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