women drivers wanted

women drivers wanted

Next weekend will be Bayview (Michigan) Yacht Club’s 7th annual WOW (Women On Water) regatta, and we’ve got an issue:  We need more women drivers. 

Lynn Kotwicki and some of her friends hatched the whole thing over drinks at the infamous BYC bar, and launched it in about 3 and a half weeks of prep time. That first year, I think there were 6 boats.  Over the past couple of years, we seemed to have topped out at around 27 boats, and through my involvement as a volunteer, I’ve figured out that we’re pretty much stuck on that number. It’s not because we lack women sailors – in fact, every year, we end up with a list of women crew that is bigger than the list of crew needed on all the boatss.  The bigger boats are getting stacked with huge crews to accommodate everyone, while the U20s are all loaded four deep.  The boats are overloaded, and while the ladies love the event, everyone suffers a bit because of our problem:  Not enough women want to drive.

Without working on it, we could probably have 10 more boats on the line if we only had women to drive them, and we could continue our tradition of attracting women from all over the world to the great refuge that is Bayview for an awesome clinic and two great days of racing.  We don’t want to go the way that some female-oriented events do by bringing in men to drive the boats; we want more girls at the helm, and we want to sail our own event without the guys in the way.  Is that too much to ask?

I put the question to SA, and received some great answers.  So far, what I took away from the comments made was that everything is already in place to solve this issue without establishing formal instruction classes and trying to strong-arm money out of people who have so little to begin with these days to get them to participate.

The women who do drive pointed out their recollections of what held them back before they learned to do it.  It pretty much boiled down to 1) fear of banging up someone else’s boat, 2) fear of being on the helm in close quarters with other boats at starts and mark roundings, and 3) not knowing how to get the boat into and out of the slip.  And I agree with them – they were my issues too. But there is really only one way to get over those fears, and I hate to quote Nike, but you have to JUST DO IT.

There is where you readers, many of you part of the male dominated brotherhood of boat owners, come in.  Many of you have one or two female crew on your boats already.  They pull the strings for you, jump around your foredeck making things go up and down and help get your boat around the marks in the pursuit of that flag.  They look better than your male crew, they help keep morale up, and many of them are simply kick-ass sailors, despite their lack of time at the helm.

Would you be willing to take the initiative and teach them to drive?  Anarchist Robin from Chicago said “just hand them the tiller and tell them to do it.  Don’t take no for an answer”.  That alone, coming from the owner, would go much further to lower the fear factor and up the confidence level than any class I could put together.   Stand next to her and talk her through it, and as Saving Sailing author Nick Hayes has advised so well, provide the mentoring that will add another skipper to a sport that desperately needs them.

I’m not asking you to jeopardize your chances at a flag in a serious race.  You can start first by making the girls get the boat out of and back into the slip.  Let them drive all the way to the start line.  Let them helm tooling around the starting area waiting for the AP flag to go down, both motoring and under sail.

Next, move up to letting her drive during the leg between mark roundings.  Do it on your beer can races where fun is more important than a flag.  Once she’s built some confidence and skills you can advance to starts and mark roundings.

Doing this once or twice is not going to accomplish much.  But if you do it at least once a week for an entire season, a star may be born.  At the very least, you might end up with one more competent relief driver for the distance races.  Or you can kick back and relax with a beer after driving all day, knowing someone else will get your boat safely back into the slip.

Now I know you all have a bunch of young eager beaver guys (and some older ones) who would also like this opportunity.  By all means, spread the wealth.  However, I am asking for affirmative action here in the hopes that you guys will recognize that sailboat racing is made up of 80-90% men, and that you understand that it is far easier to increase the overall participation of a sport where such a substantial part of the population is simply…underserved.   We need special dispensation, and we need some help, and for the most part, only you can provide it.

The power of SA can be pretty impressive at times and the reach is global.  So instead of me spitting on a forest fire with little instructional classes in my hometown, I think why not tap into this already fearsome collection of talent residing here on these pages and reach hundreds or thousands instead of a handful.

My motives here are purely selfish.  I want more boats on our start line.  But I also want the ladies to stop sitting in the back of the bus thinking they can’t do it, and I want to see out sport reverse its declining trend by leveraging all the women out there that might just become race boat owners if they can just become comfortable at the helm.  Because, if given the opportunity, they can damned well do it.  If I can do it, anyone can.

Please share your thoughts, opinions and suggestions here.

-Kathie O’Sullivan (a.k.a ‘Sailing Junkie’)