I have been a huge supporter of women in sailing since I read a book by Clare Francis titled Come Wind or Weather. The book recounts her experience as the first female skipper to participate in the Whitbread Round the World Race. Clare Francis was the skipper of ADC Accutrac, a Swan 65 that participated in the 77/78 Whitbread. She led a mixed crew that included both men and women and they did reasonably well considering that most of the crew were relatively inexperienced. It seemed to me, from Clare’s account at least, that the women on board held their own against the men just fine and I thought it only natural that women should be included in every crew.
Sadly as my sailing career progressed it became obvious that men dominated and women were shunned from most boats. Despite some truly amazing efforts by female sailors namely Tracy Edwards leading the first all-female Whitbread effort, and Ellen MacArthur placing second in the Vendée Globe, to name just two, women in sailing still struggle to gain a foothold alongside their male counterparts. But that’s all just about to change.
This morning the Volvo Ocean Race announced some rule changes to encourage more female participation in the upcoming race and I, for one, think that it’s a groundbreaking decision that could revolutionize our sport. Let me first say that there must have been some soul searching done before coming to this decision. By tilting the crew numbers to allow more crew on boats that have more female sailors on the team seems to come out and say what many men have been saying for decades and that is that women are not as good as men and in order to compete on an equal footing you have to tilt crew numbers in their favor. At least that’s how some men are going to see it, but they could not be more wrong. Let me explain.
I watched the last VOR with some dismay as the all-female crew aboard Team SCA lagged at the back of the pack for most of the race this despite the fact that they had extra crew on board. I was certain that with all their resources Team SCA would be there among the leaders but it was not so. Can you extrapolate from their results that women sailors are inferior to men? Absolutely, definitely, not. Here is what you need to understand. Sailing a VOR65 is an extremely physical activity and slice it whichever way you like it, men are simply overall stronger than women and that’s what makes all the difference.
Let me quickly add that most of the sailors on Team SCA are probably a lot stronger than me, but we are not talking about me. We are talking about men in their 20’s that are in peak physical condition. You need less of them to drag a wet headsail out the hatch and so it makes sense to even things out a little by allowing more crew on an all-female team.
The new VOR rule allows a balance between men and women in the following manner.
7 men and 1 or 2 women
7 women and 1 or 2 men
5 men and 5 women
The thing that makes this exciting is that the teams will be able to change their crew combinations from leg to leg in the race. It will allow one more avenue for the overall race strategy and will be very interesting to see how the different teams handle the number on board for each leg. I think that it’s a great innovation that hopefully will bring more women into the next VOR and more women into the sport in general.
– Brian Hancock