I have always been a fan of women in sailing. Some of the very best sailors that I have sailed with have been women and they were all a darn sight better than many of the men that I have sailed with. My fondness goes all the way back to Clare Francis who skippered ADC Accutrac in the 77/78 Whitbread Race.
Claire, it could be said, loved to chat on the phone, well back then it was the single-sideband radio and all conversations were broadcast for all to hear over the air weaves. Clare was married to a Frenchman who raced as part of her crew. One evening she was gabbing on the radio and experiencing a bit of congestion. She was constantly clearing her throat. “Sorry,” she announced to all tuned in, “I have a frog in my throat.” I have always loved her for that comment as well as for her sailing ability. She solo’d across the Atlantic twice. She went on to become a prolific author but sadly these days she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.
I was there from the very beginning when Tracy Edwards announced that she was going to put together an all-female crew for the 89/90 Whitbread. If you have seen the movie Maiden you will know “the rest of the story”, as Paul Harvey used to say. If you have not see the movie may I suggest that you do. It’s absolutely brilliant and has won many, many awards. Maiden has been refitted by Tracy and is currently on a word tour “working with charities to provide an education for girls who don’t currently have that basic human right.” Doing great after already doing good.
Then along came Ellen McArthur. She charted my boat for the Route du Rhumb but didn’t end up using it. It’s a long story but she ended up taking another Open 50 and darn lucky she did. She won her class and that success propelled her to an amazing sailing career. Had she taken my boat, which was a bit of a dog, she many not have won and may never have had her storied career.
I sailed with Ellen in Auckland when she was preparing to set off on her 75-foot trimaran to try and break the solo, non-stop around the world record. It took four strong men to raise the mainsail and I wondered if she had taken on too much, but she made it all the way around and along the way set a new record. And that was just a small part of her amazing career. She now heads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation whose “mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.” That’s above my pay grade to figure what that means. It sounds like she is still trying to circumnavigate something.
Take Dee Caffari who skippered Turn the Tide on Plastic in the last Volvo Ocean Race. Dee had previously skippered a boat in the Global Challenge, a circumnavigation race that goes around the world against the prevailing winds. The race had been billed as the toughest by far around-the-world yacht race and I think it may well have been. Going upwind in the Southern Ocean is no picnic.
The sheer difficulty of it was the attraction, but that all came to an end when Dee took one of the Global Challenge boats and did the same course, single-handed, non-stop. How challenging could the race have been if a pretty 32-year old woman could do it all by herself, without stopping? The Global Challenge lost some of its allure after that and eventually folded.
There are many, many more women who have done extraordinary things, not only in sailing, so it’s still a mystery to me why there are still comparatively few women competing these days on the international offshore sailing circuit. Of the 58 sailors who started the Transat Jacques Vabre only seven were female. Clarisse Cremer, co-skipper aboard Bank Populaire, was the first female to finish coming in 6th while the indomitable Sam Davies, co-skipper aboard Initiatives Coeur finished less than an hour behind her. Sam is preparing for her third Vendée Globe.
She came 4th in the 2008 race and lost her mast in the 2012 race. She cut her offshore racing teeth as the nipper aboard Tracy Edward’s attempt to set a new Jules Verne record for the fastest non-stop circumnavigation. They unfortunately lost their mast in the Southern Ocean while on record pace. Also on board for that voyage was Emma Richards who did her own solo circumnavigation in 2002/03. Emma is currently married to Mike Sanderson who is the CEO of Doyle Sails.
And as a side note in 2003 Emma raced with Miranda Merron in the Transat Jacques Vabre and they won their class. Miranda just finished this year’s TJV in an IMOCA 60 and she was also part of Tracy Edward’s Jules Verne crew so you can see why some of us regard Tracy as a bit of a legend.
I hope going forward that there are more opportunities for women in sailing. There are currently ten women competing in the Mini Transat and I am sure that they have bigger ambitions many with an eye toward the Vendée Globe. – Brian Hancock