the weaker sex

I saw the editor’s piece about the ladies of the Vendee and it reminded me of a Sailor Girl’s interview with Tracy Edwards MBE a few months back, skipper of Maiden and remember her achievements well in the Whitbread. In fact I may be wrong but I seem to remember she was the only British Skipper to win a leg of the Whitbread until Ian Walker came along with his Abu Dhabi win.

At the time I bought the video – back then it was a VHS tape and interesting to see the change in perspective between then and now.

She was of course the first skipper of an all female team in the Whitbread but not the first female skipper. That fell to Clare Francis who skippered an otherwise male crew on the Swan 65, ADC Accutrac having previously ‘done’ an OSTAR with Robertson’s Golly and a number of other short handed races. She went on to become a successful novelist after writing a number of books about her sailing exploits, most notably ‘Come Hell or High Water’. In fact ask most people and it is as a novelist that people are familiar with.

Not that I wish to take anything away from Tracy Edwards and her girls. They say that getting to the start line of the Whitbread/Volvo is the hardest part and Tracy went through her own hell and high water, even mortgaging her house to buy what became Maiden and it is quite ironic that the company that finally stepped up as sponsor of the project was Royal Jordanian Airlines.

She silenced a good number of the naysayers, (some who stated they would be lucky to reach the first stopover in one piece) by winning two legs and finishing 2nd in class.

So why mention Clare Francis at all?

The men often get all the glory, Francis Chichester, Robin Knox Johnson, Mike Golding, Laurie Smith Pete Goss, Alex Thomson to name but a few not forgetting Brian Thomson who has more than a handful of records to his credit. Britain has churned out a fair few long distance skippers and it is easy to forget that not all of them were male.

I apologise if I miss any but flowing on from Tracy, of course is Ellen McArthur, or Dame Ellen McArthur as she is more correctly known (one of the youngest ever recipients of such an honour). Partnering up with Mark Turner (who provided the vital shore support) to form Offshore Challenges, later OC Sport, at 24 she came second in the Vendee Globe with Kingfisher in perhaps one of the most successful sports sponsorships ever from a % ROI point of view. Then with a crack at the Jules Verne leading to an assault on the Single-handed circumnavigation record which had been destroyed by Francis Joyon just a year earlier and she hardly comes up to my shoulders. This time Kingfisher Plc were a bit clever, one side of the 75’trimaran was in the orange & white of B & Q’s colours (one of Kingfisher’s brands) while the other was badged up in the Blue & yellow of Castorama. On her return I am told the British journos were all on one side of the boat while the French were taking their photos on the other.

I had the honour to be requested to ask the first question from the floor at a gala dinner in her honour while on a ‘Victory Tour’ of Asia with the tri’ (China was at one time an important market for Kingfisher). I asked her that had she not been successful would it have been the physical demands or the mental stress that defeated her. A mark of the depth of Dame Ellen, she sat for fully a minute before answering. B&Q Castorama had been designed round her and you could train and be careful but accidents can always happen. However you cannot train for the stress of making every major decision on your own – when at times your life may depend on your choice – for 71 days without a break. Good answer!  

Incredibly she did it before giving up distance sailing to concentrate on environmental issues having notice the decline of wild life between her Vendee Globe trip and the record in the tri’. Her record still stands as the fastest female circumnavigation and likely to do so for some time.

And there’s more. Emma Richards, perhaps better know (quite wrongly this writer believes) as Mike (The Moose) Sanderson’s wife as her record stands for itself. In 2002 she became the youngest person to compete in the Around Alone.

And the production line didn’t stop there with Dee Caffari having multiple circumnavigations to her name. First up was the Challenge Business as skipper of Imagine It Done, then she set off to emulate the Challenge Boss (Chay Blyth) by sailing around the world non-stop the wrong way – AGAINST the prevailing winds sponsored by Aviva. Circumnavigation number 3 was the Vendee Globe again assisted by Aviva. In fact she was the first, and as far as I know the only, woman to complete solo single handed non stop navigations in both directions.

Then came the ‘Volvo’ where Dee as a crew member on the all female team, SCA leading to her skippering the ‘Youth Team’ Turn the Tide on Plastic on the latest Volvo Ocean Race – 5 navigations in total, quite a record.

Latest in the line up is of course Sam Davies who had to retire from the latest Vendee Globe but after repairs in Capetown considered the charity she was supporting important enough to complete the trip. Last time round she was denied a podium finish by a fellow competitor’s time allowance having got to Le Sable D’Olonnes third. Then of course she was skipper of the all female SCA 2 Volvos ago.

Well I say latest but along comes Pip Hare who, although finishing well down the fleet achieved a lifelong ambition by completing the Vendee, along the way winning hearts across the globe by her grittiness and honest reporting from the boat.

And it is not just the racers, even though it often them that get all the glory and the associated press coverage.

A little lady called Jeanne Socrates, in September of last year became the oldest female to complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation at the remarkable age of 77. 

I also believe that this was her 3rd circumnavigation but I could be wrong there. I know there are a bunch of French women as well – everybody does – and I don’t mean to take away from their achievements at all. Perhaps a French Anarchist could produce a similar listing for his “belle femmes du mer”

However so often the Brits seem to be a little reticent about flying their flag high so I thought I would redress the balance a little. The weaker sex? Who are they trying to kid! The Fairer sex, most certainly, but this lot above could teach us guys a thing or two