Women, sailing

Sign outside the Corinthian Yacht Club Marblehead Massachusetts

Women, sailing

This has been a good week for women’s sailing. Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the National Women’s Sailing Association‘s annual conference, Take the Helm. 100+ women gathered to tune up their sailing knowledge and skills. Then this week, the all-female Team SCA won Leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race – quieting some critics saying that women don’t have what it takes to compete at the highest levels of offshore racing. Very different events, but connected by the same thread.

Hosted at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Marblehead, MA, the NWSA conference brought together women sailors from around the country to learn about all aspects of sailing – everything from boat handling and sail trim to engine maintenance to living aboard. It was a unique event – not only all women attendees, but also all women presenters. And these presenters were rockstar women sailors with extensive sailing resumes who donated their time and expertise to speak at the event.

The NWSA’s mission is “to enrich the lives of women and girls through education and access to the sport of sailing” and the programs of the day certainly reflected that theme. The educational opportunities were great, but more than anything I was impressed by the passion of all the participants.

Donna Lange first American woman  to attempt 2 solo circumnavigations

Donna Lange navigates by sextant aboard S/V Inspired Insanity. Photo courtesy of Donna Lange

I met some truly amazing women. Nancy Erley spoke about heavy weather sailing techniques she’s learned on 2 different circumnavigations with all-female crews. She teaches women offshore sailing and passage making aboard her 38′ Orca, Tethys. Susie Schneider is super-sharp PRO (Principal Race Officer) who gave a great overview of how to run a top notch race committee (hint: be incredibly organized). I met Donna Lange, who in July will cast off on an adventure to complete the first solo non-stop circumnavigation by an American woman. Donna didn’t start sailing until she was 38. Now at 53 she’s setting off around the world for the second time. I had a lively conversation with a woman who’s been living aboard solo for 10 years – since she was 27. I met women just learning to sail and ones that had sailed all their lives, young women and older women, dinghy sailors and big boat owners, lake cruisers and ocean sailors. An incredibly diverse group.

But whether they had sailed around the world or in their local harbor, all these women shared a passion for sailing and a desire to become better sailors. I was really inspired by their stories and the welcoming, supportive atmosphere – women sharing and learning from other women.

At my regular Tuesday night race this week, I was enthusiastically telling some folks about the weekend, and how great it was to be in the company of so many passionate women sailors. Another racer jumped in with a comment that caught me off guard. He said: “Why do you need a national women’s sailing association? There’s no national sailing organization for men.”

This gave me pause. My first thought was “typical man, he just doesn’t get it,” but as I thought about it some more, I realized that’s exactly why this kind of organization is needed. The majority of new adult recreational sailors coming into the sport are women, but there aren’t many places that offer women the skills and experience they need to become better sailors. At the youth racing level, at least 50% of competitive sailors are girls – but as they get older, many drop out of the sport because there aren’t many opportunities for females to compete at a higher level, and precious few at the professional level.

Sailing is a great activity for women because it’s not just about brute strength. It’s also about leadership, preparation, strategy and creative problem-solving. In my own sailing experience, sailing has enriched my life immeasurably, building self-confidence, resilience and fostering a love of the outdoors. If organizations like the NWSA can help more girls and women learn and grow in the sport, don’t they deserve our support? There’s still a long way to go to create equal opportunities for women in sailing, but events like the NWSA conference are a great start. And organizations like Team SCA vividly demonstrate the possibilities.

Team SCA women's sailing team Leg 8 winners of the volvo ocean race

Team SCA crossing the finish line in first place of Leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race at Lorient, France. Photo credit Rick Tomlinson/Team SCA

So it was with great excitement that I literally ran home from racing that night to catch Team SCA’s glorious finish at Lorient, with a decisive victory over the rest of the fleet. I watched the faces of these women sailors, who have competed for 8 months of hard core offshore racing, come alive with joy, satisfaction and relief as they were cheered onto the dock. It was a sublime moment.

Yes, it was a good week for women, sailing.