Opportunity Knocking

While the Volvo Ocean Race uses the power of its in­flu­ence to change gen­der dy­nam­ics at the top of the sport, one group ex­plores how to make a dif­fer­ence at the base.

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

O One of the great­est joys in sail­ing is racing off­shore. The free­dom and the change­able beauty of the sea and el­e­ments pro­vide the most mag­nif­i­cent back­drop to a com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment. The ca­ma­raderie of a crew ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life at sea to­gether is al­ways unique. Through my own ex­pe­ri­ences, I have learned to ap­pre­ci­ate the weather, the wa­ter, the scenery, the sea life and the in­fi­nite mo­saic of im­ages that make sail­ing long dis­tances in­vig­o­rat­ing. Re­gard­less of how I might place in a race, the ex­pe­ri­ence and re­wards are al­ways ex­tra­or­di­nary. It is true: Life ashore is quite or­di­nary, but life at sea is any­thing but. It’s some­thing all sailors should ex­pe­ri­ence at one time or an­other, yet ac­cess to off­shore racing can be hard, or nearly im­pos­si­ble to come by. And this is es­pe­cially true for women.

The Storm Try­sail Foun­da­tion, how­ever, has an ini­tia­tive to en­cour­age more women to par­tic­i­pate in dis­tance racing. As part of this pro­gram, the foun­da­tion’s lead­er­ship re­cently pro­duced a film fea­tur­ing 10 highly ac­claimed fe­male off­shore sailors who share their di­verse ex­pe­ri­ences. I had the good for­tune to con­duct the in­ter­views with these sailors, all of whom are mem­bers of the Storm Try­sail Club. Their thoughts were ex­tremely help­ful in un­der­stand­ing the bar­ri­ers and op­por­tu­ni­ties for women sailors to­day.

Sally Honey, a two-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, has won the Transpac Race, cruised ex­ten­sively with her hus­band, Stan, and re­mains en­thu­si­as­tic about sail­ing off­shore. She at­tributes it to the won­der­ful feel­ing she gets when she’s in the mid­dle of nowhere, with just the stars, the wind and the wa­ter. “You have to rely on the peo­ple who are on the boat with you, and your­self,” she says. “It is un­like any­thing you get in your nor­mal life ashore.”

Dawn Ri­ley, an­other yachtswoman of the year, and now a men­tor to hun­dreds of sailors who pass through the glass door at Oak­cliff Sail­ing Cen­ter on Long Is­land, says: “The coolest thing about be­ing off­shore is the vast amount of wa­ter to cover. There is a lot of stuff­ing going on at sea.”

Ri­ley has been out­spo­ken about women in sail­ing but looks ahead and says: “Women in lead­er­ship roles with de­ci­sion-mak­ing power is where we need to go. You need to prove your­self. Once you are on the boat, and ac­tu­ally sail­ing and do­ing your job, then you’re ac­cepted.”

Sheila Mc­curdy is a past com­modore of the Cruis­ing Club of America and a vet­eran of 10 trans- At­lantic cross­ings, an ac­com­plish- ment to which very few sailors can lay claim. She has a sim­ple phi­los­o­phy about blue­wa­ter sail­ing. “It’s sin­gu­lar,” she says. “It’s sim­ple be­cause your world shrinks down to the size of the boat. You con­trol ev­ery­thing on that boat. You get into a rhythm of going on and off watch. It al­most feels like it’s going to be too much trou­ble to ar­rive, you’re so re­laxed and in the rhythm of the boat.”

As ro­man­tic as the no­tion of going off­shore might be, hav­ing the opportunity to do so is a whole dif­fer­ent story, but vet­eran off­shore racer Martha Parker sug­gests it can be as easy as putting up your hand and be­ing avail­able.

“Big­ger boats are al­ways look­ing for crew,” she says. “If you can be con­sis­tent and com­mit, you are going to be valu­able. Start with a smaller boat, don’t be bash­ful, and just ask, ‘Can I go?’” She adds, “Find out who is or­ga­niz­ing the crew, and re­mem­ber that at­ti­tude is the most im­por­tant as­pect that you bring.” Those skills, paired with a good at­ti­tude and a thirst for suc­cess, make you a valu­able team­mate.

Madeleine Ploch, a 16-year-old high school stu­dent who raced on board High Noon in the

2016 New­port to Ber­muda Race, was one of a crew of teenagers that won its class, plac­ing third over­all in its di­vi­sion. From the ex­pe­ri­ence, Ploch learned that or­ga­nized train­ing will en­cour­age more of her peers to race off­shore. “Many of the yacht clubs on Long Is­land Sound have pro­grams. Start with shorter races, and then you could do longer ones. Any girl can be an amaz­ing off­shore sailor if she gets a crew she trusts and does enough prac­tice. It’s all about prepa­ra­tion and mak­ing sure you know your­self and your own lim­its.”

One of her ship­mates is Ca­rina Becker, 18, and she has the same dirt-un­der­her-fin­ger­nails pride as Parker about be­ing a skilled fe­male mem­ber of the crew. “Peo­ple need to just walk aboard and not feel like they’re dif­fer­ent. If you say, ‘I’m here to sail,’ peo­ple are going to say, ‘OK, here are some sheets.’”

Dr. Kim Zeh, a med­i­cal doc­tor, sug­gests main­tain­ing good phys­i­cal fit­ness. “To­tal body con­di­tion­ing and agility is very im­por­tant,” she says. “You never know when you might have to fill in for some­one. So you have to be pre­pared. Un­der­stand at least one other po­si­tion. I be­came more valu­able on a boat when I learned about marine en­gines and got ed­u­cated about nav­i­ga­tion.”

Re­nee Mehl, a Whit­bread Round the World Race vet­eran and off­shore sail­ing coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, spends her time train­ing mid­ship­men who are new to sail­ing and learn­ing to go to sea. Mehl sug­gests the more­ex­pe­ri­enced rac­ers in the sail­ing com­mu­nity should help the novices. “At the academy, we en­cour­age the up­per class to men­tor and teach the third class. It is up to the skip­per to show the new­bies around, make them fa­mil­iar with the boat, and then teach them their job.”

Linda Weiss races with her fam­ily on the suc­cess­ful yacht Christo­pher Dragon. She had a dif­fer­ent ap­proach when she started out racing off­shore. “My first sail­ing was with a bunch of ladies. It was quite unique at the time. They were all so help­ful teach­ing some­body who was ea­ger to sail. When I started sail­ing with men, ev­ery­one was very po­lite and ask­ing me to move from one side to the other.” Weiss, how­ever, laughs and adds, “Now I get yelled at like ev­ery­body else, so I’ve ar­rived as a real crew­man.”

One of the ques­tions that in­trigued me dur­ing our in­ter­view ses­sions was learn­ing if there were any skill sets in which women ex­cel. Sev­eral sailors talked about the abil­ity to fo­cus on an as­signed task (and not mul­ti­task), to stay or­ga­nized, and to be calm in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.

One of America’s great sailors is Sally Barkow, from Wis­con­sin. She is an Olympian and com­peted in the last Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA. Keep in mind the Volvo Ocean Race is one of the tough­est phys­i­cal tests in sail­ing. Barkow is now one of the founders of the Ma­genta Pro­ject, which is ded­i­cated to ac­cel­er­at­ing women in sail­ing, as well as in the in­dus­try, by cre­at­ing path­ways, em­pow­er­ing lead­er­ship, and driv­ing change. One of the group’s goals is to get more women on Volvo teams. At this writ­ing, there are five signed up for the next edi­tion be­gin­ning in Oc­to­ber.

“Women need to get skills to own the sport of sail­ing,” says Barkow. “We want to pro­vide an ed­u­ca­tional plat­form to pro­vide me­chan­i­cal skills. Most college sailors don’t know what is avail­able. We want to help pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion that women have many op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

The 10 sailors fea­tured in Storm Try­sail Club’s film dis­cuss a wide va­ri­ety of top­ics, in­clud­ing why they sail off­shore, learn­ing to gel as a part of a team sim­i­lar to ev­ery other sport, the im­por­tance of sail train­ing, items for your per­sonal off­shore kit, proper cloth­ing, good team­work, ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions, how to de­velop a spe­cific skill, per­sonal hy­giene, and sev­eral great sto­ries based on their col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences.

In the film, Parker speaks about what is like to be the only fe­male on a boat. “I al­ways say, ‘Don’t have a chip on your shoul­der.’ Just go out there be­cause you love sail­ing, you’re pas­sion­ate about it, and you want to be part of the team. Re­mem­ber ev­ery per­son is im­por­tant. Your team is only as strong as your weak­est link. Ev­ery­one can work to­gether to bring that team up.”

In the process of writ­ing this ar­ti­cle, I learned that our new as­so­ciate ed­i­tor, Elli­nor Wal­ters, is an avid sailor, who is a re­cent grad­u­ate of the College of Charleston and who also at­tended Ash­ley Hall, an all-girls high school in Charleston. She told me that the stu­dents were in­spired by the school’s motto, “Girls who have the will, have the abil­ity.” The phrase is ap­pro­pri­ate for as­pir­ing off­shore sailors. Q


After her ex­pe­ri­ence with Team SCA in the Volvo Ocean Race, Amer­i­can Sally Barkow bet­ter un­der­stood the skill chal­lenges fac­ing fe­male off­shore sailors.

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