Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Would Ellen MacArthur do a Volvo Ocean Race?

The news that we will have a women’s team in the next Volvo Ocean Race is momentous and if the SCA project is managed well, the gap in opportunities for male and female professional sailors, which is currently MASSIVE might just narrow a little.

It has always surprised me that top level female sailors have not fought harder to open up channels for other women in professional sailing.  Dame Ellen MacArthur was never interested in talking about being a woman in a man’s world.
No pecs on these girls: Dee Caffari and Sam Davies 
Gender makes no difference to anything she always said, and in short-handed sailing as Dee Caffari, Emma Richards and Sam Davies have showed, she was right. In general however, she was wrong.

It is no coincidence that all our high profile female sailors come from the short-handed fraternity because long distance solo sailing is a peculiar sporting arena which has less to do with bare knuckled competitiveness and more with courage, patience, determination, resourcefulness, stamina and an unending ability to love your boat.
But the macho world of crewed racing, where point scoring and pec bouncing  rule the waves, is not an easy place for a woman, however brilliant she is, to forge a career.

Emma Richards..or Sanderson as she is now
Take our three blondes in a boat for instance. Shirley Robertson, Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb all gold medal winners. All fabulously talented sailors but where can they have gone with their careers had they wanted to remain on the race track?

No opportunities in the old America’s Cup because the boats were powerful and required big bouncy pecs to be sailed quick. Can anyone name the last woman to race in the America’s Cup?

No opportunities in the Volvo Ocean Race either for the very same reason though we all know what happened to poor Adrienne Cahalan when Torben Grael discovered after one leg of the 2005-06 Race how big and bouncy the pecs on a VOR 70 needed to be.

Women were occasionally sighted on a TP52 in the Audi MedCup but not enough to warrant a mention and women are occasionally sighted on boats in the classic races such as the Fastnet and Sydney Hobart but the competitive boats are mainly populated by hairy grinders with big bouncy pecs!
Dame Ellen MacArthur

So Shirley went into TV and the Sarahs are building families with one hopes, an eye on a return though once women have had children, the chances of them heading off into hazardous watery wastelands are virtually nil (hoorah for Sam!!)

The Whitbread Round the World Race - now the Volvo Ocean Race - used to be an opportunity for women to forge careers in professional sailing. Look at Clare Francis (does she sail any more?) who skippered ADC Accutrac in 1977-78 and of course the unique Tracy Edwards who, quite simply, was a game changer.

She had the trailblazing idea to enter the 1989-90 race, raised the money to buy a boat and an all girl crew and organised the Maiden campaign which although it didn’t win, remains one of the most captivating highlights in the race’s colourful history.

I had no real interest in yacht racing back then yet I was in Southampton when they arrived back and was taken aback by the numbers who had turned out to greet them – there were THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS - and also by how small the Maiden girls were!!

We were blown away by their achievement of racing around the world and knowing a bit more now about how difficult it is to put together these campaigns, I remain deeply impressed by her endeavour.

We all love to see an itsy-bitsy pocket rocket cocking a snook and punching above her weight, don’t we?? And that’s exactly what Tracy did!
Post Maiden, there was a flurry of female activity in the long distance market  and in subsequent races we had EF Education 1997-98 skippered by Christine Guillou and featuring an international crew of Isabelle Autissier, Anna Dre, Christine Briand, Leah Fanstone, Keryn Henderson, Kiny Parade, Emma Westmacott, Katie Pettibone and Marie Claude Kieffer.

Game changer - Tracy Edwards
It also included Lisa McDonald who in 2001-02 went on to skipper Amer Sports Too which was hastily put together at the last minute (not good!) but crewed by the best women in the business (good!) including five girls from EF Education.

But then, some cack-handed management at the Volvo Ocean Race saw changes in rules that dragged the race away from these women and forced them off the radar. Most notably, the introduction of a boat that could only be sailed by men. Nice work boys!

Not only were women excluded from the next race in 2005-06 (apart from Adrienne’s one leg wonder) but from all the races since, due to the sheer physical impossibility of getting maximum performance from the Volvo 70s.

It has meant a generation of women sailors missing out on the opportunity to compete at the top level of the sport and therefore the loss of a vital pathway for all aspiring female crew.

It has also taken something away from the race. The girls always add a different dimension to any competition. They might have the same objectives but rest assured, their game plan will have a totally different look to it.

Content off the boat will also offer a stark contrast to the images of hairy grunting geezers that we all have come to know and love and the one dimensional discussions about freeze dried food and weather.

There may be some different King Neptune ceremonies (please god!) and some alternative (and frank) discussions about life on board though we have to remember, a team is a team and what goes on tour stays on tour. MCMs notwithstanding!

Volvo knew they were missing a trick from a marketing and publicity point of view by not having women and might even have persuaded SCA to go down the girl route.

No worries. It is FANTASTIC news for the race and for women’s sailing. Now Knut, how about having a new rule that stipulates a crew of four boys and four girls. Now THAT would be very interesting…………!!

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