Organisers of professional yacht racing events must do something to promote equal employment opportunities for women

Why are the all-women Team SCA consistently finishing at the back in the Volvo Ocean Race? I think a lot of people have secretly asked this obvious question.

It’s a subject Skip Novak writes about in our latest issue, commenting on the performance of Team SCA. With the notable exception of the short course in-port races, the women have often been that critical click behind the other teams, despite having the first boat to launch, a good sponsor and some of the best female offshore sailors available.

This first ever level playing field one-design Volvo Ocean Race has done a lot of things, but one stands out: it has highlighted the glaring and scandalous inequality of professional yacht racing.

Because, make no mistake, this peculiar, closed-shop world is completely unequal. The big problem is the limited experience women available to women in professional offshore racing. Women just don’t have the same opportunities for key specialisms, especially for such roles as navigation, tactician, skipper or crew boss, and particularly not in a fully crewed endurance race.

Opportunities for women to progress in sailing are in lamentably short supply. A talented handful can make a name and income in the specially ring-fenced area of Olympic sailing. Some scratch out a living and perform well in the unrestricted world of solo and short-handed offshore racing.

But only a tiny handful.

Move to other areas of professional sailing and you’ll see the same. You can earn a small fortune sailing superyachts. But only if you’re a man.

If you’re a woman, you’ll be making the sandwiches and the beds. You can be a stewardess but your chances of being captain are about the same as they are of walking on the moon.

Race events and organisations? It’s a broadly similar story. Men organise and run, women do the registration and PR.

On the other hand, women are very well represented in marine businesses (regulated of course by employment equality legislation). ‘Civilian’ racing and cruising also both have a healthy split of  participation by gender – 40% of competitors at Cowes Week, for example, are women. It’s the same in cruising events.

So how can this be changed? How can we bring about the same opportunities for women to make a living in sailing, and be paid equally?

For a start, it is for race organisers to realise – truly realise – that they are 30 years or more behind the times and at odds with the way modern society works. They must do what legislators call ‘nudge’; they must create the environment in which there simply is no choice but to be inclusive.

We don’t need, and we don’t want, all-women crews. We need mixed crews and more equal chances.

The culture of sailing in male teams must be changed, just as the culture of educating boys separately from girls changed, or having male politicians and female secretaries changed.

If bastions of power and tradition can change so can mere sailing. If the UK, Germany, Argentina, New Zealand, Iceland, Malta, Ireland, Finland, Chile, Latvia, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Panama, Costa Rica, Lithuania, Croatia, the Philippines and Liberia can all have heads of state or government who are women, if the head of the International Monetary Fund can be a woman, if a Director of Public Prosecutions can be a woman, if two presidential candidates and possibly the next US president can be a woman, could there possibly be a woman or two in a mixed pro yacht race crew?

Could there be a place for woman on, say, the winning Abu Dhabi crew? (All things considered, probably not.)

Could Team Dongfeng, which has trained excellent rookie Chinese sailors from scratch, possibly find a role for a really experienced, female former Olympian? Team managers OC Sport made it a rule in their Extreme 40s, after all.

So I say it again, and on behalf of the army of sailors who want, need and deserve a fundamental cultural sea change: come on Knut, come on Russell. Come on Mark Turner, Ben Ainslie, all the others. Open your doors. Lead the way.


    When your comment article says “We don’t need, and we don’t want, all-women crews’ we would politely ask who are the ‘we’?

    Ask the women who sail in the female-only environment that the UK’s only female sailing school, Girls For Sail, promotes and provides and there would perhaps be a different view on this. The ‘we’ might be a different ‘we’ from your comment piece.

    Ask the female skippers we have provided professional opportunities to over the past 16 years and perhaps they too would have a differing perspective on your caveat about the future development of women’s sailing. Volvo Ocean Race Team SCA’s Dee Caffiri is one such lady skipper who we are proud to have worked with and offered opportunities to. Again perhaps the ‘we’ you refer to might again be a different ‘we’ to the ladies who we have worked with and supported.

    We think it is time for change and for an active strategy to encourage women into our amazing sport.

    Annie O’Sullivan

    Girls For Sail

    Teaching and encouraging women to sail since 1999

  • Campbell Field

    Some valid points Eliane, however I believe your statement that the same opportunities do not exist for women as they do men is flawed. The opportunities do exist, but there needs to be recognition of the different life ambitions, application of skills and approaches between the genders. Of few females that I know who have worked as deckhands or as captains of yachts I have yet to meet one who was not excellent at their job. Have met plenty of useless males.

    There needs to be as much an internal review of what is going on here rather than promoting the unhelpful blame like view that males are blocking female progression.

    There is a case to argue that paths are more open to women than men from a sponsorship perspective as it delivers very good media output. Would EM have got the household name status were she a male? I doubt I am far off the mark in saying that Kingfisher and Aviva took full advantage of the ‘women in a mans world’ angle. Did this help women in sailing? Would a male of the same age, experience and skill set got as far with those sponsors? Would SCA have considered sponsoring a team without gender restrictions?

    There is discrimination here. I am sure there would have been an outcry were any of the VOR teams made the statement ‘women need not apply’. How would a CV application to SCA from a male be handled?

    Of a list of applicants that runs into the many hundreds from the last 10+ years of managing teams, I have had 2 – yes read 2 – female applicants for technical or sailing positions. One I hired, and was superb and would do so again (currently on SCA).

    I think there is more to it than blaming men for this imbalance of participation or record of results.