Professional yacht racing's scorn for women and amateur adventurers is handicapping the growth of our sport


Here’s something that has been bubbling away in my mind over the last week: how ocean racing has become more elite, not less so. And how it is in danger of being seen (correctly) as a boys’ club that is of negligible public interest – in the UK at least.

That was highlighted by the UK coverage of Samantha Davies and Dee Caffari who have just finished the Vendée Globe race in 4th and 6th places respectively. I missed this while I was in France, and only when I got back last week did I see how thoroughly these feats had captured the public imagination.

Sam’s story was widely reported on TV and it got the front page of the Sunday Times, most of page 3 news and two pages of the sports section. Dee followed that with a piece on News at Ten, a front page photo in The Times, back page of the sports sections in both the Times and the Daily Telegraph, an appearance on breakfast TV and more.

This is a scale of sailing coverage not seen since Ellen MacArthur was doing her stuff.

Some argue that to get publicity these days you “have to be a chick”, and you can’t deny there’s a certain truth in that. But not only are women’s achievements on equal terms with men immensely impressive to the general public, they also have an inspirational quality because, unlike men, women are not viewed as just doing their job.

What’s bothering me is that the Vendée Globe is one of the only high profile areas of ocean racing where women can hope to compete. It is the one of the only areas where there is true equality, and which is open to all to qualify, unrestricted by a dominant clique.

Apart from the Clipper Race or the current Portimão Global Ocean Challenge which, predictably, the sailing elite scorn, where else could you do what Dee Caffari has done and go in nine years from being a PE teacher who could not sail to finishing 6th in a major world race?

Where else would Steve White, who used to mend cars for a living, have had the opportunity to compete round the world with the greatest names in sailing? Or Norbert Sedlacek, who worked on the Austrian transport system?

To gain such wide acclaim for this proves that they, and the organisers of the Vendée Globe, have the winning formula.

But what if Sam or Dee had dreamed of doing the America’s Cup? Forget it. Or the Volvo Ocean Race? No chance. In the organisers’ self-absorbed quest for fractionally greater speed they have created punishing designs on which women no longer have a place.

Even on the last VOR race, where there was a concession to allow extra crew if women competed, the only one was navigator Adrienne Cahalan – and she left in tears after one leg.

These events have formed a realm that is run by professional men for professional men. Women and amateur adventurers have no place and are not really welcome. The narrative is highly technical and the reports are matey and macho.

This an elite, as iron-clad as any in the past. To pass through the gateway you have to know someone within. Not surprisingly, the public clearly senses that.

And so the profile of yacht racing sinks away in the UK. That, I’m afraid, was inevitable. There is precious little interest here in pure racing or ‘elite’ events. The specialist newspaper correspondents who covered only the purist events have nearly all gone. With parallel web stories exposing true readership figures that was probably only a matter of time.

Sailing as a pure sport is not something too many people care about. But a good story of human interest, drama, the raw power of nature, national pride, triumph over adversity and personal courage? Yes, these are the tenets of journalism, whether news or features. Bring them on.

Those are the stories – the only ones – that can make the leap from obscure sports report to major news.

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Photo courtesy of Sea&Co