Taking a deep breath and donning a hard hat, Skip Novak asks why is it that all-female crews do so badly and what is the solution?

Never one to avoid what will inevitably put people’s noses out of joint, I’m going to comment on Team SCA’s less than impressive performance in the Volvo Ocean Race.

We know that the organisers had decided to grant the female team three extra crew, which I would assume was a concession to strength and endurance issues. So this is a clear acknowledgement of a disparity between the genders.

Then we know for a fact that Team SCA’s boat was the first off the blocks and the team has had the most time on the water training. We must also assume that this team has the best female sailors money can buy. Indeed, their inshore sailing skills are beyond question, as seen from stellar results in the in-port races.

On the Volvo PR material it is stated: ‘The entry of the all-female team is no coincidence given that the new boat design puts less of a premium on physical strength and means an all-female team can be just as competitive as any other professional team.’

If all three of these facts hold water, then there is no harm in asking the question: What is happening? If a level playing field was created by the organisers and no expense spared in the crew selection and the training, I wonder if there is more at play here.

Dare I offer the conclusion that women are inferior to men offshore? How can this be when we have seen the likes of Ellen Macarthur and Florence Arthaud, you say. Indeed there have been many female single-handers, mainly French and British, that have impressed.

Is single-handing as intense as a fully crewed race where there is no respite from your shipmates? It is no secret that peer pressure on board can be dramatic. It must also be accepted that going 100 per cent all time while single-handing is impossible and throttling back at times to recoup is all part of that equation.

Catching your breath is not the case in today’s Volvo. If you are female and feeling indignant by this stage, note that there is not one female crew member in any of the other entries. Does that tell you something?

Well, carrying on in this discussion will only land me in hotter water than I am already in for bringing up the subject in the first place. So I will let the reader ponder these things while they cool down.

In the meantime, I will offer a solution that can possibly eliminate any further discussion, and one that I am sure many people have contemplated and even suggested to the organisers if they haven’t thought of it themselves. Simply, crews comprised of 50 per cent guys and 50 per cent girls, which is a good ratio when you consider world population demographics and a lot else, including procreation for that matter. It takes two to tango, right?

This simple and elegant solution will once and for all quench these awkward comparisons between the genders in fully crewed offshore racing. It’s a ‚we’re all in it together’ concept. There is another benefit here in that having more female sailors involved by a simple rule requirement will bring more female sailors up to speed in offshore sailing. And, from the human point of view, imagine the great stories that would unfold both on and off the water!

It has been a long passage for women making their mark offshore. I am thinking of Claire Francis skippering ADC Accutrac in the 1977/78 Whitbread, Tracy Edwards’s ground-breaking all-female crew in the Whitbread of 1989/90, but then we see the all-female team of Heineken in 1993/94 coming 9th out of a ten-boat fleet, EF Education in 1997/98 last and in 2001/02 Amer Sports Too also last.

Might persisting in the all-female crew concept for this pre-eminent event be a step backwards?

If you see me on the dock at the finish I will be the one wearing a hard hat and body armour.

Skip Novak – high latitudes guru

Skip Novak – high latitudes guru


Skip Novak is a columnist and regular contributor to Yachting World, and author of our acclaimed Storm Sailing Series, which you can also find on our website. He was born in Chicago in 1952 and started sailing at an early age. He has raced in four Whitbread Round the World races and in 2001 co-skippered the 108ft catamaran Innovation in The Race round the world in 65 days, an event in which his future wife, Elena, also raced. In 1987 he built the steel cutter Pelagic and has since spent 26 seasons in Tierra del Fuego, South Georgia and Antarctica, sailing and mountaineering.




  • MilkoGambia

    yes it is so good also for maybe more female teams or mixed teams

  • MilkoGambia

    It is so good that they won the Lorient leg and you could see directly why, best route choice. I would say end of discussion 🙂

  • Pär-Magnus Kikajon

    I like the mixed crew idea! Still, it’s kind of fun that team sca won the heavy upwind leg Lisbon – Lorient the way they did, don’t you think?

  • Before the race started, I enjoyed writing a piece for Northwest Yachting on Team SCA. (http://www.nwyachting.com/2014/09/no-ordinary-women-just-extraordinary-sailors/)

    The final lines are: “Then, next time around, there might not be a woman’s boat. Just a bunch of mixed-crew boats. Now that would really be something to write about.”

    I’m onboard with your solution, Skip. Too bad mixed crews would have to be mandated, but surely they would. I think the sailors would enjoy it more, the stories would be better and it would portray sailing in a better and, hopefully, more accurate light. We’re blessed with a sport where boys and girls can play really well together. Why not take advantage of it?

  • Luxx

    This is such a great response, thanks for taking the time to make a really good point!

  • Claire Kennard

    Good article but doesn’t really answer the question as to why many all female teams don’t win many yacht races! However we must remember that not winning does not equate to “doing badly” To understand what happens I think we must not only look at the Volvo Ocean race but other regattas and offshore races. I think that often all female teams have a different focus to all male ones, which is fine. At amateur regattas the all female teams are often having loads of fun, with emphasis on everyone learning, developing teamwork and keeping every team member happy. This achieves a balance between results and enjoying the sailing. This contrasts with the top competitive all male teams that are lead by alpha male type skippers who want to win regardless of the dynamic onboard and where qualities like aggression and dominance are favoured (it’s not necessarily negative or any less fun just more “male”) Because ultimately the event is a race and heavily competitive the male approach often gets a better race result.

    I run a business that offers crew places in top international regattas and usually our crews are a mix of men and women of all abilities. There are roles for everyone and we have some excellent women sailors for both offshore and round the cans racing, and see no difference in our results when we have more or less women on board. It is the same with many of our competitors and we frequently achieve better race results than all male teams we are racing against (probably not because of the women on the team but because a mixed team at our level makes no difference) so the conclusion we make is that mixed crews are just as effective as all male, but all female teams are less effective at winning.

    Now let’s go back to the fact that not coming first doesn’t mean doing badly. In the Volvo Ocean Race the team Sca have been a huge inspiration, they’ve gained their sponsors loads of exposure and promoted the sport of sailing. They’ve also raced around the world in a hugely challenging race. They are racing against some incredible, talented and extremely experienced male sailors who have done this race before. They are not on the podium but their achievement is still enviable.

  • Don McIntyre

    Life Hey..it started with a man and a woman. Both very
    different. We’re not meant to be the same and we’re all unique individuals. I
    take my hat off to these women in the VOR , truly amazing to watch as are the
    men. There is no question every one of these women give their all, so if the
    men are in front, just maybe this confirms that nature made guys better at this
    activity. Women are better at heaps of other things so? History shows they are
    getting better though and no more so than this race, so one day?? Who knows.? I’ve
    got two things that women don’t have and they have some pretty neat stuff I don’t.
    How cool would it be to follow Skips lead and make 50/50 crews..now that is
    life, and with one design boats where we are now following the crew dynamic
    more than ever, it would add a spectacular new dimension. I just launched the
    2018 Golden Globe Race and four of the first 30 applicants are women. Any of
    them could win!

  • Luxx

    If you’re really interested in this topic, I suggest the first question to answer is “are all-women crews really that bad?” You could do statistical research, take into account various factors that could explain the perceived difference in performance, and you could look into possible reasons (statistical coincidence? problems with the boat? a sexist competitive environment? etcetera).

    You ask, “why are there no women on the other teams?” This question has many possible answers, and my first avenue of research would be investigating gender politics and history in professional competitive sailing, and sports in general, rather than a vague non-answer that comes down to “well I don’t know either but it must be because women are just bad sailors, amirite?”

    If you are honest in your curiosity to answer this question, instead of merely trying to start a flame war, there are several things you could do:
    – you could let professional women sailors write this column, and you could just stand back and listen, instead of muddying the waters with your male view that could be taken for mansplaining.
    – you could avoid wild speculation, generalisations, insinuations, and half-spoken suggestions that all give the impression of classic sexist thinking, and instead really look into this question and back it up with reason and facts.
    – the fact you’re donning your hard hat shows that you’re aware of the possible backlash that could follow your post. Perhaps that backlash is a valid reaction to a misguided and poorly thought-out column, rather than knee-jerk responses from supposedly over-sensitive feminists.

  • Aileen Dingus

    In a brief email discussion with Adrienne Calahan back in the day, I said that a women’s team could win the VOR. She shot that idea down pretty quickly, saying that there was no way a female team would win. I figure she ought to know, having served at least a few legs on Brasil 1. But that comment always rankled, because it shot the idea down right out of the box, and if someone at her level didn’t have faith, well- why would anyone else?

    I think the all-female teams have been excellent, but I do believe their weaknesses are issues of strength/endurance rather than interpersonal dynamics as you suggest. (yeah- you’re probably going to catch some flack for that) We all know that there are personality issues on the male teams as well, so you can’t use that excuse.

    I’m sure there are studies being made on SCA right now, with testing and evaluating going on at each stage of the race. Perhaps when it’s all compiled we’ll know more.