Hannah Mills and Ben Ainslie today announced the Athena Pathway Programme, a high performance pathway scheme for talented female sailors that hopes to see a British crew win the first ever Women's America's Cup

Hannah Mills and Ben Ainslie, the most decorated female and male Olympic sailors of all time, today announced the Athena Pathway Programme, a high performance pathway scheme for talented female and youth sailors to help take their career trajectory into events such as the America’s Cup and SailGP.

The announcement that the 37th America’s Cup would include the first ever Women’s America’s Cup was significant – the America’s Cup is the pinnacle of inshore sailing competition, and has historically been overwhelmingly dominated by male sailors. Barcelona in 2024 will see, for the first time, a women’s America’s Cup made up of Challenger series and a final match race, held within the main event.

There is also no shortage of exceptionally talented and skilled female inshore sailors – there is no question that the women’s classes in the Olympics and women’s match racing circuits are as competitive as their male counterparts. Many have gone on to successful careers in big boat racing, including during the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, which mandated a minimum number of female crew aboard each team.

The problem, however, lies in the skills and experience gap that needs to be leapt in order for talented young female dinghy or match racing sailors to move into classes such as the AC75 and F50, which are largely crewed by male sailors who have foiling and America’s Cup experience.

Many female sailors have worked hard to bridge that gap themselves – racing foiling dinghies like Waszps or Moths, or wing foiling in their downtime to develop flight skills. Since the introduction of the rule that each SailGP F50 catamaran must race with one female sailor – whether in six-man or four-man mode – there are now professional women sailors racing in the foiling circuit.

However, those opportunities are very limited to a select number of sailors, and the amount of time each crew has onboard the F50 in between SailGP events is also very restricted, giving female sailors little time to develop in key roles such as flight controller.

The first key objective of the Athena Pathway programme is to fast-track development of female athletes into high-performance foiling sailing, including both SailGP and the America’s Cup. Sailors will use a 26ft ‘Easy to Flyfoiling catamaran, training primarily based out of the 2012 Olympic venue of Weymouth, in the UK.

Speaking from the launch event at the Royal Yacht Squadron during Cowes Week today, Hannah Mills set out her vision for the future of high-performance sailing:

Hannah Mills (fourth from the right) and other female racers in SailGP

“Sailing has made great strides forward in gender equality in recent decades, led by the Olympic side of the sport where gender equality has now been reached on the water, but the professional side, particularly in high-performance foiling sailing, is far behind where it needs to be. We as a sport are uniquely placed to drive huge global change when it comes to gender equality. High-performance sailing has no major barriers to physical entry and through the Athena Pathway we will create a gender equal pathway for all, with sustainability at its heart.

“I am incredibly excited to be teaming up with Ben on this project to change the landscape of professional sailing in the UK. Young girls are already coming up to me excited by the potential opportunities within the America’s Cup, SailGP and beyond as they get older, which is amazing to see.

“Equally, however, the knock-on effect this could have in terms of growth within our sport as more females see career opportunities within the marine industry could be huge”.

Another key aim of the Athena Pathway is for Britain to win the first ever Women’s America’s Cup, while a longer term goal is for the female sailors to eventually sail within a mixed Americas Cup team.

Initial recruits to the team include Hattie Rogers, the SailGP Inspire x WASZP champion, Great Britain SailGP member Hannah Diamond, and Olympians Penny Clarke and Nikki Boniface, plus Sophie Heritage, who joins the team on the shore side. Ben Ainslie, who will be advising the Athena Pathway, explained that there is a significant amount of work to be done in encouraging women to pursue marine engineering and other shore side roles also.

“When we first launched our official charity, the 1851 Trust, in 2014 one of our key ambitions was to bring more diversity into the marine industry in this country. We are still doing that at the grassroots level in schools across the UK, but now, through the Athena Pathway, we hope to be able to offer significant experience and opportunities, at the highest level of our sport, to further achieve that ambition.”

Female sailors who wish to apply to the programme, or to learn more, should visit https://www.research.net/r/AthenaPathway-RegisterYourInterest

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