Cowes Week's promotion of women sailors versus the Southampton Boat Show's

This is a tale of two Ladies Days – and how female participation is marked at Cowes Week and the Southampton Boat Show.

Some 40 per cent of all the sailors taking part in Cowes Week are now women. The number has increased by 150% since 2002, and is still rising. Ladies Day on the Wednesday of the week marks that, when an award is made to someone who is judged to have made a significant contribution.

I admit to an interest in it, as along with Michelle Warner of Cowes Week Ltd and Olympic medallist turned commentator Shirley Robertson I’m a judge of the award.

This year we gave the trophy to Louise Morton (pictured above, centre), who has played a huge part in reviving the Quarter Ton class and very successfully campaigns her own Quarter Tonner, Espada.

There were some other fantastic nominees, including disabled sailor Hilary Lister, who sailed round Britain in her ‘sip and puff’ operated keelboat, Pip Hare, who won overall IRC divisions in the Shetland Round Britain & Ireland race this year (and wrote lots of great web diaries for us), and Roz Allen, who has overcome a terrible motorbike accident to win the RS800 Nationals and Europeans as well as the SB3 and Cherub Nationals.

The idea that women can enjoy sailing and be good at it shouldn’t be too strange, but it seems quite an alien concept to the organisers of the Southampton Boat Show.

Here’s what they’re doing for their inaugural Ladies Day in September: a chance to enjoy ‘a glass of bubbly’ and prizes that include ‘a one a one-night spa break at the luxury country house hotel Chewton Glen, a dinner, bed and breakfast at Southampton’s White Star Tavern as well as a treatment for one at the De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel.’

There will also be a fashion show and some challenges to ‘test your nautical knowledge’ plus getting media and sponsors on a special training day.

In other words, you entice women along not to win sailing gear or enjoy being afloat but to get wined, dined and waxed. How weird. I wonder if anyone’s thought of this idea for, say, a ski show or a golf show?

Boating is about getting outdoors and having an adventure. That’s its USP. If people in the industry are serious about expanding participation they should focus less on bribes for the pampered unwilling and more on bolstering the idea of the excitement, challenge, accomplishment and freedom it offers. As Cowes Week shows, that’s what works.

Sadly, these old ideas die very slowly. Not so long ago I got into a lively discussion with an old hand doing the Jester Challenge and he point-blank refused to believe me when I told him that women enjoyed sailing and that female participation was rising. (He also quite seriously believed that Ellen MacArthur had been controlled by a male shore team who monitored her boat continuously, called her up every time the sails needed changed or adjusted and told her exactly what to do).

When I mentioned the 40% figure at Cowes he just laughed and said categorically “They must all be guests, then.”

There is no changing some people’s minds.