A possible disabled team in the America’s Cup is fantastic news. But women sailors? Dream on
I think it’s great news that the Argo Challenge America’s Cup team is planning a campaign combining sailors and athletes with physical disabilities.
But the idea that professional sailing is progressive or doffs its cap in any meaningful way to equality is an absolute fantasy.
On the contrary, pro yacht racing is light years behind almost every other business you could think of. It’s one of the last remaining corners of the western world where dinosaurs still roam the earth.
If disabled sailors get to race in the America’s Cup, fantastic. They’ll have done better a sight better than women.
No-one seems to think it strange or wrong that there are hardly any openings at the top level for women sailors. Indeed, eyes roll if you even raise the issue.
Those who think ‘so what?’ may forget that we are talking about professional careers here, an area where normal employment practices and laws ought to apply.
Yet opportunities for women to progress in sailing are in scandalously short supply. Only a talented handful can make a name and a living in the specially ring-fenced area of Olympic sailing.
With individual sponsorship an even smaller number have managed to do a solo race such as the Vendée Globe. In this toughest of events women have proved themselves the equal – or better – of male rivals.
But afterwards are they invited to be a part of a top echelon team, a Volvo Ocean Race crew, say, or an America’s Cup crew? Not a chance. Even an Olympic Gold Medallist wouldn’t get a look in.
This isn’t a glass ceiling, it’s a huge, super-strength carbon flbre watertight bulkhead.
In this day and age I can’t think of any other career that has so few opportunities for women, or uses such spurious arguments for justifying it. It’s like going back to the 1970s, like the retro police drama Life on Mars.
As other businesses have moved on and benefited from change, sailing has actually gone backwards.
That was recently highlighted by the inclusion of Tracy Edwards in the Whitbread Legends regatta. This warm-up sideshow for the Volvo Ocean Race later this year musters some of the famous teams of previous races, such as Edwards’s all-female Maiden crew.
Maiden raced in the 1989/90 race. Back then, it looked truly ground-breaking. But like a great big jelly the sailing firmament shuddered temporarily, had a few more tremors with EF Education and came back to rest intact.
Despite lots of ideas about how to boost female participation at the highest (and best paid) levels, not one team in a recent VOR or America’s Cup has had a female even in the less burly job of helmsman, navigator or media crew.
Dawn Riley’s Mighty Mary America’s Cup campaign in 1995 was another false dawn. The only woman sailor in the America’s Cup we can think of since was Alicia Ageno, who crewed for Victory Challenge in 2005.
No matter what anyone may argue, it’s not because there aren’t suitable candidates. Why then?
The inconvenient truth is that pro sailing is still predominantly a boys’ club. It all starts with being ‘one of us’ or ‘a good guy on a boat’. Unfortunately, behind the undoubted professionalism on the water is a bar-room recruiting culture.
Ironically, the situation is in stark contrast to amateur yacht racing. That has steadily become thoroughly mixed and representative of society.
For example, in the last few years, around 40 per cent of competitors in the UK’s biggest regatta, Cowes Week, have been women.
It really is time for the professional sailing industry to look hard at its stubbly cheeks in the mirror ask some questions about inclusiveness and equal opportunities. Those questions should comprise how to accommodate people with disabilities, but they should go wider, too.
I’m not optimistic, though. No, I’d put money on a disabled team in the America’s Cup – but one made up entirely of men.