The new two-handed WOW race is open only to women. Is segregated sailing a good idea?

A new transatlantic race for women has been launched by one of Britain’s most enthusiastic private sailing backers. Property developer Tony Lawson yesterday announced that he would be running a two-handed race from Plymouth to Antigua in October to help promote women’s sailing.

Lawson’s money and time has been behind the Class 40 Team Concise, providing opportunities for a group of young sailors to race in top offshore events, most recently Ned Collier Wakefield and Sam Goodchild in the Transat Jacques Vabre. Now, he says, it’s time to lend some support to young women sailors and help them get a foothold in ocean racing.

The race is called the Women’s Offshore Worlds – acronym the WOW Race – and the plan is for it to run from Plymouth to Antigua on 28 October in 30ft one-design Bénéteau Figaros.

Three teams or skippers have already expressed an interest in taking part, says Lawson: former Clipper Race skipper Hannah Jenner and sailing partner Sammie Evans (pictured above right and left), German sailor Anne-Marie Renken and French Class 40 sailor Stephanie Alran.

The Figaro has been chosen rather than the Class 40 because the latter has a full calendar of events already this year, leaving no gap for a new race to occupy, and because the production 30ft Figaros are evenly matched and less costly to charter and run.

“The girls are keen to race in the Figaros because there is such a fleet of top sailors in this class and it offers a way in for a much smaller budget of about £30,000,” says Tony Lawson. “These boats are affordable. It’s doable.”

The race being proposed is not for profit, and there won’t be an entry fee, Lawson says. He emphasises that he himself isn’t underwriting entries – “there’s no great pot of money that I can or will splash out to get 10 boats here, but this is a platform, we have the logistics to do it, we’re happy to help the girls and we’ll do it directly if we can pull off a good sponsor.”

Races for women only are a difficult area, and leave many of us – me included – feeling a bit ambivalent. There’s plenty of media potential, and the real possibility of connection with the public. On the other hand, a far more resistant problem for women is breaking into mixed crews where there is a more reliable living to be made. That’s the real carbon ceiling.

And there is obviously a danger that a women-only race will look and be deemed a second or third tier event. This is a particular risk if racing in the Figaro class because it is of the few where women and men already compete on level terms and top women such as Jeanne Grégoire, Isabelle Joschke and Samantha Davies have excelled.

Tony Lawson sweeps away those quibbles. “It’s very, very simple. We want to focus attention on the girls,” he explains. “It’s a way to push them to the fore and build up their reputations with a meaningful event and they really seem excited about it.

“Hopefully it will help them progress to Class 40s and on to 60s. It gives them targets to aim for. I know there will be sceptics, but the thing is we don’t get anywhere by doing nothing.”

Although the budgets may be very modest by most ocean racing standards they could still be a hurdle to getting the five or six boats minimum that the WOW Race needs to be thought of as any kind of serious competitive event. Probably half of the race ideas announced never make it to fruition because of lack of financial support and entries.

Lawson is bullish about this, too. “These things go in parallel. It’s chicken and egg and you’ve got to start somewhere,” he says. “It’s logical to be modest at this time and we think we’ve got the right boat, the right time and the right route.”