It’s not enough to just get women on board – sailing must work harder to retain them if we are to diversify our sport

For Leg 3 of the Ocean Globe Race, L’Esprit d’équipe (FR) and Neptune (FR) were granted dispensation to sail with an all-male crew. The Notice of Race stipulates that every yacht must sail with a mixed crew, which is defined as a crew where there is at least one woman. In the Ocean Globe Race (OGR) newsletter, race organisers explained that the teams had found it ‘too difficult to find crew members at such short notice during the festive season’.

The Race Committee found this a valid enough reason to permit both yachts to compete without suffering a penalty.

For context, there are time and financial penalties outlined throughout the Notice of Race for not complying with the rules of safety equipment inspections, not attending media photo shoots, or not conforming to Ocean Globe Race branding. It’s interesting the OGR does not regard having a mixed team as critical to its brand.

This news was highlighted to me via the Women who Sail Facebook group. As you can imagine, the story inspired the voicing of some strong opinions. But you might be assuming that the response was negative, criticising the OGR management or full of disparaging comments about all-male crews.

That assumption would be wrong.

The major theme that caught the attention of over 100 women on this group was about how hard it is to be the ‘only’ woman on board.

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In an interview quoted in the OGR’s own press release, Capucine Treffot – who transferred from L’Esprit d’équipe after two legs – said: “It’s tough being the only woman on board. There is some stuff you can’t share and sometimes you feel really alone.

“I’d made very good friends on the boat, so I’m not missing friends, I’m missing another woman on board. A mixed crew should mean more than just one woman. It should actually be really mixed.”

Finding a woman who can sail is not that difficult. Every year the Magenta Project is inundated with applications from women to join its mentoring scheme. There are over 20,000 members of the Women who Sail Facebook group.

In the context of the OGR, Maiden is evidence that bolstering a crew with women is possible; they have managed to fill their entire boat with women. What’s more, both boats lost their sole woman not because they didn’t enjoy the race but because they too wanted to join the Maiden crew.

Therefore, the conclusion is that the real challenge if we want to diversify our sport is not to find women but to retain them.

Team SCA was an all-female entry into the Volvo Ocean Race

The OGR has proven that requiring a minimum of one woman on a crew is a way to bolster numbers getting involved, but it doesn’t address how long women stay on board. Perhaps those who are making and enforcing the rules do not fully understand women; I wonder how many of them are women?

The rule that there must be a woman on board is not diversifying this sport – you could argue it’s doing the opposite. Maiden is repeating history in more ways than one – just as in the Whitbread race of 1989, a women’s team in 2023 was again competing against all-male teams in what is classed as a ‘mixed sport’.

From my experience, the culture aboard a yacht becomes more inclusive the more diverse the team becomes, making 50:50 male-to-female crews more attractive to everyone. Adventure charter company 59° North has recently reserved two spots for women on its trips to avoid there being just one, and reported an increase in women signing up to over 30% of their overall crew numbers.

A Harvard Business Review also supports this theory. On investigating how to boost the proportion of women in boardrooms, they concluded that: ‘Solo women feel isolated and marginalised. Adding a second woman helps reduce the sense of isolation, [but] two women may be perceived as a separate group. A clear shift occurs when boards have three or more women. At that critical mass, women tend to be regarded not as “female directors” but as directors.’

The lesson I see for anyone hoping to sail with a mixed gender crew this season is to make sure you recruit more than just one woman. Ideally look to build a crew made up of at least three women. In theory, this should be all you need to retain women crew and avoid drop-outs.

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