Women sailors make up around a tenth of the Rolex Fastnet Fleet, but there are some big players and inspiring stories amongst them. Here are some female skippers and crews to watch in this year's race
The entry list for the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race is shaping up to be just over 10% women sailors. While this is a long way from the level of equality that the sport should be aiming for, it is at least a big improvement from some two decades ago, when female skippers and crew made up less than 5% of the entry.
To date only one female skipper has won the Fastnet Race – French ocean racer Catherine Chabaud on her IMOCA 60 Whirlpool-Europe 2 in 1999. Dona Bertarelli also took line honours in both 2013 and 2015 with her partner Yann Guichard on board the 40m maxi trimaran Spindrift 2.
Here are some of the female sailors to watch in this year’s Fastnet Race:
Sam Davies (GBR), IMOCA 60 Initiative Coeurs
One of the most high profile and accomplished sailors in the race – male or female – is ocean racer Sam Davies, 44. Davies is back for a second Fastnet Race aboard her IMOCA 60 Inititiative Coeurs, although she has done many more on other campaigns.
Her IMOCA is newly fitted with new lifting foils in readiness for next year’s Vendée Globe, and she will race doublehanded with Paul Meilhat, winner of the IMOCA 60 class in the last Route du Rhum.
Davies feels there is still a long way to go with increasing women’s participation in the Fastnet, but she opposes requiring boats in the Fastnet Race to sail with a quota of women (as, for example, in the last Volvo Ocean Race).
“It shouldn’t be forced because the Fastnet isn’t any old race and you need to be capable. There is no point in just taking more women for the sake of taking them. It is important that the women who do it are team players in each crew, that they are there on the crew to do their job and do it well.”
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When it comes to solo ocean racing, women have historically achieved more success on the same playing field as men compared to any other discipline within sailing. Davies believes this is because it is more a reflection of mental strength and endurance than physical strength.
“If you do a short 24 hour race, it is harder to stay competitive because of all the manoeuvres, but the further you go offshore and longer the race, and the more it is about pushing your body to its limits, the more equal it becomes.
“Your manoeuvres take longer, but it is about your mental strength and doing things at the right time and not getting so tired that your brain stops working. If you are good at the endurance side, you can get your priorities right and you can make big gains.”
While there were no female skippers in the last Vendée Globe, there could be as many as seven in the next race in 2020. Of these three will be British: Davies, Miranda Merron, and Pip Hare, all of whom are competing in the 2019 Fastnet in the IMOCA 60 class. Other female sailors in the IMOCA class are Alexia Barrier racing with Ireland’s Joan Mulloy on board4myplanet; Clarisse Crémer, who is co-skippering Banque Populaire with Vendée Globe winner Armel le Cleac’h, and Isabelle Joschke on MACSF.
Hannah Diamond (GBR), Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300 Fastrak XII
Having completed the Volvo Ocean Race last year, Hannah Diamond, 29, will be racing on the brand new Fastrak XII, a Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300. UK Jeanneau importers Sea Ventures has lent the Sun Fast 3200 to Diamond (ex-Vestas 11th Hour Racing) and Henry Bomby, who sailed with Dee Caffari on Turn the Tide on Plastic in the Volvo Ocean Race.
The long-term aim of Diamond and Bomby’s partnership is to campaign for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games in the new ‘Mixed Two Person Offshore Keelboat’ class.
The new 3300 is designed by Daniel Andrieu and Guillaume Verdier to be sailed doublehanded with twin rudders as standard, optional twin 200lt water ballast tanks, plus IRC-friendly features such as a fin keel.
“We haven’t had to change it much for the Fastnet,” explains Diamond. “Everything is led back to the cockpit nicely. It has water ballast, which makes a massive difference with only two of you on board. There are lots of different sail configurations and it is very manageable with just two people.”
Diamond recognises that she became involved in the sport at a time when opportunities have been opening up for women sailors. “I have been fortunate with the timing, but I hope I have appreciated the opportunity enough to keep going forwards on my own merit.
“In the Volvo Ocean Race I got to sail thousands of miles with people I would never have otherwise have had the opportunity to sail with, people who I can now call my friends because they were my team mates – that is much bigger in terms of moving forwards with opportunities. Without the Volvo Ocean Race you never would have had the opportunity to sail alongside them and to gain their respect.
“But it is not easy for anyone. It is a privilege to be involved in professional sailing at a top level, regardless of whether you are male or female. It is easy to forget that we are incredibly fortunate that what we grew up doing as a hobby we have been able to turn into our profession.”
Kirsten Harmstorf-Schönwitz (GER), DK46 Tutima
Past Fastnet Races have seen plenty of all-female crews, and this year is no exception with a first from Germany in the DK46 Tutima, skippered by Kirsten Harmstorf-Schönwitz. Kirsten has been leading all-female teams for the last 25 years, predominantly inshore in the ORC fleet.
Dillon believes that one advantage of all-female teams is that it provides the opportunity for women to move around the boat. “They can helm when they might not get the opportunity to do so otherwise. It is a great thing to give people the opportunity to step up into roles they might not otherwise get to do.”
Felicity ‘Flic’ Gabbay (GBR), Elan 380 Elixir
‘Flic’ Gabbay, 67, proves that you don’t need to start offshore racing in your youth – she got into yacht racing in her 50s but has since competed in the Fastnet Race five times, three on her own Elan 380.
“I bought Elixir specifically just to do three races – the two handed Round Britain and Ireland, the Azores and Back and the Fastnet. But I have gone on racing her!” she says.
One of her Fastnets on Elixir was fully crewed, the other two doublehanded. “They both have their challenges. I think two handed is more challenging in terms of stamina obviously, but less challenging in terms of managing a crew. The reason I raced her in one Fastnet fully crewed, with a scratch crew, some of whom had never raced offshore before, was to prove to myself that I was capable of being an effective and fully responsible, fully crewed skipper.”
Gabbay firmly believes that women’s participation in offshore sailing should be encouraged. “We also need to make sure that people understand that as you get older it doesn’t stop you being able to compete.
“In the AZAB and RB&IR, I was co-skipper two handed with relatively little experience and came fourth overall in both races. I think there are few sports where you can compete at that level as an older woman. I would like people to know that. It is really important and I don’t think there is anything particularly brave or mad about me!”