Charter companies and sailing schools report a shortage of women skippers and instructors. One scheme aims to redress the balance. Helen Fretter on professional sail training for women
There has been a highly publicised drive to increase the female participation in competitive sailing in recent years, with schemes such as the Magenta Project and Team SCA in the Volvo Ocean Race.
However, there are many professional roles in sailing that do not involve international competition – such as instructing, charter skippering and superyacht crew – where women sailors are also woefully underrepresented. The UKSA on the Isle of Wight, a major provider of maritime training courses, this summer launched a Women into Sailing careers initiative specifically to encourage female applicants onto its professional training courses and find employment in the marine sector.
Ben Willows, CEO of UKSA, explains why it was necessary: “About ten per cent of the people that come through our organisation on the careers and professional side are female.
“So we thought that’s pretty telling, as there’s not really any type of job out there that a female sailor can’t do. We wondered why the numbers were so low and the reality is that a lot of it’s to do with perception, and maybe a misunderstanding of what the marine industry is about and the opportunities available. There are a lot of jobs out there. Demand is not the issue.”
Of that female ten per cent, there is also a marked divide between the types of professional courses female students have historically taken up. “We’ve just had a new Yachtmaster course start today,” says Willows, “It’s the first day, and there’s no women on it. The course that’s happening next door is our superyacht foundation course, training to work as stewardesses and run the core of the interior on superyachts, and I think 10 out of 12 are them are girls. There’s a big split.”
Susie Goodall completed her Yachtmaster six years ago, and went on to work on board superyachts. Her experience tallies with Willows’s observations. “The watersports courses were not quite 50:50, but by the time you got to yachting it was usually just me or maybe one other girl. That’s just the way it was, and the way it still is. I just saw it as a man’s world, and you just accept that you’re going to be outnumbered.”
To gain Yachtmaster Ocean, candidates must act as skipper or mate on a passage with a non-stop distance of 600 miles, at sea continuously for 96 hours
Rachel Mew also completed her Coastal Yachtmaster more recently, and had a similar gender balance on her courses. “I was one of two girls that were doing the Yachtmaster course with 15 boys,” she recalls. “It didn’t really put me off – I’m quite confident and outgoing, so for me it was more of a reason to prove myself a bit more. But the other girl on my course did find it a bit daunting.”
Meew also found that the gender imbalance in instructing staff was very marked. “There were only two female instructors teaching the Yachtmaster course, one full-time and one freelance. So there weren’t really many female role models around.”
Rachel is returning to work at UKSA as a cruising instructor this autumn. “When I was doing my Yachtmaster, I’d spend most of my time talking to the female instructors when I wasn’t on the boat. They were encouraging me to do more and to give back as well. So I’m looking forward to going back as an instructor this term and hopefully doing the same for other girls.
“The higher up you get within the industry the bigger the split is, but it’s definitely changing. Even within the couple of years I’ve been working it has improved massively, but we’ve still got a long way to go. We just need more role models.”
Once qualified, employment opportunities for female skippers and instructors are very positive. Rachel Mew completed two seasons as flotilla skipper with Med Sailors in Croatia. “At the moment, I feel they are actually more willing to have female skippers because there are so few of them in the industry. People are just begging for them at the moment basically,” she says.
Her experience is backed up by Karen Rawson, chief instructor at Sunsail, who reports that recruiting female staff is a challenge: “We employ around 130 professional skippers and mates, of which there are four female skippers and eight female mates. It’s really hard to find women but lots of people request women, particularly schools and events. I’ve been teaching in the industry 16 years and I’ve never been unable to find a job.”
The MCA Officer of the Watch certificate allows you to work as an officer in charge of a navigational watch on superyachts of up to 3,000GT
When it comes to finding out why female skippers and instructors are so popular it’s hard not to talk in stereotypes – some commented that the female skippers they’ve worked with are often calmer, less competitive, and more professional. None of which are of course qualities exclusive to female skippers – but once again, it’s hard to change widely held perceptions.
Susie Goodall skippers for adventure sailing organisation Rubicon 3 and reports that for many of the women joining the boat, a female skipper can be reassuring.
“It’s quite full-on going sailing on a 60ft boat, and they’re often quite nervous about it. When they find out it’s actually a female skipper they say they relax. The sailing industry has quite a reputation for being male dominated and shouty, but women don’t really have that reputation.”
Ben Willows at UKSA notes that there are also plenty of good opportunities for superyacht employment. “One course on which we really want to drive up our female participation is our Cadetship, which is a three-year course that runs all the way up to Officer of the Watch, with a degree alongside it.” The course historically attracts just two or three female Cadets each year out of an intake of around 25, but Willows says the female graduates of the course have gone on to highly responsible roles.
“More often than not, women in those command positions tend to be successful, because they don’t have the ego issues that some young men have, and they tend to interact far better with the owners. Some of our female former Cadets have made very impressive progress.”
Susie Goodall previously worked on both motor and sailing superyachts and says women deck crew expect to be in the minority. “Not once did I ever work with another female on deck, although all the interior apart from the chef were female,” she recalls. “It is very laddish on deck, and you just become part of that. I think they always try and tone it down, but if there were more of a 50:50 mix on deck it would be different.”
Women undertaking professional training as part of a career break is also a growth area. Women only sailing operator Girls for Sail reports that its professional courses are particularly popular with women retraining. “We’ve started to get three or four women a year who are taking a career break and saying ‘I want to do something for me, I want to change my life’,” says Karen Harris of Girls for Sail. “They feel that by coming to us they are talking to women who have already done it.”
Five-times round the world racing sailor Dee Caffari went from working as a PE teacher to the Volvo Ocean Race thanks to her career break. Caffari initially trained as a watersports instructor at UKSA before competing the Pro Crew and Skipper course (now the equivalent of Professional Yachtmaster). She launched the Women into Sailing initiative in Cowes, saying: “We are massively the minority. People’s perceptions are changing, but it’s such a slow process. Things like the Magenta Project are great at the elite level, but you need someone pushing at grass roots level, so the fact that UKSA is recognising this gap is huge.
“From afar it looks like a very male dominated sport, but in sailing, when you’re on the same boat, the same water, the same weather, it just doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we show women the opportunities.”