Changing Views Among the Pioneers

The year was 1975 and I was serving as coach of the U.S. Sailing Team at the European Women’s Championship in Barcelona, Spain. During one of the evenings there was a meeting to discuss the possibility of an "all-women’s class" at the Olympic Games. To my surprise, the U.S. sailors and, in fact, a majority of the participants preferred open events in which women have the chance to compete against men. The all-women concept was rejected.

Fast forward to the 2001 Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship and its record turnout of 61 boats. The announcement a year earlier that a women’s keelboat fleet had been added to the 2004 Olympics raised the already impressive level of competition at the Rolex to new heights.

Despite the initial skepticism, it’s clear that the all-women concept has been a real winner and that opinions about it are evolving. Jan O’Malley, the 1969 and 1970 winner of the U.S. Women’s Championship for the Adams Trophy, was one who opposed separate women’s events in the Olympics. "My premise is that women can compete as well as men," she says, referring to Dawn Riley and Ellen MacArthur as examples. Yet O’Malley, a three-time Yachtswoman of the Year, admits that all-women events deserve credit. "Separate Olympic classes have opened doors. Women sailors are doing much better. I hope this leads them to more success in open events."

For many women sailors, success in open events is the ultimate goal, and there’s plenty of evidence that all-women events have helped pave the road toward such success. A remarkable example was the 2001 J/22 East Coast Championships, where three of the top four finishers in the 60-boat fleet were all-women crews. In winds over 20 knots, several crews of women preparing for the Rolex IWKC showed what benefits practice can have.

"The J/22 East Coasts was a real eye-opener," says Susan Taylor, 1988 ISAF Women’s 470 World Champion, and 1987 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year. "With the right preparation, women have been able to perform quite well against male counterparts."

Taylor cites the introduction of the Women’s 470 Class in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul as the breakthrough. For the women who campaigned, Seoul marked their starting point as full-time competitors. "We learned how to rig boats, use tools, tune the rigs, talk sail shape, and perform all the logistics necessary to compete around the world," she says. As the degree of seriousness with which women approached their campaigns rose, so did the level of knowledge they gained.

According to Timmy Larr, a three-time Adams Cup winner and two-time Yachtswoman of the Year, the availability of professional coaching has also raised the level of excellence women sailors are now collectively achieving. Yet Larr fears that shifting the national focus to all-women events may hinder their achievements and quell some aspirations for success in open fleets. "The skill and knowledge level is very high among the motivated women," says Larr. "Now is the time for these excellent sailors to compete in open championships. They would bring more competition and excitement to these regattas." Although the J/22 class is undergoing a turnaround, the presence of women in many open fleets and events is negligible.

Showings on traditionally male open circuits from pioneers such as Riley and MacArthur have been outstanding at the very least, yet the state of affairs in open competition might just come down to a numbers game. "There’s a long delay between a pioneer proving something can be done and the rest of the female sailing population believing they can do it too," says Cathy Foster, who in 1984 was the fourth-place finisher in the open 470 fleet at the Los Angeles Olympics. Now a coach, Foster predicts that further growth of women’s sailing will take a long time, and stands firm in her opinion that events should be kept open at the Olympic level. According to Foster, many women sailors around the globe have shown interest in the open Olympic events, but are persuaded by sponsors to choose women’s fleets on the basis that they would be more competitive in women-only events. "Keeping the events open reflects the way many sailors participate at the grassroots level," she says.

Positive role models are beneficial in every sport. In the past there have been relatively few women sailing heroes. Foster, Larr, Taylor, and O’Malley were pioneers. In the United States and throughout the world there are now dozens of highly accomplished women sailors. It’s up to them to reach out and recruit younger girls to participate. Leaders in the sport should also encourage these star sailors to take on managerial roles.

While all-women events might not have been popular 25 years ago, they have clearly opened doors, increased participation, and improved skill levels. Hopefully they’ll also inspire more and more women to compete successfully at open-class regattas.