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Top Females Limited Access Top Pro Gigs

Gender equity is accelerating at the top of the sport, but the trickle down is slow.

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SailGP’s Women’s Pathway
SailGP’s Women’s Pathway athletes Nina Curtis, Andrea Emone, Liv Mackay, Katja Salskov-Iversen, Hannah Mills, CJ Perez, Amelie Riou and Sena Takano. Bob Martin/SailGP

Real change takes time, that much we know. Yet the rate at which the sport of competitive sailing has advanced over the past two decades is truly mind-blowing. In a blink, we’ve gone from displacement sailing to sportboat planing and now foiling crafts of all types and sizes. While our equipment evolves rapidly, however, our social initiatives seem to crawl at an agonizingly slow pace. What I’m referring to here is diversity, equity and inclusion in sailboat racing, and this is especially true in professional sailing.

Yes, there are more and greater opportunities for women at the Olympic level as new disciplines like kiting and coed classes continue to shift the gender balance. Never before have there been so many inspirational and talented female skippers and crew in the shorthanded and around-the-world racing scenes, and with certain one-design classes like the IC37 forcing change by requiring female crewmembers, we are indeed inching closer to being a better reflection of the real world. But we’re not there yet—not even close.

I’m regularly reminded of this when I see photos from awards ceremonies of the big-boat grand-prix events. Take the superyachts and maxis, for example, where there are big budgets, big crews and even bigger opportunities for women, but it’s still a big party of day-rate dudes. Gray-bearded grizzlies too, the lot of them. And what of other higher-­profile ­professional sailing circuits that claim to be progressive? Top of mind, the foiling GC32 class? More bros. The 44Cup? Same. The 52 Super Series? Yep.

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SailGP? Well, sort of, but full credit to that circuit for committing to the effort. For the entirety of season two, all SailGP teams had females on their rosters as mandated by the league’s Women’s Pathway Program, but they barely sailed in actual races. Thankfully, for the one windy penultimate event of the season in Spain, the female sailor athletes got their debut in the main event; some were more active than others in the jump seat of the F50 foiling catamarans, chipping into the tactical comms. Others seemed, for the most part, along for the rip and ride.

“With the addition of a new crewmember as a new standard and light-wind configuration, WPP athletes are now able to gain the valuable experience needed to race the high-flying, high-speed F50s,” SailGP said ahead of the Spanish event, but in previous back-to-back light-wind regattas, teams raced with three crew instead of the regular five.

I never could get a straight answer as to why, but for 2022’s season three, we’re told the default light-wind crew configuration will now be four-up, including one female. I suppose that’s better, but really? Why only the light-air races? I don’t buy the experience cop-out because plenty of the “developing” teams over the first two seasons plugged male sailors into roles with now equal or less experience, and I’m pretty sure turning knobs on the foil controller does not require a whole lot of muscle mass. It takes experience. And experience in big breeze. Hopefully, by the time we get to season four, there will be a female or two on every boat, in every race, regardless of wind strength. [Editor’s Note: According to SailGP, for Season 3, all teams will now race with a four-person crew in light winds and a six-person crew in stronger winds, including one female.]

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Access to the starting lineups of such big-league teams will be reserved for the boys for a while, and that’s especially true for the America’s Cup. The revised AC75 class rule defines eight sailors on board, and I’d bet that each afterguard trio (helmsman, main trimmer and flight controller) will be exclusively male in 2024. The other five crew will either be male champion cyclists with watermelon quads or world-caliber rowers with apelike arms. (No disrespect to any of these athletes; they put in the hard work too.)

So, to include females in sailing’s pinnacle event, they’ve instead put a Women’s America’s Cup regatta into the protocol (as well as one for youth), which will be sailed in the new AC40 class. This is great news, but even this event has a giant asterisk: It’s a requirement of entry for each challenger to sail in the women’s AC “if it is held.” That’s a big if, and as we saw with AC36, the highly anticipated Youth America’s Cup never happened, no thanks to COVID-19.

So, again, there is progress at the top of the sport—baby steps as they may be—but what is truly heartening is the changing landscape at the wider base of sailing, where the rest of us play. But here too there is much work to be done on the pro-sailing gender front, and even more so with the slow-moving diversity shift.

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It’s impossible to say or to quantify how many more young adult women are sailing keelboats professionally after college. At every regatta I sailed in 2021 there were more women, but I’m quite sure none, if any, were getting paid. Professional sailor and multiple world champion Willem Van Waay came to the same conclusion after the most recent J/70 World Championship in California. Not only were there few women among hundreds of men, he says, but there were practically no paid females in a class chock full of pros. The reality, he says, is that only guys like him have the opportunity to learn all the tricks of the boat through experience and paychecks, while perfectly good female sailors are recruited not for their skills but because of their weight. Owners and fellow pros, Van Waay says, need to step up to get more women more paid gigs in the class.

“In the J/70 class especially, the main trimmer/tactician spot is taken by the guy pros, and those guys have always been given the opportunities that women haven’t been given,” Van Waay says. “Because of this, they’re now the stars and making great money.”

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The best way to force change, he says, is for there to be a class where there are unlimited pros, but “you have to have two men and two women, and the owner has to drive. Then, all of a sudden, an owner who buys a boat has to find two women—not the lightest women, but the best women.”

Van Waay pitched us on trying his idea at the Helly Hansen NOOD St. Petersburg next February, and we happily accepted. To be eligible for the J/70 class’s Mixed-Plus trophy, the crew composition can only have two adult males (over 21), and only one adult male can be a pro. The Mixed-Plus division will be scored as a subdivision of the fleet.

“I’ve had so many women come up to me that want to do it, and I think it will be popular,” Van Waay adds. “Those [owners] who do this will get the top women, the right pros and be ready. They will beat the all-dude teams that just want to sail that way, and that’s what we want to happen. We want the women to do well and win. I think with that there will be some obvious results for potential change for women to get more opportunities.”

I’m with Willem and SailGP. Let’s stop talking about it and make it ­happen.

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