Helena Schneider is an experienced solo offshore skipper and sailing instructor, and shares her experience of sailing with mixed crews

I support women in sailing, but…..

Waves are washing over the deck as we are beating to windward; I keep an eye out for boats to leeward who might interfere with our course and I’m
ready to tack and trim the jib.

In these breezy conditions the manoeuvres and trimming make for a proper workout and I love every bit of it! It was a superb sailing day, but what eventually started to bother me were the repeated questions of my teammates.

I was asked several times if I was ‘still alright’ or if I ‘needed a hand’ with the trim, the manoeuvres or grinding during spinnaker sailing.

A man and a woman on the deck of a Ocean Race vessel

Strides have been taken to improve female representation in sailing, such as the requirement for female crew on all Ocean Race boats, but more needs to be done. Credit: Konrad Frost

I know these questions came from a good, supportive place as my team wanted to make sure that I, the only girl with possibly the smallest biceps on the boat, was faring well.

Indeed, I was doing great but you do start to wonder if others think so too when you get asked if you are OK more than anyone else!

Sometimes it is as subtle as in this scenario, and sometimes much more obvious, but every single female sailor I have talked to recounts at least one
story of being underestimated while sailing.

Continues below…

The last incident, that was significantly more upsetting than the scenario above and which eventually led to this column, happened a couple of weeks ago.

Friends of mine in France called out sexist quotes at the top of pages in L’Almanach du Marin Breton including this little gem: ‘Vent de Noroit et belle pute ne se lèvent jamais le matin,’ which roughly translates as ‘Nor’easters and beautiful whores never get up in the morning’.

I was astonished that this kind of thing still appears in print.

When I shared this online, some of my male followers suggested I ‘just ignore’ the plain sexism and others said that they didn’t realise that sexism in sailing was still an issue in 2022.

Sexist quote in a French sailing almanac

The sexist quote in the L’Almanach du Marin Breton. Credit: Louise Ras

After sailing recreationally, semi-professionally and professionally for nearly 20 years now, I have overlooked innumerable remarks, comments, sexist
banter on and off the water and some questionable behaviour, too.

The trouble is that I know lots of my fellow female sailors do the same.

We keep sailing, persevering and go high when the level of conversation goes low, and more importantly we keep coming back to the sport we love because it matters not just to us, but also to the opportunities future female sailors are likely to experience.

Nevertheless, while so many advances are being made towards pushing gender equality in our sport, there remains a stark imbalance in all sectors of sailing. The other disparity I have noticed is the emotional response to these challenges.

A sexist quote at the top of the page in a French sailing almanac

L’Almanach du Marin Breton also had this quote. Roughly translated, it says: Mini-skirts are like polls: it gives ideas, but it hides the essential. Credit: Louise Ras

My female sailing friends are happy to talk with another woman but struggle to bring up concerns with male team members, partly because it is easy to be labelled ‘a feminist’, which in the context of this male-dominated sport, can have negative connotations.

Most of my male sailing friends are aware and also support women in their teams, but I still get the exhausted sigh and eye roll response from some men wondering when the whole ‘feminism phase’ will be over, or to ‘just let it go, because boys will be boys.’

As well as welcoming more women into sailing, I believe we need to have inclusive conversations with everyone involved in the sport. It is important to address that creating more spaces for women on teams can make men feel left behind and reluctant to help the cause.

Yet it’s crucial to explain how vital female representation is for the future of the sport. I know the conversation is complex, but we have only just made a start.

Are you onboard? We would love to have you on this journey with us.

Enjoyed reading I support women in sailing, but…..?

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