Home SailingSailboat Racing No Ordinary Women, Just Extraordinary Sailors

No Ordinary Women, Just Extraordinary Sailors

by Kurt Hoehne

It seems every few years there has to be a women’s sailing challenge, as if it’s something that’s never been done before.

No disrespect, but I think the time has passed when we all have to drop what we’re doing and say, “Wow, there’s a racing sailboat crewed by women.” Any racer worth his or her salt knows that women can sail just as hard as men.

In the coming year, expect to hear a lot about Team SCA, aka the women’s boat, in the Volvo Ocean Race that circles the globe. The public relations machine is in high gear with a TV series called No Ordinary Women devoted to Team SCA. By the time the race starts in on October 11, 2014 the interest in Team SCA should be at a fever pitch. And that’s great. (According to Team SCA the shows will be broadcast digitally in the US later this year. I’ll post the specifics on nwyachting.com when they’re announced.)

Sailing needs more women, and if the Volvo P.R. helps things along, great. But I sure hope they don’t present this women’s team as unique. It’s not true and doesn’t give enough credit to the women who already paved the way in sailing at the very highest levels.

America’s Cup video

One of those earlier all-women’s efforts, the America³ effort of 1995, is also in the news these days.

The fascinating 16-minute film Uncharted Waters about that effort was just released by ESPN as part of its Nine for IX series about women athletes, made by women filmmakers.

The film makes two things crystal clear.

First, the women were going toe-to-toe with the men’s teams. There were many outstanding sailors on that team who adapted their skills from other sailing disciplines to the arcane world of the America’s Cup. Their biggest challenge was one of gaining experience with those boats quickly enough.

The second thing the film, and Gary Jobson’s commentary about the film, make clear is how tragic mistakes could have been avoided. Those who were tuned into that event might remember that Bill Koch replaced J.J. Fetter (aka J.J. Isler) as tactician with David Dellenbaugh in the final stages. Head honcho Bill Koch was well within his power to change the team he was paying for, but the crew must have felt powerless. Powerless is not a good feeling in an athletic event.

By the way, the film suggests (and Bill Koch said so in a statement to the team) that the decision was prompted by multiple requests from crewmembers. Dawn Riley’s comments seem to back that up. Sounds like management issues.

And if the crew felt powerless over that, they must have felt even worse learning that a backroom deal made their final victory over Dennis Conner in the round robin series meaningless.

The America³ failure may have had less to do with a gender question and more to do with employer-employee relations.

So what about strength?

In introducing the women’s America’s Cup team concept in 1994, Bill Koch referred to sailing as a “man’s sport.” That’s bull, and someone with more perspective should have told him so.

What’s the difference between men and women onboard? The only obvious one is strength, though there’s no denying some women sailors are stronger than the men aboard a given boat. But there’s also no denying that usually men are bigger and stronger. Fortunately, ever-improving sail handling equipment makes that difference less relevant all the time.

Certainly, strength comes in handy at times. But that is not as important as most people think, and not very important for finding a weekend warrior crew spot. Seeing a wind shift or an equipment failure before it happens, or being able to manage the reams of instrument data, are all more important than the extra five seconds it might take to trim in the sail during a tack. An eye for sail shape or a feel for the helm are so much more important than strength, it’s laughable.

Women Sailing Heros

Virtually every crew I’ve raced with in 40 years has included both men and women, usually with women in primary roles. In fact, I’ve often wondered if women are naturally better helmsmen (Yes, I said helmsmen, I’m pretty sure it’d be OK with them.)

There are plenty of anecdotes of men assuming a woman on board was the cook, or grabbing a line out of a woman’s hand because they thought she didn’t have the strength. But the women (or their shipmates) in those situations usually straighten them out in a hurry.

None of this is meant to suggest that there are no prejudices out there, or that earning a crew spot is as easy for a woman as it is for a man. It’s usually not. Aspiring amateur women sailors need to learn the skills, keep a positive attitude, and keep asking for the job onboard they want. Incidentally, those are exactly the same points for aspiring male sailors. Doing just those things quickly earns the respect of the skipper and crew.

There’s no shortage of women sailors and racers for all of us to look up to. Here are some of mine. NOTE: I say “some” of mine. There are many others, just too little room/ time to cover them here. I invite you to share stories of your favorites. I’ll be happy to post them on nwyachting.com!


Susan and Eric Hiscock
Jessica Watkins

Susan Hiscock: With husband Eric, Susan Hiscock cruised for 50 years and authored nearly a dozen books. She doublehanded around the world by sextant and without all of today’s amazing sail handling equipment. And she did it well into her 70s.

Jeanne Socrates: Last year the then 70-year-old Socrates completed her solo circumnavigation aboard Nereida, and this summer she’s in Mexico refitting Nereida for more cruising.

Jessica Watson: At the other end of the age spectrum is Jessica Watson. She solo circumnavigated at age 16, but her most impressive accomplishment may be how well she handled the publicity, which in sailing crazy Australia was overwhelming.



Skipper Tracey Edwards, in the middle in this photo, during a Whitbread stopover.

Dame Ellen MacArthur: The 5’2” Ellen MacArthur was the woman to change the minds of anybody who thought a woman couldn’t compete. She finished second in the 2000 Vendee Globe and set the singlehanded non-stop circumnavigation record in 2005. Since retiring from racing, she created the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help create a more sustainable world economy.

Tracey Edwards: While I wasn’t a Tracey Edwards fan at the time, I am now. As a 27-year-old woman she crashed the male world of the Whitbread Round the World Race and put in a very well respected finish of second in class. Among her post-racing achievements is foundforing the Safer World Training Courses that deals with Internet safety for kids and women’s self defense, among other things. In the last few months, Edwards has been on a mission to rescue her old boat, Maiden. She has apparently raised the funds and rounded up much of her old crew to sail the boat back from Capetown, South Africa, where she now lies.


Carol Buchan: Carol Buchan is one of the finest all around racing sailors in the Northwest. Whether it’s driving a 505 or a keelboat, she’s the one to watch. Interestingly, some of her greatest early learning experiences were in the Laser class, which is usually sailed by much bigger, stronger men. She learned quickly how to depower and master a boat when brute force and ample size weren’t options.

Carol Hasse: We’re lucky to have Carol Hasse in our neighborhood. Owner of Port Townsend Sails, she produces sails that are world renownfoundfor their durability and outstanding handwork. But more than that, Hasse shares her knowledge of offshore preparation and voyaging through seminars. She delivers this expertise in an inviting way and has set many cruisers off in the right direction.


Then there’s Team SCA

Of course, Team SCA has nothing but amazing sailors aboard, but here are some worth noting.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Team SCA posed for a P.R. shot.
Team SCA sending it downwind.
Strength is always a factor.
Sisters Mattraux.
Team SCA preparing for the Volvo Ocean Race

Sally Barkow: One of the two Americans onboard, Wisconsonite Barkow will be adapting her dinghy and match racing skills to an entirely different animal, the Volvo 65.

Dee Caffari: Caffari has sailed around the world three times, and done it in both directions. She’s a veteran of the BT Challenge, Vendee Globe Race and the Barcelona World Race. This will be a new challenge for her, and her resourcefulness will surely come in handy.

Sam Davies: Davies is an experienced and successful singlehander whose positive attitude just seems indefatigable. She’s also a “mum,” with her son Ruben getting some care from his grandparents while Davies is racing.

Justine Mattraux: Justine Mattraux finished second in the Series Class of the tough Mini Transat last year. That’s says plenty. She and her sister Elodie will be the Swiss contingent on the primarily British boat.

I’ll watch all the installments of No Ordinary Women, and I’ll root for Team SCA (along with the American- led Alvimedica). Wouldn’t it be great if they won?

Then, next time around, there might not be a woman’s boat. Just a bunch of mixed-crew boats.

Now that would really be something to write about.

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Jeanne Socrates September 3, 2014 - 00:06

Very interesting article – with many highly valid points… but I was somewhat disappointed to see no mention of the fact that I’ve actually circumnavigated solo three-and-a-half times, with the last one finally succeeding in being solo NONSTOP and unassisted – which I’d attempted to do twice before – all without any shore team as back up. (As part of those attempts, I’ve been twice around Cape Horn and three times through the Southern Ocean – all solo and unsupported.)
Re ‘helmsman’ … These days you often see ‘Chair’ in place of ‘Chairman’ or ‘Chairwoman’ so maybe ‘Helm’ could be similarly used as a ‘safe’ alternative? Or why not just refer to ‘helming’ or ‘at the helm’ – no gender problem there!
P.S. Yes – it will be a day to write home about if ever there’s a major racing event with mixed crews onboard…. not just a women’s team as a ‘curiosity’! Good luck to them ! That’s quite a team they’ve got together – they should do really well …

Kurt Hoehne September 3, 2014 - 00:08

Thanks, Jeanne. Mea Culpa, I certainly didn’t mean to cheat you out of 2.5 circumnavigations! And yes, I usually lean on “helm” and “helming” in my writing to avoid that gender issue, but I (and I’m sure others) am not thinking much about gender when I slip up and say helmsman. Old habits die hard.

Thanks for taking the time to check in. We look forward to your next visit to the Pacific Northwest!


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