The 2020 edition of the Vendee Globe has come to a close, and we celebrate one of the most successful editions in the history of the race. 33 skippers took the start line and 25 of these intrepid ocean heroes crossed the finish line in what is considered the closest fought battle in offshore racing history. This edition of the Vendee Globe has something else to celebrate. It had a record breaking six women on the start line of the race.
Historically only seven women have ever taken part in the race, so to nearly double that in one edition was a sure sign of the current strength of women’s offshore sailing.
Ellen MacArthur set the record for 20 years
The Vendee Globe began in 1989 with the first two editions only having men take part. It wasn’t until 1996 when French sailors Isabelle Autissier and Catherine Chabaud competed. Catherine Chabaud finished in 6th place on her boat Whirlpool Europe 2.
But sadly for Isabelle Autissier onboard PRB, a race favourite, her race ended with a broken rudder. She had to stop and repair in Cape Town. She decided to continue with her circumnavigation outside of the race and it was during this part of her voyage that she was required to spend time looking for fellow competitor Gerry Roufs who was sadly lost at sea.
2000 was the edition of the Vendee Globe where British sailor Ellen MacArthur burst onto the scene finishing in 2nd place in her boat Kingfisher. She set a female record that would stand until this recent edition when Clarisse Cremer broke the 20-year-old record of 94 days. Ellen’s boat, Kingfisher, raced in this edition with Didac Costa finishing in 20th place. In the same race in 2000, Catherine Chabaud took part, but sadly had to retire when Whirlpool was dismasted.
Two women always sailed the Vendée Globe – except 2016
In 2004 two new French women took the start line. Anne Liardet in Roxy finishing in 11th place and Karen Leibovici in Benefic finishing in 13th place. Then in 2008, it was the turn of myself and Samantha Davies to participate in the Vendee Globe. 30 boats took the start line in this edition and only 11 boats finished.
It was a war of attrition, yet the girls had a good record going with both of us finishing. Sam in 4th place and myself in 6th. Sam went for the 2012 Vendee Globe, building on her experience of the previous edition, but suffered a dismasting just before the Cape Verde Islands.
2016 was the low point for women in sailing and the Vendee Globe. They were conspicuous by their absence. No women took part, so you can only imagine everyone’s delight when the most recent edition announced the line up and we saw the six females line up on the start line.
We are to grow the interest of our sport to 50 % of the population
We – female sailors – all argue that we are not distinguished by our gender. We are sailors doing the same job on the same bit of water in the same type of boats. This is true, but if we are to grow the interest of our sport to 50% of the population it is good to see women out there on the racetrack for others to follow. Also, if we are to grow the participation levels in our sport, we need role models and inspirational figures to aspire to follow or emulate as the younger sailors forge their own paths.
Next to come is the Ocean Race
The Vendee Globe is seen as the pinnacle solo offshore event. It is held in high regard around the world. Its partner could be considered The Ocean Race, the pinnacle crewed round the world event. It too has been under the spotlight for its female participation. Historically there have been some impressive all female teams, but traction was lost, and momentum was not able to be built upon, resulting in the opportunity to grow experience and develop skills being lost.
In 2014, Team SCA tried to bridge the gap that had been 12 years since another all-female team had entered the race. It was a gap too large to fill in one cycle of the race, although we could all see what could be possible when the team finished in 3rd place in the In Port Race Series and won the leg into Lorient.
Determined not to let this momentum go, Team SCA sailors created The Magenta Project, a legacy project hoping to help nurture talent, provide support, mentoring and pathways to allow new sailors the opportunity to grow their careers.
The rules were changed in 2017 for female sailors
In 2017, to avoid the Ocean Race returning back to a boys only network, the rules were changed to incentivise the teams to be mixed. This was a great approach to make a huge change in the culture of the race.
It was the team’s choice how they formed their crew. An all-male team could only have 7 crew, a mixed team could add 1 or 2 females to that line up and a fully mixed team would be a total of ten crew whereas an all-female team would be 12 sailors.
Suddenly every boat in the race had females in the crew. It was great and a massive opportunity to grow the number of female sailors getting valuable experience. Sailing with more experienced people always allows you to learn so much and this was in a way fast tracking a lot of female sailors.
The other impact this had was giving the men the experience of sailing in a mixed environment. Many are nervous of it because they have never done it before. Once they tried it, they realised it was not a lot different to any other crew they have sailed with.
A mixed line-up does not happen naturally
The lasting legacy of that race is now a mandated rule to include female sailors in a team for the next edition. Whilst we would all like to be selected on merit and ability alone. A mixed line up will not happen naturally. It still needs to be forced. Change is happening but it does take time and confidence is growing.
We all like to sail with who we know and who we trust, and many guys would naturally pick a 100 kg guy over a 70 kg girl, so we need to think about the roles onboard and play to our strengths. This gets tougher as the crew gets smaller as we need to be able to be a jack of all trades, rather than a specialist at just one job.
It seems that the topic of women in sailing has, to date, been a very emotive subject and had no facts to back up any of the arguments. To address this issue and hope to find some solutions that may help our sport move forwards the World Sailing Trust carried out a review.
World Sailing takes a stand
Women in Sailing Strategic Review (here is the original document) was a ground-breaking piece of work to establish where our sport sat at the close of 2019 regarding gender diversity in our sport at all levels from sailors to coaches and officials. float reported in detail about the review, created in collaboration with Andrew Pindar and SAP Qualtrix.
As a result of the information received by the review, nine recommendations were made. Two years on and not a great deal has changed but progress is being made, just a little slower than we all hoped for. But at least there is now a framework to build around and we at the World Sailing Trust can hold our sport accountable.
The first two successes secured last year were a Gender Charter. World Sailing signed the UN’s Women’s Generation Equality Charter on 8th March 2020. On the same day they also actioned an equality policy.
There are ambitions for this year to address the Diversity and Inclusion, and also increasing participation and creating space for women to compete. In addition to that we will be building on the mentoring programmes already being offered by The Magenta Project for example.
Sail GP Inspire as a role model
To enable us to move these ideas forward we need to have a clear understanding that is quantifiable of our sport and where we are right now with regards to a participation study. This has just been released and we are looking for everyone to complete this participation study if you participate in the sport of sailing, no matter what your level.
The World Sailing Trust are looking to address the lack of representation we have in our sport more broadly and look at the BIPOC and BAME involvement in addition to the gender balance we have in our sport.
The World Sailing Trust collaborates with the Sail GP Inspire programme that has been gender balanced from its inception. It is aiming to provide a pathway for young sailors to receive training, coaching and competitive racing in WASZP foiling boats.
This awareness has grown through Sail GP and this winter was the opening of a gender equity initiative. This first year will act as a pilot programme. It aims to train top female sailors to be competitive in the positions of helm, flight controller or wing trimmer onboard the F50 race boats.
Each Sail GP team – Australia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and the United States – has held women’s invitational camps for top female sailors. The aim initially is to have at least one female athlete selected to train and be immersed within each team for Season 2 which begins in Bermuda in April 2021. This will produce the role models and inspirational sailors to follow and give younger sailors someone to aspire to be.
Mother Nature does not care about our gender out on the ocean. We are just sailors doing our job to the best of our ability. That is probably why we love it so much.