What stands in the way of women who want to become sailors?
Broken nails? Messed up hair? Getting drenched? Is sailing really a man's sport? Do women really have to work harder to get involved? I spoke with several successful woman sailors who are currently members of CSC or the Berkeley Yacht Club. I wanted to know how they got involved in sailing, and what it took to stay involved.
Some got into the driver's seat through circumstance. Laraine Salmon helped build a boat and took off to the South Pacific learning to sail as she went along. "When you are cruising, everybody has to drive and it was the best teaching I could get. It's something I always wanted to do."
Bobbi Tosse learned pretty fast that the driest place on the boat was to drive it. "Doing foredeck I would get soaked, and one time after a particularly big wave, I looked back and said 'I want to try that stick thing, it looks dryer!' Then I took some lessons."
For Renee Wilmeth and Caroline Ross, their approach to sailing was different. They both chose this sport with a very definite idea of what they wanted to achieve. Renee wanted to race more than anything else, so she got a boat off the crew list of Latitude 38. The people she met advised her to learn how to sail first.
"I had no desire to learn how to sail dinghies, but after I learned I realized that you can't be good racing crew until you know how to sail and how to sail dinghies. So, following Paul Kamen's advice I joined the CSC."
Caroline started sailing in college on the east coast, then moved to the Bay area, started sailing in Berkeley Yacht Club Friday night races, and then joined the CSC.
For all four of these women, staying involved in sailing has meant racing. I asked them if being a woman made racing harder.
Renee: "Being female has never been a real issue. Being good has. The thing to realize, though, is that size can be a restriction that smaller guys have, too. People now are used to seeing women around and evaluate them on merit. I haven't seen a serious boat campaigning for the season that doesn't consider each crew for the best position, man or woman."
Caroline: "If you want to do something, you have to do it for yourself. You can't have long fingernails or delicate skin because as in any competitive sport, it is tough. The bigger the boat gets, the harder you will have to prove yourself before being noticed. But then, it is up to you to put up with that.
One way women have tried to get around having to "put up with" is to race with women only.
Bobbi: "When I started in the 70's there were not as many women as there are now. And a good way for women to build confidence was to organize their own races."
Laraine: "The Women's Racing Association was part of an evolutionary process. Not many women had their own boats so the guys would let their wives or girlfriends drive for the occasion. Now there are so many more women into sailing, and women owners, it is not as important to have exclusive women events. However, before becoming a skipper, it is important to know how to do everything on the boat, and crewing on other people's boats first is the best way to do it."
So, how different is it to race with women only?
Laraine: "It's a different social mix. You tell jokes about guys you wouldn't tell if they were around."
Caroline: "It is the same sort of crew dynamic. The subjects are different on the way back. It is the same as anywhere else: you always end up with different personalities."
Renee: "It's not always friendly. It can be so competitive it's almost cut-throat."
Bobbi: "It's cockier. They don't yell as much."
In parting, I asked these four experienced sailors what advice they have to women who want to get into sailing or racing:
Laraine: "Be confident. There are a lot of opportunities for women in sailing, it is just a matter of taking advantage of them."
Bobbi: "If you buy a boat first, I definitely recommend to go out in light air so you don't get scared to death. And then keep going out."
Renee: "Just go out and do it. Read books. Go to seminars. Pick excellent boats and learn something on each one. Seventy percent of being good crew is just showing up and commitment."
Caroline: "Go out on dinghies; learn the rules. Then, if you can, buy your own boat. If you keep crewing, find a good set of people who will respect you. The CSC is the next generation of sailors. The percentage of women coming out will increase and the old generation will disappear. So everything is opened..."
Every Yacht Club organizes women events: check the calendars.