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"Hey, You Can't Do That!"

By Joe Cooper

By any measure, sailing is a male-dominated activity. This is slowly changing. In over 35 years in the sail & boat game I had not had one woman call me to inquire about equipment for herself. Yet in the past 12 months I’ve received calls from four women, and after chatting for a few minutes it was obvious they were shopping on their own account for sails for their own boats.

Racing is, with few exceptions, co-ed. There is high school and college sailing, and the Nacra co-ed catamaran in the Olympics. You will find women in the crew and occasionally steering at regattas large and small. The entry list for Block Island Race Week 2015 includes, so far, three boats entered under a woman’s name. And for the three of us who follow such races, the Vendée Globe has had women in the last few editions and there is a women sailing in the Barcelona World Race right now, as one member of a double-handed crew.

I coach the Prout School Sailing Team in Wakefield, RI, and more than half the team are girls. All of this has me thinking about mentoring for young girls interested in sailing, which led me to call one of the most experienced female sailors in the US.

Martha Parker has sailed on the bow of more boats than most guys, let alone girls, and runs her extremely successful Team One business in Newport. She’s enjoyed a long career as a sailing instructor, professional sailor, sailing retailer and industry leader, and I figured her experience might shed some light on how to get more women into big boats.  

To the question: “How did you get to the bow?” she laughed, “To escape my brothers!” She was one of six kids, so she and her sister used to head to the bow to get away from four brothers when sailing on the family yacht. By default, this gave her experience in a traditionally male-dominated position. I asked her for advice to teenage girls who sail and want to do more, but might feel overwhelmed by the predominance of males on a boat.

“Make sure you really love sailing. If you do, the rest will follow. Sailboat racing is a true meritocracy and attitude counts for a lot. Even if you’re not the absolute best skilled person for the spot, if you can do the job and have the right attitude 99% of male sailors will in essence pay no attention to the fact you are a woman. Rather, you are part of the crew – one of the guys.”

Martha’s skills earned her a spot on an Ultimate 30. These hair-on-fire, free-for-all boats had almost no restrictions except LOA and beam. Racing a 30-foot monohull that looked like a Terminator version of an Aussie “eyedeen” on dedicated courses in front of TV cameras and spectators going wild ashore – at 25 knots and sometimes stopping abruptly – was its own steep learning curve. Practice days invariably turned into fix-the-boat days. Working on every aspect of the construction, layout and operation of a racing sailboat taught her much. “No one has the monopoly on good ideas,” she asserts. “Critical thinking is valuable and you learn a million things about how to fix stuff, all of which are huge confidence builders.”

Martha’s WOW! moment happened on the Ultimate 30 circuit. During a crucial race, a crew hiking rack failed they and ended up in the drink in spectacular fashion as their nearest challenger zoomed by, heading for the barn. In a Hollywood ending the troops righted the boat, jury-rigged the rack and beat the other boat by the length of a whisker from a four o’clock shadow. “We just kept pushing,” she recalls. “We never gave up.”

Ironically, says Martha, “There was never anyone telling me, ‘You can’t do that.’ The men in those days just assumed I would fail, so having not been told I could not do something, I just went out and did it. Sailboat racing is about your own performance on the boat - pushing yourself, more or less regardless of the result for the boat. If you like to improve yourself daily, for the rest of your life, sailing is the ideal activity, but you have to be passionate. If you suffer setbacks, work hard to brush them off. In many cases it is not you, but the circumstances.”

Much coffee and beer is being consumed on the topic of engaging young sailors and keeping them in the sport, the adventure and the life that is sailing. Well, here is the other 50% of the population, dead keen to sail, light and agile (perfect for the bow), smart and, today, much less inclined to be told ‘You can’t do that.’

Ladies and gents, there is a vast pool of young sailors out there. Invite them to sail weeknights, on deliveries, out to watch an interesting regatta, test new sails or down to the yard to work on the boat. The dead keen ones will be there in a flash. If a young sailor says, ‘Yes’ to an afternoon of wet sanding, cleaning winches, wiring the new GPS, (there are girls on high school robotics teams) or any job on a boat in exchange for sailing, you have a dedicated crew today and for the future.

Joe Cooper Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/ Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.


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  • commented 2015-03-10 13:18:28 -0400
    Sailing on less famous boats with my less famous sails I found a vast pool of talented crew on the docks waving good bye to their male friends. The fact that two of the boats I campaigned (Goetz/Kaufman 3/4 ton “Skyhook” and the NA 40 “Mischief”) were owned by couples who were both active crew in every race made it easier to add female crew. On Skyhook Sandy King was on the helm while Ken navigated and made soup. We did an Edgartown Regatta on her where 3 of the 6 aboard were ladies. A year or two later on the Marblehead to Edgartown race on Sorcery (ex Equation) we had several ladies, most notably Sheila McCurdy. Tell your team to knock on every hull and look for the boats where women are not rejected. On smaller boats women are much better than hulking guys on the bow.
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