Women in sailing: Experiences and growing trends
3rd June 2022 Elena Manighetti
Polynesian sailor and navigator Lehua Kalamu recently made the news when she accomplished a solo crossing of the Pacific Ocean with no maps or technology. She’s the first female captain to lead a Polynesian Voyaging Society spare double-hulled canoe passage. While Australian sailor Lisa Blair just broke the world record for the fastest unassisted voyage around Antarctica.
Women have been setting sailing records for decades. Yet, sailing and professional racing are still male-dominated sports across much of the world. Just count the number of women participating in any local or international race, or look around the dock at your local marina.
The female sailors of today
We have spoken with a number of women to share their sailing experiences. Some grew up sailing, others started later in life. A few are racers and instructors, while several simply cruise for pleasure. There is no set path to becoming a sailor. Yachting can be a hobby, a lifestyle, a job, or a means to sustainable travelling.
Kelly Kolson, 33 from Maryland, started sailing in 2017 after spending much of her free time skiing and whitewater kayaking. Since then, she has participated in various races for the Baltimore City Yacht Association and has been sailing in the Chesapeake region on the boat she and her husband George Currie restored. After a long refit, they sold their house and are about to start cruising full-time. “I sail because of the way it makes me feel: present in the moment,” says Kelly.
Kelly Kolson busy in the boat yard
Kate Laird, 54 from New Hampshire, started sailing when she was just a baby. Her mother owned a 13ft wooden sailing dinghy. Over the years, she tried everything she could: “dinghy sailing, single-handing, working on a square-rigger, and running charters in high latitudes.” She has passed her passion down to her children and has taken them cruising ever since they were little. The kids have fled the nest now, but Kate still lives on a sailboat full-time with husband Hamish in Prince William Sound (Alaska).
Once a hardy yachtswoman who enjoyed sailing in heavy weather, Kate now loves “the ability to go out into a remote region and tie up snugly with four lines ashore, hike the hills, paddle a SUP, or drift around watching whales and seabirds."
Kate Laird aboard Seal in South Georgia, picture credit: © Hamish Laird
Ienke Keijzer, 47 from the Netherlands, lives in the South of France, where she took up sailing over 20 years ago and sails as much as she can, mostly alone, in her spare time. She says: “In the summer, I usually go on a solo-sailing trip for 4 to 6 weeks. I have just left for a 10-week sailing adventure with my new boyfriend - we met at a marine weather training course.”
Ienke Keijzer aboard SV Tanguera
Brioni Cameron, 35 from the UK, cruises full-time with husband Iain in the Caribbean. She has done a little sailing in Scotland with her family while growing up. But it wasn’t until Iain suggested they lived on a sailboat that she took the sport seriously.
Having planned to buy a boat in the Caribbean, they sold their apartment and possessions in 2020, so they “ended up homeless during the pandemic, hitchhiking [their] way across 9 countries aboard different yachts to finally find a boat that [they] could call home.”
But cruising isn’t all about sailing for Brioni. “Sailing is just a means of accessing what I love - a way to experience freedom, to be at one with the ocean, and to reach new places.“ Many men and women feel this way; sailing can be a fantastic means to practice slow travel to remote places.
Mae Kelley on Willow
For some women, sailing is a way of life. Marín (9), Mae (7), and Rosie (6) Kelley have been sailing on big sailboats in the Bay Area for the past 6 years. They currently live aboard Willow, a 46ft ketch, with parents Carolyn and Brian in Santa Cruz (California). The girls sail Optimist dinghies with the Nuevo Vallarta Yacht Club three times a week.
Mae (7) says: “I love Willow because all of our friends come together to sail her.” When asked how she learned to love sailing, Rosie (6) exclaims: “I don’t even remember not loving sailing!“ Marín (9) explains: “when I moved to Mexico I felt kind of lonely. The Optis program helped give me a real home here.” Sailing is an integral part of these girls’ lives. They often refer to people’s living rooms as “the main cabin” and their front doors “the companion way.” Willow and the Kelleys are taking part in the 2022 Baja Ha-Ha Cruisers Rally soon.
Monica Kendrik, 59 from Florida, has been sailing for many years. She recently gained her USCG licence and her first instructor rating with ASA. She says: “I sail in whatever capacity I can find. Doing so has allowed me to be exposed to a variety of roles and philosophies. When I participate in recreational racing I learn about sail trim, strategy, and how to move quickly and safely about the boat. As crew on deliveries the emphasis is on getting the boat from point A to point B as efficiently as possible.”
Jennifer Carroll, 36 based in Virginia, is a former junior sailing racer, race coach, varsity college sailor, and more. She says: “Sailing is the primary way that I connect with nature and one of the only activities where I can provide my full and undivided focus.”
Jennifer Carroll on Zuma
Women in sailing
When it comes to professional sailing, the data is clear. According to the World Sailing Trust / Women in Sailing Strategic Review 2019, in 2018, only 24% of The Ocean Race participants were female; while in 2021, women skippers made up 21% of Vendée Globe competitors. The stats were much lower in the Rolex Fastnet (10%), the Route du Rhum (4%), and the 52 Super Series (1.4%) in 2019. Progress is happening - more opportunities are now provided for all-female crews - though it’s slow. In a non-professional context, it’s very hard to call the numbers.
According to Kelly, “it isn’t unusual to see at least a couple of women crew on each of the boats in local races.” Kate remarks: “A lot of times, I see couples out cruising where the man is keen to be there, and the woman not so much. That was very common in the 90s, but increasingly less so.”
Ienke thinks that: “Unfortunately, [sailing] is still a male-dominated activity. Now that I’m sailing with a male partner, I notice I have to ‘fight for my captain rights’, to avoid being relegated to a member of the crew who just cooks and sunbathes. But we're finding a way to balance a boat with two captains on board.“
Susan Davis, 53 based in Toronto, lives aboard Sólfar, a 40ft bluewater ketch with her wife Amanda Yilmaz. She comments: “My wife and I don't have that gendered dynamic, being two women, but she's new to sailing and I've been sailing since I was 5, so there's a huge knowledge gap between us. Amanda has specialised in learning how to care for the electrical system and the engine, and she's taking courses to learn.”
Susan Davis and wife Amanda Yilmaz aboard Sólfar
What’s holding women back in sailing?
Boats are generally built to be handled by strong, tall-ish, and fit men. So non-professional female sailors are at a slight physical disadvantage. However, any boat can be adapted to suit a woman skipper to make raising the mainsail or lifting the dinghy less strenuous. Women who aim to become professional sailors or amateur racers can also prepare by hitting the gym regularly and building the necessary muscles to carry out any task aboard a vessel.
Susan says that in order to sail, “you need to be sporty, independent, and handy - things that the dominant culture discourages for women. There are plenty of women in dinghy racing, but they disproportionately tend to be put forward as crew, and not encouraged to take the helm.” She continues: “Among cruisers, there's a common 'pink and blue jobs' dynamic, where anything involved with actual sailing or the maintenance of the boat is put in men's hands, and women are expected to cook, clean, provision, and not expected to be competent at the handling of the boat.”
Brioni says that: “I can only speak from my own experience, but confidence and physical strength are a huge barrier for me.”
Brioni and husband Iain Cameron aboard their catamaran Indioko
Facebook group Women Who Sail (WWS), founded by Charlotte Kaufman in 2011, attracts thousands of new members every year. It’s a space where women and non-binary people can ask for advice, share tips, and provide support over being a woman in the sailing world.
Many members don’t feel comfortable asking novice questions on sailing groups open to men, as they are worried they will get bullied. This is due to the discriminatory, condescending culture unfortunately still present in many sailing circles. According to the World Sailing Trust / Women in Sailing Strategic Review 2019, 65% of 167 women involved in race management have experienced gender-based discrimination. Over 4,529 survey respondents, 42% believed gender discrimination in sailing exists and over 30% offered concrete examples.
Monica says: “I have talked with women who are ‘out there’ not because they wish to be, but because they are supporting their spouse. Many wish to be proficient, but simply can’t learn from their partners. As a result they don’t seek training that would allow them to be empowered and equal.“
Monica Kendrik and Ginger on Tackless Too - a friends' boat
“I see change happening in the sailing world[, though], “ continues Monica. “Many big races now require female crew members. There are women, albeit few, in the commercial maritime world. And the cruising world is home to several female single-handed YouTube channels.”
“Usually the first response when we pull into a marina as a boat of only women is widened eyes and swivelling necks, if not full-on open mouths,” comments Ellie Gilchrist, 23 from Canada. She continues: “The boats we’re headed to dock beside generally look nervous, and certainly watch us closely, sometimes putting out extra bumpers.” Ellie sails and races aboard Sea Sondering, a C&C Landfall 38, in the Caribbean with three female Canadian friends - Jocelyn McLaren, Sarah Sims, and Laura McPhedran. Jocelyn grew up sailing, Ellie started at 19, while Sarah and Laura learned on Sea Sondering. The girls recently completed the 2022 Antigua Race Week, winning first place for the all-women crew award. They were the only boat in the category.
The Sea Sondering crew celebrating their win at Antigua Race Week
Women say they tend to be largely underestimated when it comes to sailing, which in turn undermines their confidence and sense of belonging. According to many female sailors, women need to prove themselves in order to be trusted with important jobs on a boat.
Ellie explains: “One of the most gratifying parts about being a female sailor is watching peoples’ perceptions of what a sailor looks like change right in front of your eyes. We might be the first all-women crew they see, but maybe next time they come across a boat full of women they won’t be so shocked or doubtful of our abilities. We don’t sail to be ‘women sailors’, we sail because it’s an incredible, intoxicating life and because we love it. It just happens that we are women.“
Getting more involved and gaining confidence
There are lots of ways in which women who live on sailboats or whose partner owns a yacht, can get more involved in the sport. Taking the initiative is the best way to start.
Brioni explains: “[My husband and I] are very intentional about switching roles regularly to ensure that we are both confident in all areas of sailing, so that if we ever find ourselves in an emergency, either one of us can take the helm confidently if the other is injured.“
Marg Crandell, 55 from Canada, sailed from British Columbia to New Zealand and back with her husband Jay and two teen daughters in 2007-2009 aboard Malachi, a Tayana 48 cutter-rigged sloop. Setting off on a long ocean crossing as a family is daunting - who will be seasick? What watch system will work best? Who will be in charge in heavy weather?
Marg recalls: “We settled into a rhythm and shared night watches between dinner and breakfast.” Both girls took a few watches every day, gaining confidence each time. “The vibe on board was calm and relaxing,” she says. “Regardless of what everyone else was doing throughout the day, we would always gather together in the cockpit for meals.”
Marg and husband Jay Crandell on SV Malachi
How women can get into sailing from scratch
“People in the sailing community are super friendly,” reassures Kelly. There are many ways to get started. She recommends “learning by crewing on a race boat with a captain open to newbies, taking a hands-on sailing course, or getting involved in a sailing centre.”
Brioni says: “It might help to hire a professional instructor, rather than learning from a friend or family member. It can be more beneficial to learn at your own pace, rather than joining a class with your partner.”
“If you're crewing on a boat, stick around for the refits,” recommends Kate. “A lot of it will be scraping barnacles and cleaning decks, but taking a boat apart is the best way to learn how to take care of it at sea.”
Monica says: “The most important advice I would offer is to not tolerate being taught through trauma. Instructors, captains and or crew mates who yell, belittle, or dismiss you need to be left behind immediately.” She urges: “Ask a million questions. Ask for explanations.”
According to Susan: “Offering girls and younger women the right encouragement to help get them into sailing, and to love it enough to stick with it, can help create a critical mass of women in sailing for the future.”
Holly Scott, 67 from California, is a solo sailor, licensed captain, ex sailing instructor, and charter business owner. She started single-handing when she was just a kid, taking her Sabot out in Alamitos Bay and playing at being a pirate or a castaway.
Her whole life has revolved around sailing, so much so that she turned her passion into a career and taught her daughter Katie to sail when she was very young. Now the two sailors act as captains on the sailing adventures they organise through their company - Mahalo Sailing. Holly says: “I enjoy being out there alone, just like I did as a kid.”
Holly and Katie Scott
A cultural shift is needed to see a significant increase in female sailors across the world. In circles where the change has already happened, we can see a much higher number of women participants - both crew and captains.
To spread this positive growing trend, we should all challenge condescending attitudes and discrimination towards women at the dock, as well as encourage girls and young women to fulfil their ambitions, rather than overlooking their abilities. Ultimately, seeing more female sailors and having women role models in the sport will give them more confidence in their abilities. Organisations like the World Sailing Trust have finally started committing to increasing the number of opportunities for women in the industry - something that is sorely needed.
Kate and Anna Laird in South Georgia aboard Seal in 2007, picture credit: © Hamish Laird