Women sailors compete for empowerment and respect

By Sarah Davidson

The all-female crew of Cassiopeia sails Santa Monica Bay ahead of this weekend’s Women on the Water / Women at the Helm Regatta in Marina del Rey. Photo by Southern California sailing photographer Tami Rae / loadedcanon.us.

When photographer Margie Woods completed the 2016 Singlehanded TransPac, a biennial sailboat race in which solo sailors travel from San Francisco to Hawaii, she was the only woman competing. She used a GoPro and iPhone to document her 17-day voyage in “Journey Back to Myself,” a short documentary that appeared in film festivals including last year’s No Man’s Land Film Festival. Alone on board, Woods found companionship in her camera. She spoke straight into it, bolstered by the emergence of wind, rainbows and whale tails, but frustrated by low-wind days and squalls that left her cabin drenched or trashed.

“I love sailing by myself because it really is the only time I feel completely in the present moment and completely myself and completely unapologetic for myself and where I am,” Woods said. “Whether I’m being really big and strong or whether I’m being vulnerable and emotional, I feel 100% un-self-conscious about that.”

But Woods was struck by the fact that she was the only woman going through the experience that year.

“That spurred me to want to do it again, and get more women to the starting line with me in 2020,” she said. So when she got back, Woods started racing with an all-female crew on Wednesday nights in the California Yacht Club’s Sunset Series aboard her boat, Cassiopeia.

“The goal was to bring people together — not just to connect them, but so that we can all lift each other up and inspire each other and teach each other what we know,” Woods said. “And it’s turned out to be just the most incredible experience with these women. It has just surpassed every expectation.”

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This weekend Woods and her crew will participate in the 2018 Association of Santa Monica Bay Yacht Clubs’ Women on the Water / Women at the Helm Regatta, a two-day, female-focused series of races in which sailors compete for three prestigious trophies: the Cheryl Rembert Memorial, the Robert S. Wilson Perpetual, and the Women’s Sailing Association Perpetual.

{Editor’s Note: The WOW/WAH Regatta has been postponed to November.}

The regatta was first held in 1980, after an early ’70s series gave women the chance to race to Catalina Island and spurred a more widespread trend of local clubs offering women-only races. Eventually those races were consolidated into the WOW/WAH Regatta.

Because her crew is all women, Woods will compete in the Women on the Water (WOW) division. By contrast, Women at the Helm (WAH) division crews can be co-ed, competing in WOW/WAH only if a woman is the skipper, or boat leader, that weekend.

Why the distinction between the divisions?

“We needed more boats, and there were more men that owned the boats,” said Jana Davis, junior staff commodore of the Women’s Sailing Association of Santa Monica Bay and a 2018 WOW/WAH participant.

Co-ed teams allow more women to participate, since securing an all-female crew can be difficult, especially for a skipper who’s racing a borrowed boat. The vessels’ high cost can make boat owners hesitant about lending them out without at least one familiar crew member aboard. Often, Davis said, those boat owners and crew members are men.

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While sailing is, stereotypically, a (white) boys’ club, that may be changing. This year was the first that women were members of the team that won the infamously challenging Volvo Ocean Race, in which racers travel about 45,000 nautical miles around the world. This came after a rule change that incentivized crews to include women. It’s also the
first year that a woman skipper won the Clipper Round-the-World Yacht Race, which is similar to the Volvo. And this summer, Ayme Sinclair and her crew of sailors from different countries and backgrounds were featured in CNN’s “Great Big Story,” shining a much-needed spotlight on sailing’s lack of racial and gender diversity.

Waves of change can take a while to crest, though.

“There’s a lot of mansplaining on these boats,” said Hollie Stenson, a 2018 WAH division skipper. Sailors, she said, are very eager to help other sailors learn. But that eagerness to share knowledge can often tip over into ego, though less so on her own boat these days.

“It’s almost inadvertent,” she said. “I know on some boats it’s not, and it could be more outwardly sexist, but when it’s happened to me in the past it’s good guys who are trying to be chivalrous but misinterpret the line.”

Some women feel that there is a more aggressive or intimidating energy to sailing with a male-dominated crew. Being part of a co-ed crew often means women must advocate for themselves and set boundaries, since they sometimes use different physical techniques to accomplish the same tasks as men on board.

“One of your male crew might jump in, thinking that they’re just helping get it done,” Davis said.

Stenson, outreach officer for the Venice Neighborhood Council, said she has had to explicitly tell male crew members to stop stepping in and doing her job for her in the heat of a race.

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Biased assumptions about gender can surface in calmer waters, too. Woods said that despite the fact that she owns her own boat and has completed the Singlehanded TransPac, men in the sailing community will still see her next to her boat in the harbor, walk up to her and begin making suggestions about boat maintenance or sailing technique.

“People look at you like you’re a zoo animal,” Woods said. “I go into Catalina by myself a lot, and people watch you, like, ‘Oh, let’s just see if she can really do this.’ I feel like it’s not that big of a deal. It’s just me doing the same thing that other guy just did over there. I bet they didn’t watch him pick up his mooring.”

Stenson was recently featured on the cover of a special “Learning to Sail” issue of Sailing Magazine, and chose two other women crew members to appear with her. But commenters online thought that she and the other women were hired models, not real-life sailors.

“We actually sail the boat when we’re on the water,” Stenson said. “There’s not a man hiding underneath, sailing the boat for us.”

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While there are plenty of men who are allies to women in the boating community — generous boat lenders, teachers and friends — Del Rey Yacht Club Vice Commodore Laurie Romanak said she thinks women boaters don’t have many role models.

“We need to envision ourselves behind the helm,” she said.

That’s why the women (and men) behind the WOW/WAH are committed to getting women on the water.

“Events like this are crucial because, yes, it is still a male-dominated activity and sport,” Davis said. “There’s no doubt.”

Davis and Woods both described the communication and camaraderie among the all-female crews they’ve sailed with as being unparalleled; those groups tend to be more collaborative and kind-spirited.

Plus, there’s no mansplaining.

“When we see other women docking a boat and taking the helm and taking apart an engine, it really encourages us to do it,” Stenson said. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”


The Women at the Helm / Women on the Water Regatta happens Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25 and 26.

Call (818) 472-2959 or visit dryc.org for more information.

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