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Why No Women at the Helm?




This summer I was visiting my daughter in Seattle and we walked along the locks watching the salmon run and the boats come through. The steady procession of the latter ranged from small weathered fishing boats to megayachts and resembled the lineup we had just seen as we traveled by ferry in the San Juan islands.


Everywhere we went, all of them—every last one—was captained by a man. This was striking to me; when you look around on land you see women driving every manner of vehicle. It made me realize that as many times as I’ve been a passenger on a friend or relative’s boat, I’ve never helmed from start to finish. Yet ask me to parallel park a fifteen-passenger van in Manhattan during rush hour and I won’t blink. Ask me to drive a stick shift truck and back up a trailer full of canoes and I’d ask how far. Driver’s Ed was taught by PE teachers and a part of Berkeley High curriculum when I was in high school but somehow the access, repetition, focus had not come together over the years for me to feel as comfortable navigating a boat in tight berthing or adverse conditions. I got curious about what holds women back from being at the helm. During that Washington trip I remembered the talk Island Yacht Club members had given at BYC about their Women’s Sailing Seminar and resolved to sign up.


This summer I was visiting my daughter in Seattle and we walked along the locks watching the salmon run and the boats come through. The steady procession of the latter ranged from small weathered fishing boats to megayachts and resembled the lineup we had just seen as we traveled by ferry in the San Juan islands. Everywhere we went, all of them—every last one —was captained by a man. This was striking to me; when you look around on land you see women driving every manner of vehicle. It made me realize that as many times as I’ve been a passenger on a friend or relative’s boat, I’ve never helmed from start to finish. Yet ask me to parallel park a fifteen-passenger van in Manhattan during rush hour and I won’t blink. Ask me to drive a stick shift truck and back up a trailer full of canoes and I’d ask how far. Driver’s Ed was taught by PE teachers and a part of Berkeley High curriculum when I was in high school but somehow the access, repetition, focus had not come together over the years for me to feel as comfortable navigating a boat in tight berthing or adverse conditions. I got curious about what holds women back from being at the helm. During that Washington trip I remembered the talk Island Yacht Club members had given at BYC about their Women’s Sailing Seminar and resolved to sign up.


So, I joined 109 other women for Island Yacht Club’s 31st annual Women Sailing Seminar September 8-9. Twenty fantastic volunteers, 25 kick ass women instructors and 25 donated vessels were assembled with us at Encinal and Oakland Yacht Clubs. The Sailing Science Center brought exhibits, the lead volunteers had arranged for keynote speakers who charted their course from neophyte sailers to accomplished heads of sailing programs or professional captains. We had Person Overboard drills, knot- tying instruction, nautical terminology curriculum, delicious catered meals, and lots of time on the water.


To get started, we self-assessed ourselves into one of six categories that ranged from Sea Sprite (beginner who might never have been on a boat) to Sailing Goddesses (those near ready for the ASA or US Sailing certs for boats 30-foot and under). Women also chose whether they wanted their second day focused on cruising or racing with the cruisers headed to the Golden Gate and the racers doing seven short sprints along the estuary.


Most of the instructors I interacted with had gotten their start happily crewing for an encouraging father or grandfather as a young one. Many attendees had less fond memories of family sails with a very stressed parent, boyfriend or spouse screaming out instructions in manners they wanted no part of and were only just now returning to explore sailing again, intrigued with how the dynamics might be different at a course by women for women. In fact, a number of my crewmates owned boats with their partners but had never mustered what it took to feel able enough to take their boats out. There was much discussion of how it took “just doing it” to build confidence and expertise to sail, but a lack of knowledge about how to start, with whom and where, pervaded. The instructors I had totally understood and were beyond patient, great at defusing stress, and keen to skip yelling at all costs. How they managed to stay calm with students in borrowed boats navigating a busy estuary is beyond me, but they did!


I chose the racing day as everyone said one learned the most racing. Whereas the first day had been in a well-loved and maintained 38-foot Catalina, the second was an equally loved 18-foot engineless boat with a tiller that had been rescued from the abandoned vessels scrap corner. Both the cruisers and the racers had an exciting day although I suspect the cruisers were less flummoxed than I by that tiller. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to practice, to commit terms and knots to memory, and mostly get more time on the water. Next fall, I’m likely to sign up again as it was quite an experience to look across the water and see dozens of boats skippered and crewed with beaming women, happy to be out there learning, meeting each other, and figuring out how to trim those sails together.

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davidjaninis
davidjaninis
Nov 19, 2023

https://www.sailingworld.com/racing/womens-sailing-racing-strength-numbers/

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