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Home » Sarah Ell Writes About International Women’s Day

In Honour of International Women’s Day, Sarah Ell Writes About Inspirational Women Sailor’s for Dream Yacht Charter’s #MoreWomenAtSea Campaign

In January 1990, a crew of female sailors arrived to huge fanfare in my home town of Auckland, New Zealand. The crew of Maiden arrived in the middle of a hot summer’s night, after completing the tough leg from Fremantle to Auckland in the Whitbread Round the World race. About 14,000 people turned out to welcome them in — and to gape at the sight of a race yacht being successfully sailed around the world by a crew of girls.

I was just a sailor girl myself, then — 19 years old and working as a newspaper journalist covering the yachting round. What better way to combine my two passions? I spent my days writing about sailing and my weekends racing a Sunburst two-handed dinghy with my mates, guys and girls. Tracey Edwards was only a few years older than me, and it was hugely inspirational to see a bunch of female sailors taking on the men at their own game, and succeeding.

Fast forward nearly 30 years, and I went to see a screening of the documentary Maiden at the Auckland Film Festival. A packed cinema shared the highs and lows of reliving the Maiden story, moved to both laughter and tears by the story. But as I and my (women’s) crew members left the theatre, we looked at each other and said, ‘So, has anything really changed?’

Well yes, and no. In those 30 years, only three other Whitbread (now Volvo) entrants has been crewed entirely by women. Thanks to a new rule that encourages female participation in the round the world race (you can take more crew if some of them are women), more women than ever before sailed in the 2018–19 edition of the race. But despite these successes, there still won’t be an all-female team on the start-line in 2021.

And don’t get me started on the America’s Cup. Dawn Riley was a trailblazer when she sailed on the victorious defender America in the 1992 event, then Kiwi Olympian Leslie Egnot became the first woman to helm an America’s Cup yacht in the defender series in 1995. But that’s quarter of a century ago — and where are all the female sailors in the event?

On the positive side, women are doing some great things on the water. New Zealander Bianca Cook, who competed in the 2017–18 Volvo race on Turn the Tide on Plastic, is putting a Kiwi team together for the next event, aiming to be the first female New Zealander to head a team around the world. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will feature four events for women only and one for mixed teams. Inspirational sailors such as Dee Caffari, the first woman to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world in both directions, are actively campaigning to give women greater opportunities in sailing.

And it’s not just at the top level that women are taking part. In my own hometown, amateur women’s racing is alive and well, with a huge resurgence of interest in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s Tuesday night summer series and the women’s keelboat nationals. Last year there were more teams entered than boats available for the nationals — a good problem for the organisers to have. Yachting New Zealand, the sport’s governing body here, has a women’s sailing manager and a specific Women and Girls in Sailing strategy (check it out here: The 2020 Round the North Island two-handed race, currently underway, has seven women taking part, including an all-female pairing. Down at local yacht clubs around the country, girls are lining up to sail Optimists and get into sailing — about a third of the fleet at 2019 New Zealand Opti nationals were female.

And it goes beyond just competing. Many women are actively involved in yacht club management, and working in the marine industry. And, of course, a large number of women are out there on the water as often as they can — not necessarily racing, but cruising, enjoying all the pleasure and satisfaction that boating can bring.

At the end of 2019, the World Sailing Trust released the results of its release Women in Sailing Strategic Review, which sought the opinions of  around 4500 male and female respondents from 75 countries, aged 11–83 from 75 nations, and with a variety of experience across the sport. On its release, Caffari, chair of the World Sailing Trust, said, “The report does not look to replace male sailors with females or compare both sexes against each other. Nor is it for those looking to prove a point or talk about what should have been.

“If we want our sport to progress and move forwards then we need to consider 50 per cent of the population, otherwise we are going to be left behind. This is for all of us to take forwards into the future with a collaborative and cohesive approach to make the sport stronger.”

Initiatives like Dream Yacht Charter’s #MoreWomenAtSea, and organisations such as Yachting New Zealand and the American Sailing Association (with its Women Wake Up Zone campaign) will go a long way towards encouraging girls and women to get into the sport, and stick with it. We have to continue to work to make our sport inclusive, accessible and, most of all, fun.

When my daughter asks me why I go sailing on Tuesday nights, I don’t say it’s because I like to win (although of course, I do). I tell her that it’s because I love hanging out with my friends, and enjoying the sense of camaraderie you get from socialising with like-minded people after some enjoyable physical and mental exercise. I like having goals and working towards them, and the fact that I am always learning (because no matter how long you’ve been sailing, you will never, or can never know it all). I also just being out on the harbour on a sunny summer’s evening, being at one with the ocean and feeling the wind on my face.

These are the reasons I sail, and I hope more and more girls and women can have the opportunity to experience it.


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