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What do small women sail?

by Susannah Gillam 14 May 2020 22:48 PDT
125 states © Susannah Gillam

Go to a sailing event which has youth classes and it is not unusual to see a lot of girls competing but at senior events, the number of females sailing dinghies drops significantly. With efforts being made in the sailing world to address gender imbalance one hopes that change is coming.

The question is will there be suitable boats for all these women to sail? The World Sailing Trust last year released their strategic review into women's sailing to address gender imbalance.

One of their nine recommendations came under the Gender Design Project which entails experts and influencers looking at the design of equipment across the sport.

This resonates with me as I started Selki Watersport to address some of the difficulties, women face finding performance clothing designed for females. Also important, particularly for the smaller female, is whether there is sufficient choice in dinghies to sail?

When choosing what to sail, particularly One Design classes, consideration needs to be given to crew height and weight as these are key factors for enjoyment and success. Most classes suggest an optimum crew weight and those sailors who deviate significantly from this ideal, can lose out in performance at either end of the wind range (all other things being equal).

This notion is often dismissed as it is known that a boat well sailed by very light or heavy crews will win races. This is true but because many of us are not rock stars in the sailing world, or super fit, we often have to contend with doing well only in conditions that suit this weight surplus or deficit. Choosing a boat that matches crew weight helps level the playing field but the reality is that many classes sailed today, were designed for male crews or small children.

Stating the obvious, men are taller and heavier than women. A look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics over the last 10 years shows a difference of 13.3cm between the average height of men and women and a 15.2kg difference for the average weight.

According to these findings which are summarized below, around a quarter of females fall into the under 60kg category compared to males who represent about 3.5% in this category. When it comes to choosing a boat to sail the choice is limited for under 60kg adults. This is understandable as at this point in time, old classes and the current market is driven by the larger number of males sailing. However, once more women start to embrace dinghy sailing, wouldn't it be good to have a few more craft available for lighter weights?

Currently small females can sail double handers as there is always the option of finding a big person to increase the overall crew weight. The Australian Fireballs seem to have done this fairly well. At a recent National Championship in NSW there were 6 mixed crews out of 15 boats, with 5 of those having female helms. I didn't ask all the female sailors what they weighed but looking at the photo, it is pretty clear that these are not big girls.

Classes that attract family groups also exhibit a good gender and age group mix. At the 2020 Victorian 125 State titles slightly more than half of the competitors were female. This family class caters for light crews. The 125's optimum weight range (100-140 kg) is comparable to those in some youth classes, but whilst juniors compete in these boats, the 125 still attracts adult sailors. Pacer fleets are similar in their numbers of females and tendency to family crews.

Difficulties finding the right boat for light weight women is far more apparent in single handers. For many years, the Sabres have attracted a relatively good number of female sailors and whilst generally not as competitive as men in the strong breezes, the limitations to their performance due to weight, does not seem to be as significant compared to other classes.

Apart from Sabres there is not much choice as most suitable boats have already been claimed as youth classes. Adults can sail these boats but few do. The importance of finding plenty of hot water left in the showers and swapping a few stories in the bar after a race are not to be underestimated. Perhaps labelling a class as Youth does not encourage adult sailors?

For example, the recently cancelled ILCA Masters Worlds in Geelong 2020 did not have a 4.7 category. Only Standard or Radials were included. Whilst suitable boats might exist, it is not always easy to sail them in an adult fleet.

At the moment men outnumber women in dinghy sailing but this should change with the efforts being made around the world and the World Sailing Trust recommendations. When this does, female sailors will be looking for something to sail and these females will include a significant proportion in the light weight category.

In the interim, between now and when market demand grows for more boats to suit the weight range of women, a simple solution is for females to move into some youth classes. For example, the Laser 4.7. It has the benefit of a smaller sail and there are plenty of them in the second hand market, ranging from entry level to almost new.

I am a bit of a fan of the 420's as they are sufficiently under canvassed to allow light weights to get out in strong winds and are common enough to enable purchasers with different budgets, to find a boat to suit. Off water it is important to be able to independently rig the mast and load the boat onto its trailer. The Aero 5 has the advantage of a small sail, a 30 kg hull weight and carbon spars.

Whilst there is nothing to stop adults from sailing a youth class now, a change in focus by national sailing organizations, classes and manufacturers is needed. Without this support to promote, market, and encourage women into these classes, a rebranding to grow adult numbers may not occur naturally.

Further down the track, the development of new classes, along with different rigs for existing classes to cater for this growth in female sailors, would be a step towards reducing the dominance of man-sized boats. Embedded within this approach is acknowledgement that female aspirations for enjoyment, performance and success in competition, encompasses having options to choose the right boat. This is far better than making do with one that doesn't suit.

Whilst there may not be the numbers of women yet let's hope that we support and encourage more to embrace this wonderful sport and that we eliminate as many barriers to this growth as possible.

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