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Women in the Rolex Fastnet Race

by James Boyd / RORC 7 Jun 2023 07:01 PDT 22 July 2023
Tor Tomlinson clutching the Fastnet Challenge Cup after winning the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race overall on Tom Kneen's British JPK 11.80 Sunrise © Paul Wyeth / pwpictures.com

Prior to the last few editions of the Rolex Fastnet Race we have featured some of the key women competing in that year's event, demonstrating how female participation in offshore yacht racing is very much alive at every level, albeit in smaller numbers compared to men.

What percentage of the fleet would you think are women? 5%? 10% 20%? 30%? Currently we don't have the figure for this year's race, but we do have exact numbers for 2021 (at the end of this article).

Here is a cross section participating in this year's race:

Sam Davies (GBR), Initiatives Coeur, IMOCA class

Very much a leading light of women's sailing, Davies is originally from Portsmouth but has lived in France for more than two decades, working her way up through the shorthanded classes. Her first participation in the Vendée Globe was in 2008 when she finished a most creditable fifth on the first older generation boat home. In 1998 she had been part of Tracy Edwards' Royal & SunAlliance all-women's attempt on the non-stop around the world record and then skippered Team SCA, the all-female entry in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race. Recently returned from competing on a leg of the Ocean Race, today she is campaigning her own first brand new IMOCA, Initiatives Coeur. This cleverly set-up campaign revolves around raising money for charity: for any new likes/follows on her social media channels, three companies pay money to Mecenat Chirurgie Cardiaque, which carries out vital heart operations on under privileged children from the third world.

The Rolex Fastnet Race is significant for Davies as during her gap year it provided her first offshore racing experience aboard a 40 footer belonging to pro-sailor Gerry Mitchell's parents.

"At the time you don't realise what an amazing opportunity they have given you. Especially when you are young, you have to sell yourself well, but at the time you just take it for granted. I can't thank Tim and Liz enough for what they did for me." There followed an internship with yacht designer Rob Humphreys, but it was meeting people along the way that led to her becoming a well-known bowman, then getting her a spot on Royal & SunAlliance. Aside from her first with the Mitchells and another on Team SCA, on all her other Rolex Fastnet Races she has been the sole woman on board.

Davies' area of the sport - short-handed offshore racing - is one of the few where there is a level playing field between the sexes, with women having enjoyed occasional victories: notably Ellen MacArthur's OSTAR and Route du Rhum wins (plus her second place in the 2000-01 Vendée Globe); Florence Arthaud's 1990 Route du Rhum win; Isabelle Autissier's BOC Challenge leg win, etc. In the next Vendée Globe there will be at least five female competitors. "The cool thing is that they are all top sailors with projects with sponsors who are serious and have been there for a long time, (it is not their first Vendée Globe). They have all got foilers, with the high potential to get good results.

"Also, what I think is good is that there is at least one male skipper who has chosen a female co-skipper for the Transat Jacques Vabre. Until now the only female IMOCA sailors were the skippers. This is a sign of trust and respect in the sailing world."

Tor Tomlinson (GBR), JPK 11.80 Sunrise, IRC 2

Perhaps one of the best recent advertisements for women's sailing has been Tom Kneen's JPK 11.80 Sunrise, winner of the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race when their crew of eight included two women - Tor Tomlinson Cheney and Suzy Peters. On this, during starts, Tomlinson Cheney trims main while Peters is co-navigator with Tor's husband Tom Cheney, and is pit/back-up driver. When they competed in December's Rolex Sydney Hobart three women were on board, including experienced navigator Adrienne Cahalan (also ex-Royal & SunAlliance).

"Suzy is a very good sailor in her own right and we are all friends," explains Tomlinson Cheney. "When we had three girls it was pretty cool, but it did show a little bit because there are times when you do need some man power, but when you have got Dave Swete, and all the other guys are 90+kg, it doesn't matter."

So is it becoming any easier for women to get spaces on boats like this? "I think as an amateur 'yes'. There are two different sides: Doublehanded sailing is becoming more prevalent, so it is harder for people to go sailing, but the reason that is becoming more prevalent is that people are struggling to find crew. So there are more opportunities. The hardest part is finding the right team that you fit in and want to give up your weekends for."

Sunrise is returning to defend her title but is slightly behind schedule having yet to go in the water following repair work to her boom and rudder, broken during the Rolex Sydney Hobart. They are entered in the Morgan Cup and St Malo races with some small modifications, including the fitting of a spinnaker pole from which they will fly A-sails to improve their VMG downwind performance.

Astrid de Vin (NED), JPK 10.30 Il Corvo, IRC Two

If female crew are in the minority, a rarer breed still are female owners in the IRC fleet. One of the most competitive is Astrid de Vin from the Netherlands. This will be her fourth Rolex Fastnet Race and her second doublehanded having previously raced one this way with her previous Grand Soleil 43.

Recently de Vin has committed to racing offshore doublehanded with her experienced co-skipper Roeland Franssens, who has completed at least 10 races around the Irish rock.

"For me personally after 10 years of racing inshore in Holland, I wanted more of a challenge. With racing offshore no race is the same." To race shorthanded offshore she acquired the JPK 10.30, the same design as the IRC Two-Handed class winner in the last two Fastnet races.

Professionally, De Vin's background is in the PR and communications business. Being one of an exclusive group of female owners, she says: "That is true - lucky me! You have to have the possibility financially do it and I really like racing offshore." She is looking forward to integrating with the UK IRC doublehanded community which itself includes many women, and even a few female owners like Kate Cope with her Sun Fast 3200 Purple Mist.

En route to the Rolex Fastnet Race she will compete in the Round the Island Race, La Trinite-Cowes and the St Malo race.

Jenny Taylor-Jones (GBR), S&S 39 Sunstone, IRC Four

In the IRC fleet many entries are family affairs and this year one of the strongest will be the Ipswich-based Taylor-Joneses - Will and Jenny with their daughter Issy and Will's brother Tom, supplemented by two of Issy's friends. Will Taylor-Jones is known for running Fox's Marina in Ipswich, but their boat is more famous - the legendary Sunstone which Tom and Vicky Jackson raced so successfully over the late 1980s and early 1990s before embarking on a massive round the world cruise. The Taylor-Joneses acquired her in New Zealand in 2021.

"It is slightly daunting to take on a boat with that much history!" admits Jenny Taylor-Jones, who only took up sailing after meeting her husband. Around the same time the Jacksons were campaigning Sunstone, they were racing the family S&S34 Deer Stalker, then a Mount Gay 30. "Then we had kids and stopped for a while before starting on our wooden boat journey with our Folkboat." Sadly their son suffered greatly from seasickness which limited their sailing to East Coast estuaries. Daughter Issy is more enthusiastic.

As to how women's racing has evolved since she began, Jenny says this is most apparent with her daughter's sailing. "She did a lot of dinghy sailing and I drove her around to a lot of events. She sailed Teras and Feva and RS sailing is very much aimed at including girls in a very equal way. When they are 13-14, sports at school are very segregated according to sex, but sailing wasn't like that."

This will be Jenny's fourth Rolex Fastnet Race and the family's first on Sunstone. Typically, she does all the navigation pre-planning, but on board they approach race tactics communally. "I am looking forward to it. I was a bit apprehensive at first, because I thought 'I am not 25 anymore'. In fact you don't feel any different, just a little bit slower."

Shirley Gervolino (FRA/GBR), Beneteau 47.7 EH01, IRC One

Aside from the Australian entries, getting the prize for 'furthest travelled' will be Shirley Gervolino, who is coming all the way from the French south Pacific territory of New Caledonia to race on Global Yacht Racing's 'pay to play' First 47.7 EH01.

Gervolino was born in England to an English father, grew up in France, married a Neopolitan with whom she ended up in New Caledonia 30 years ago. Professionally she is a GP, but today concentrates on hospital strategy and analysis, including digitising the hospital's records.

She has sailed all her life, dinghy racing in the south of France during her childhood on board Optimists, 470s and 505s. She too gave up sailing when she had a family, returning to the sport in 2007 with a vengeance. This included competing in the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race - she tries to compete in one major offshore race of 600-1000 miles annually. These have included the Rolex Sydney Hobart, last year's Rolex Middle Sea Race, Auckland to New Caledonia, New Caledonia to Vanuatu and her local Round New Caledonia Race, as well as regattas in Europe and the Caribbean.

"I like offshore races, but I like coastal too, which I do on a regular basis." Often she races with 'pay to play' teams, as will be the case in this year's Rolex Fastnet Race, but also with friends as she will then do at Cowes Week before sailing with a company from Norway to Iceland to learn astro-navigation.

In New Caledonia women who race are relatively few. There she is currently part of an all-female crew which competes in the Round New Caledonia race and is involved in an association which encourages women to get afloat.

"I like mixed crews, but I am quite disappointed because you always have to prove yourself when you are a woman. There are some roles on the boat you are not allowed to do and it is very frustrating. But then every year I go overseas with a paying crew, so at least I can enjoy different roles then."

Going forward she wishes to buy her own yacht.

Tinka Visser (NED), J/109 Jybe Talkin, IRC Three

Despite being the youngest woman featured here, aged 19, Tinka Visser from Groningen has accumulated considerable experience.

She comes from a sailing family and went through the usual Oppie and Laser classes before getting into keelboat racing in a big way from the age of 16. She spent a year as part of Dutch round the world sailor Hans Bouscholte's VO60 Boudragon campaign, culminating in the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race. She continues: "After school, the ball was rolling and I ended up on the Swan 65 King Legend and did races and some deliveries with that." Her network got even wider when during her gap year she spent time at Doyle Sails UK. This provided her the opportunities to race on a Cape 31 and the J/109 aboard which she is competing in this year's Rolex Fastnet Race.

"I have heard lots of stories about the Fastnet Race," she says. "My parents did it a lot of times in the past so I have heard about the rough conditions. Two years ago at the start there was a lot of wind and big waves, but after that it was alright - it was not comfortable. I expected it to be rougher."

While on the VO60 they raced with 18, she is looking forward to a more intimate race with eight on Christopher Burleigh's J/109 Jybe Talkin. This again is a family affair with his son Matthew and daughter Kat also racing. "I met them through a friend at Cowes Week and sailed with them for two days. We stayed in touch and then I saw they were planning to do the Fastnet..."

Despite her tender age, she says that the secret is "to have the connections, to know people, then it is like a snowball effect. Part of it is your character - if you are open and you want to help and are open to feedback that is how you get along with people. It doesn't matter whether you are a man or woman."

Aside from her imminent Rolex Fastnet Race, Visser is currently studying Educational Science and has further lucked out, getting a ride for the season on Chris Bake's Team Aqua crew on the 44Cup, which visits Cowes again over 9-13 August.

In the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race 12.7% of competitors were women

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