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An interview with Joan Byrne, Winnie Kelley and Jocelyn Swanson about the annual Red Bra Regatta

by David Schmidt 14 Sep 08:00 PDT September 23, 2023
Camaraderie runs deep at the Red Bra Regatta © Images courtesy of the Red Bra Regatta

San Francisco Bay in September is a mighty fine place to find oneself racing sailboats, especially if you are female. That's because the annual Red Bra Regatta (September 23), which is organized by the South Beach Yacht Club, unfurls during this time and is only open to boats consisting of female skippers and crews.

Aside from this one restriction, the regatta is open to all keelboats that carry a valid Northern California PHRF rating. (N.B., Hope isn't lost for interested teams that don't have their paperwork in order as the regatta's RC can assign one. Caveat emptor: According to the NOR, this rating is unappealable.)

A quick glance at the entry list reveals boats from 28 to 38 feet that range from cruisers to sportboats, with plenty in between. Racing is set to take place on the South Bay waters, and will employ fixed and temporary marks.

The après party is unofficial, as are the bar-keeping responsibilities, but if you qualify to participate in the regatta, odds are good that this will be a fun one to attend, especially if the Bay delivers its trademark sailing conditions.

I checked in with Joan Byrne, Winnie Kelley and Jocelyn Swanson, regatta chairs of the 11th annual Red Bra Regatta, to learn more about this women's-only keelboat regatta.

Can you please tell us a bit about the Red Bra Regatta, its history and culture, and where the event draws its colorful name from?

In 2010, two good friends were competing in the Jazz Cup Race. One felt the other should be protested. She didn't have a red flag, but being resourceful, she remembered that she had a red bra stowed in her bag. She flew it and the protest was registered.

That was the birth [of] the Red Bra Regatta. A race that encourages women to race, hone their skills, and teach new sailors to race and be competitive rather than sit on a rail only to provide rail-meat.

Do you find that the vibe is different at the Red Bra Regatta than at mixed-sex events? If so, can you offer some examples?

There is an incredible feeling that every boat that crosses the start line has already won a victory in supporting women's sailing on the Bay.

Many crews have women who have never raced, and crewmembers in positions different from their usual roles, and all crewmembers accept awards at the ceremony afterward.

A huge roar went up last year when the skipper of a winning yacht introduced a very young girl as having completed her first regatta. Seeing the joy on the young girl's face and pride in the skipper's eyes was magical.

How many boats are you hoping to see on the starting line? Also, will most entrants be from the SFO area, or are you also expecting out-of-town sailors?

Traditionally, the regatta has attracted around 20 [boats] and over 100 women participants.

This year the goal is 25 boats and 150 women sailors. It is such a fun event that it is common for past participants who have moved out of the area to return to the Bay Area for this regatta.

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter on San Francisco Bay in late September? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

The regatta is in September, the best month for sailing weather on the Bay, with "Goldilocks" conditions of consistent and moderate winds.

In addition, the racing venue is south of the Bay Bridge, where boatspeed and tactics are at a premium, versus heavy-weather boat handling, which might be the case if the regatta was held off the city front.

Of course, the Bay is known for being unpredictable, so racers must be prepared for a range of conditions.

Local knowledge can be a big deal on San Francisco Bay. Do you see it playing a big role in determining the regatta's winners? Or, are most of the contending sailors well-versed in this knowledge?

Boats' position on the course will be critical to their success. Tacticians will balance current, wind, and competitors as they decide on the best approach for their yachts.

It's unlikely that the best course will be obvious. For this reason, we often see different winners in each class across the two planned races.

If you could offer one piece of advice to participating sailors, what would it be?

Empowering Women" and it applies to helping get boats on the line, during racing and supporting the personal victories that take place through the regatta.

What's the scene like, once the boats have sailed back ashore? Do you guys have evening festivities planned?

The after-party back at SBYC celebrates women's sailing versus the usual regatta awards ceremony. Appropriately, all competitors gather for a group picture with several holding up Red Bras.

Plan for plenty of extra time to enjoy after-race festivities as the yacht club will be stocking up extra bubbly for the after-party!

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

We ask all competitors to use refillable water bottles. We use one committee boat, one mark set and one media boat.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

The empowerment goes beyond just the participants. The Red Bra Regatta will once again raise money for Girls United, a branch of the charity Flying Kites. Girls United invests in girls in rural Kenya, providing them mentorship, life skills workshops, reproductive health resources, and much more.

If you would like to learn more, the regatta has a Facebook page: Red Bra Regatta—11th Annual.

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