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Nikki talks about women on board

by Nikki Henderson, Outremer Catamarans 6 Jun 04:22 PDT
Nikki Henderson and women on board © Outremer Catamarans

Once again this year, Nikki Henderson was one of the instructors present at O'Week. She led the 'Ladies Only' sailing sessions. This is an opportunity to share with you her article on the inclusion of women in sailing.

Gender inclusion within sailing is a topic close to my heart. I have tried to write this blog for a number of months, but I have struggled. The question of how to get more women into sailing is such a huge discussion. I could probably write a thesis-length paper entitled: "Is all-female sailing constructive or counterproductive for levelling up the gender imbalance within the sailing community?" 1500 words on the topic is just not enough.

Furthermore, the subject is one that I find deeply personal and emotive. My relationship with all-female sailing is very torn: on one hand, it has been fundamental to my career progression and without it I would not be where I am today; on the flip side, it has at times dented my confidence, and possibly my reputation. I feared that my experiences with all-women teams were less respected, or of a lesser quality, than if I had sailed with men on board.

Many of my colleagues - both male and female - share this love-hate relationship with all-female sailing. It can be quite divisive. As tired as we all are of the conversation, and as hopeful as we are of the day where efforts to promote gender inclusion are unnecessary, for now we cannot cast the issue aside. There is still a serious imbalance of men and women in the sailing industry, as well as the cruising community - a gender imbalance not just of participation, but of leadership. A female skipper, boat owner, instructor or even driver is still all-to-rare a sight.

Whether or not you believe that female-only sailing is a good thing - female-only sailing is happening. Therefore, rather than using my precious 1500 words to justify or criticize the concept, I feel it would be more valuable to try and contribute to making it a success.

Drawing on both my positive and negative experiences with all-female crews - as a student, a crew member, a race skipper, and an instructor - here are some things I can recommend someone consider before signing up to an all-female crew or course.

I hope that this will help you decide whether or not it's an option that would suit you (or your friend/partner/family) and ensure that it is a fun, constructive and net positive experience for you and everyone involved.

Questions to ask yourself before committing to a ladies-only sailing experience:

1. Why do I want to sail with all women?

Sadly, a common criticism of all-women crews is that they are negative, pessimistic and 'anti-male', with women complaining about men.

The reality is that only a few difficult characters fill this moaning, man-hating stereotype. Most of the all-female teams I have been part of have been very positive experiences.

To give you an example, back in June I trained a group of women with a fellow female instructor for a weekend out of La Grande Motte on a 'female-only sailing course'. On the first morning, over coffee and croissants, we each shared our motivations for joining the course. The answers were typical responses from women joining these types of courses:

"I am a complete beginner and I felt that I would be more confident to show my vulnerability in the company of other women."

"I have only ever sailed with my husband - and never with just women - so I wanted to taste this different dynamic."

"I thought it would be great fun to have a girls weekend and make some new female friends who also own boats."

"I have had several terrible experiences sailing in the past where I have felt like I was stuck in the galley. I thought this would be a good chance to step out of that role and try something new."

"I wasn't sure about only women - it was my husbands' idea. He thought it would help empower me to take charge more."

"I love the calm and supportive atmosphere that is often synonymous with all-female training environments. I just thought it might be more relaxed so wanted to give it a go."

What I would encourage any woman to do before signing up to a female-only course is to ensure that you are bringing a positive and constructive mindset with you to that environment. Sailing with women is what all these women thought it would be - supportive, fun, calm, empowering and balanced. Choosing to sail with other women doesn't need to be about men; it's to do with loving sailing with women and everything that entails!

2. What kind of women is this going to attract?

The best all-female crews I have been part of are those who have complementing attitudes, values and behaviours. If they are training - it's easier to find harmony if they are all as keen as each other to learn. If they are racing - it's much more fun if the crew are all similarly competitive. If they are cruising - life onboard runs so much more smoothly if they share similar values with regard to personal space and relaxation. This isn't to say that crews cannot be a range of nationalities and ages - in fact this often makes a more interesting and dynamic environment - but more that they are there for similar reasons (see Question 1!).

This takes me back to a cruise I did in the Grenadines many years ago. There were four different women onboard, and myself. All strangers. And it's fair to say that the sales team for the cruise hadn't been quite specific enough... certainly one heck of a leadership challenge.

    Crew 1: Signed up for two weeks of learning, hoping to work towards becoming a yachtmaster. Was looking for hardcore night sailing and day time theory lessons.
    Crew 2: Signed up for a two week holiday away from the world. She had been dreaming of white sandy beaches, books and blissfully quiet anchorages.
    Crew 3: Signed up to give sailing a go having been promised barely any wind and perfect beginner conditions. (the Caribbean at that time of year tended to be 1-2 meter swell and consistent 20 knots wind).
    Crew 4: Signed up for a party-holiday - sunset cocktails, dancing the night away, and lazy days recovering.

An extreme example I admit - but one that I hope shows you how important it is to look beyond the ladies-only aspect, and also make sure that you are signing up to the right type of sailing, which will have on it the right type of people, for you.

3. Who is the skipper or instructor?

Earlier this year I was heading down to the docks to meet the crew for my ladies-only weekend. I bumped into Mark, a co-owner of an Outremer 55, alongside his wife Marijke. He had heard about the course and said to me:

"Nikki. I wanted to join the female-only training weekend, but I wasn't allowed. That doesn't feel fair. I'd love to come and learn with you."

"Sadly Mark - last time I checked you aren't a woman!" I replied, smiling.

As I walked away - I felt bad about my reply. I realised that he was not specifically talking about the female only aspect of the crew, but actually of the skipper - which was very flattering!

The skipper or instructor you have when you are sailing has more influence than anyone else onboard. They affect the vibe, the atmosphere, the accepted behaviour - everything. Therefore, they do have an ability - like individual crew members - to make or break your experience. I can't recommend more highly the importance of doing your research prior to signing up to an event, following the recommendation of a trusted friend, or going through a company such as Outremer who employs qualified skippers.

Also worth noting - I feel strongly that if you are joining a women-only event, the person in charge should also be a woman. If the women are there specifically for the all-female dynamic, a male instructor will naturally water down the 'only-women' part of the experience. It's not that it would be a worse experience whatsoever - but certainly less immersive and intense.

4. What kind of boat is it?

The kind of boat that you sail on is another factor that can make or break your experience as a woman sailing with other women. Sailing is a very physical sport which demands a particular emphasis on upper body and core strength. Yachts can be designed in a way that rely less on brute force, height and weight. Instead, they are set up to favour good technique, positioning and timing. These are the kind of boats you want to be sailing on if you are joining an all-women's course. This will set you up for success.

There is an endless list of different yacht builds and makes and this is not the place to review them all. If you don't know much about how the designs differ, there are some good clues that can help you:

  • Are there pictures on the website of women sailing the boats?
  • Is there any text on their website specifying that the boats are designed to be female friendly?
  • How big is the yacht? If it's much over 40 feet, are there any electric winches onboard that will act as a helping hand for you?
  • How recently was the boat built? More contemporary boat designs tend to use materials that have a better strength to weight ratio, meaning less powerful people can haul up the sails and pull on the ropes!
  • Is the boat marketed towards blue water sailing, or is it marketed to cruisers? Normally something designed to sail offshore will be more ergonomic and built to last with better balance, and higher quality equipment which tends to run more smoothly.

5. What am I hoping to get out of it?

A final and very quick point - work out what you want before you go and ask for it! As a skipper and instructor, it makes it much easier to shape a sail to the crew if the crew are transparent about what they want. So be straight forward and ask for it. And if you aren't getting it, don't wait until the end to say so!

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