Women on Boats, or Don’t be a Dick

Before a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.

Waiting for the start of a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.

I am not big on feminist manifestos. I have worked in IT, a male dominated industry, for a while now, and my career so far has been virtually unaffected by my gender. My boyfriends were mostly supportive of my endeavours. I don’t remember my political rights ever being questioned because I am a woman. So I am all for equal opportunities but I also never felt the need to remind the public of my stance on feminism by exposing social injustice towards women. Yet today I am writing about gender issues here, in my sailing blog. There is a reason for that: it is something that I see again and again on boats, especially new boats I get on. It’s also something I discussed with more than one friend so I know I am not just imagining things.

It’s about how women get treated on some boats and in sailing in general.

I sail on different boats – mostly smaller yachts (30 to 40 foot), and these days mostly with people I like and respect. They never treat me as if I can’t do something just because I am a girl. They teach me when I ask for advice and they trust me to do stuff that I know how to do. In fact, I have been lucky enough to sail with great sailors from the very start of my sailing career who treated me as an equal regardless of my experience. And as I got better at what I do, I started enjoying sailing with this kind of people even more, and the banter and jokes make it better still. And we win races. Repeatedly.

And yet, sometimes I am reminded of the flip side of the coin. We get on a new boat, a 60 footer, and at some point the tactician starts talking about roles during the race. There is a main trimmer, two headsail/spinnaker trimmers, foredeck – all male, all mentioned by name. Three girls are just told, “The rest of you, well, there’s running backstays, buttons and general tidying up.” It’s fine, it’s a first race, you have to prove yourself, and there’s also a lot of ways to be useful on a boat even if you don’t have a glamorous job.

But be prepared. On some boats you can do these kind of jobs race after race and you are always going to be that girl who tidies up. You will never get a chance to show that you can trim, let alone learn something new about trim, and if you grind for a guy he might give you a few condescending remarks afterwards, even when you notice the kite collapsing before he does. Not because you are inexperienced – in fact, they might not even ask you about your experience at all – but because you just happen to be female. Hell, the other day I even heard someone say that Jessica Watson was invited on a boat for publicity only, as if she doesn’t have any experience on boats!

Sailing is a male-dominated world, and there are a few legitimate reasons for that. For starters, it can be physically demanding. It requires physical strength and stamina. It can be rather scary, too, and at times unpleasant. People race boats in all kinds of conditions and unless you want to be a champagne sailor – an insult for any dedicated racer – you will be there regardless of wind, rain, snow, swell, waves. On smaller boats people in the cockpit get thrown around. Sometimes you have to climb masts. Other times those mast can break – in fact, anything on a boat can break, and even if it doesn’t, it’s not that hard to injure yourself. Boats get out of control, run aground and in rare cases even sink. And don’t get me started on toilets, especially toilets on racing boats. In other words, it’s not a nice, comfortable world a lot of people prefer to live in. And it’s definitely not something that is normally associated with the female world.

Some women are not intimidated by any of that. They enjoy the adventure and competitiveness and the mastery as much as the next man, they joke and learn and sweat and never ask to be treated differently from the rest of the crew. Yet they will always be treated in a slightly different way. If they get on a new great boat, someone will probably nudge a friend and say that they must be sleeping with the skipper. I don’t know of a single girl who would sleep with a skipper specifically to get on a boat but I’ve heard of women who flirt with crew to get on a better boat. No matter what you do though, once you are sailing, it is profoundly clear what you can and cannot do. Unless you are never given a chance to demonstrate it – because you are a woman.

Look, I get it. Women are not as strong as men (on average). And there are not as many experienced women as men in sailing. Still. I can complain sometimes that I don’t get to do something because I don’t have as much experience as another person but at the same time I know it’s fair enough. I do everything I can to get better at what I do but you can’t jump over your head all the time – mastery takes time. I am happy to learn more and I will listen to advice and I will step down if it’s better for everyone.

But if you are condescending towards someone just because of their gender, you are a dick, and there is no way around it. Mind you, it’s not just men who do that. Women can be even bigger dicks towards other women, tactless, distrustful snobs. But it’s also men. Men who tell my wonderful friend who sailed all her life and worked as a sailing instructor, “But you are not a real sailor! You are a girl!” Men calling another insanely talented girl bossy because she’s a skipper who tells them what to do. Men yelling out, “Get me a real trimmer!” even though they wouldn’t even notice the same mistake if it was made by a man. Men who yell out to female skippers that a woman can’t steer a boat. Men who just assume that you will never be good at something just because you are a woman.

I don’t want reverse discrimination. I don’t think we need campaigns to attract more female sailors, there are enough Ladies’ days as it is. I don’t think we need marketing and PR and all that; and I know there are wonderful experienced men in sailing who don’t feel the need to constantly prop up their own egos by belittling women.

The only thing I ask you is this: don’t be a dick towards female sailors. Just be honest with yourself. Have you dismissed a sailor and never gave her a chance because she’s a woman? Do you think that girls are only good enough to be rail meat? Would it bother you if a woman turned out to be a better sailor than you? Do you feel the need to be an arrogant prick while sailing?

You don’t have to tell me. Just think about it next time you go sailing. Give us a chance to show what we can do. Give yourself a chance to be a better human being.

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