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.

A Breakup with a Boat

Sydney Harbour covered with smoke from bush fires, Nov 2, 2013.

Low visibility in the Sydney Harbour caused by smoke from bushfires, Nov 2, 2013

I haven’t been writing in my blog for a while as I have had a few things happening in my life. One is totally unrelated to sailing and another one is an impending breakup with a boat.

You may laugh at this point. If you have never been in love with a boat, not because she is the best boat in the world but because you get to know her every peculiarity – her slipping halyards, the way the starboard spinnaker sheet has to be rigged differently from the port one, her preference for one tack and even her temperamental radio – and because her crew feels like a family to you, laugh all you want.

Cruisers who cross oceans in boats are allowed to feel attached to boats. It’s their shelter, their only protection from the elements, their home. Racing crew don’t usually own the boat, so a lot of amateur racers don’t get attached. Some sailors switch boats so much, they call themselves boat sluts (and believe it or not, it can be said with a touch of pride). Once you have enough skills to be useful, it’s not that hard to find another boat to race on – boats always need crew. A lot of them will ask for a commitment but some are perfectly happy with a one-race stand. Some highly competitive boats have mile-long crew lists, other boats will offer a spot to an experienced sailor or a friend whenever they are available. Some boat owners make their crew show their loyalty and work their way up from skirting the jib to actually trimming the sail.

And sometimes you find a special boat and everything just clicks. You spend so much time on it, you get attached despite yourself. You show up for every single race and start scheduling the rest of your life around the racing calendar. Whether it’s bucketing down, or the harbour is covered with smoke from bush fires, whether it’s blowing 40 knots or there is not enough wind for the boat to move at all, you are still there, never giving up on a race and not even considering not showing up. You debrief and laugh over a drink at the club after the race is over, and at that moment there are no people in the world who feel closer to you than your fellow crew members. And when you get invited to another boat, no matter how fast and sexy she is, you turn her down because you have already committed to another boat.

And then it all comes crushing down. At times boats get sold. Owners can mourn for their boats when they sell them. There are a lot of jokes based on the fact that buying a boat is usually a very bad investment but despite all the jokes, real sailors – not the people who just buy a yacht as they have some extra cash and then leave her sitting on her mooring for months and months – are not happy when they have to sell, and not just because they don’t get the same amount of money that they bought the boat for. They just love their boats. Good skippers make boats go faster, and boats respond to their every touch. The crew of a sold boat usually have a more subdued reaction since missing a boat might seem weird, and sailors in general are not known for their gentle souls and being in touch with their feelings so they hop onto another boat – a rebound boat, if you will – and sometimes that turns into a long-term relationship.

It’s worse when the boat is still with her owners but a crew member has to leave for some reason. If you are loyal to a boat, you expect the same in return, and a lot of the time it’s not the case. You get taken off a job on a boat seemingly for no reason; or the boat cancels on you at the last moment because they have too many people on board for the conditions. Every now and again it’s not a big deal. And sometimes it is.

If you buy a plane ticket to do a delivery and then the boat cancels on you with no word of apology, it’s just rude. Most of the crew are not paid to do a delivery and they spend their own money to buy the tickets; getting them off the boat warrants at least a brief “sorry”.

Still, losing money over a cancelled delivery might look minor in comparison to the broken trust. If you are committed to a boat and are fiercely loyal to her through all weather conditions and other circumstances in your life, lack of loyalty from the boat – or rather the boat owners – feels personal. And sure it might seem funny to compare leaving a boat to a breakup with a special someone (and it also might have something to do with the fact that my comfort TV show at the moment is “How I Met Your Mother”) but such breakup might be as necessary and as upsetting as a breakup in a relationship where only one partner is fully committed.

I’m sorry, A., but I have to start seeing other boats.

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 3

Boats at CYCA

Boats at CYCA, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney.

Consistency Is Key

In Part 2, we had a look at the main roles on a sailing boat. Some of my non-sailing friends who are trying to read this blog reported complete confusion and a strong desire to lie down while reading that part of the blog entry. And that was me trying to explain everything as clearly as possible with a bare minimum of sailing terms. Imagine how confusing it can be for fairly new sailors when all those terms are thrown at them throughout the race. Granted, sometimes those terms are repeated in a very loud voice which makes remembering them easier (“Kicker! Get the kicker! I said the downhaul!”) but doesn’t help with stress that much.

Sailing is a sport that requires a lot of learning. You can sail for twenty years and still learn new stuff next time you are on the water. It can also be physically demanding, even though in photos it might look like sailors don’t do much apart from sitting on the rail. On relatively small yachts (around 30-40 foot) racing sailors do a lot of grinding and they get bumped around quite a bit. That’s why women, with their thinner skin, who sail on boats that size are often covered in bruises, sometimes in weird places. It’s not that rare to get a rope burn either. A few girls told me that when someone saw their legs they were asked whether their husbands were beating them. I have to say, I had a few concerns earlier this year about going on a trip where I was supposed to see my parents for the first time in a couple of years (they live far away). It was after a big regatta where we were short-handed, and my legs were covered in bruises. “Just tell them that Australia is great – but Aussie men – well, not so much,” – the skipper told me in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner.

On bigger boats you don’t get that many bruises. On the other hand, if something goes wrong on a bigger boat, you are more likely than on a smaller boat to, say, lose a finger.

Getting better at sailing requires patience, willingness to learn and – most importantly – time. Every position on a boat has its own challenges. At some point ever new sailor starts to specialise and chooses a favourite role on the boat: light people are often sent to the foredeck, strong people stay in the pit. The longer you stay on the same boat, the more you know about her quirks and peculiarities. A permanent spot on a boat might not be that easy to get though, so beginners often have to move around and talk to a few people to get a ride until they find a boat that is happy to have them on for an entire season. That helps with learning your new role and If you are lucky, you can even get a crew shirt.

Boat owners/skippers have their own problems. They need a group of people who know what they are doing and will turn up for every race. In reality, it is almost impossible to ensure that every single person is available every time – people tend to have lives and responsibilities outside sailing. That’s why some boats have long lists of backup crew which are called if someone can’t turn up this time. As long as everyone is aware of that arrangement, there are usually no hard feelings. It gets trickier if there are slightly more people in the permanent crew than required with no “reserve list” and no apparent priorities. Sometimes there are not enough people and the boat is short-handed and other times everyone might want to sail so someone has to sit it out or just do nothing after getting on the boat. It’s hard to keep everyone happy, and a happy team on a boat is essential, not only because it makes winning a race more likely but also because if you are not happy while doing something you love, what’s the point of doing it and do you really love it?

The ideal person for a boat owner is the one who sails well, who’s reliable and – probably – is fun to spend a lot of time with on the boat. That is why – and I know I said it before – being reliable is absolutely vital when you start sailing, especially if you don’t know that much. If you are not an experienced sailor, you have to make up for it somehow – and being consistent (and nice!) is the best way to go about it. And once you prove to people that you can be relied upon and meet more people who know you from the club, you will have more choices who to sail with and might even have to turn down a few offers of sailing just because you can’t sail on every single boat you are invited to.

It’s that easy – race consistently, go to the club regularly and talk to people. Chances are, you will find out that sailing doesn’t have to be an elite sport that requires a lot of money, it can also be a fun way to master new skills and hang out with people from very different backgrounds. And you will eventually get better at it.

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 2

Image

Western Channel Pile Light, also known as the “Wedding Cake”, an active pile lighthouse in the Sydney Harbour. Photo by Alena Abrosimova

Part 1 is here.

A Little Knowledge

At some point absolute beginners get enough experience to feel more confident around the boat, and unless they know how to be content with little things and just enjoy the ride, they start looking around for ways to get better, learn from experienced sailors and move on to more competitive boats. That’s the time when a lot of illusions die as our new sailors slowly start to realise that there is much more to sailing than they initially thought, and the original euphoria of being part of the action is replaced by constant questions: Where should I sail next? Will I ever be as good as that guy who’s been sailing for 20 years? Will it really take me 20 years to be as good as him? Will the skipper let me trim today? Why are all my muscles sore?

Disclaimer: I generalise quite a bit in the previous paragraph. In some ways, I am a typical example of someone who started to race by coming to a sailing club one day and getting on a boat. On the other hand, I believe that I am slightly more prone to retrospection, self-doubts and obsession with the things I like than an average person. So it is totally possible that a lot people don’t question everything quite to the same extent as me. Then again, almost everyone has to figure out which boat they are going to sail on and what exactly they are going to do.

A lot of competitive boats, especially big ones, don’t mind inviting new people – but if you don’t know anyone there, chances are, you will be invited as “rail meat”. That means sitting on the rail and moving around as per the tactician’s orders to keep the boat balanced. Some of my non-sailing friends sometimes wonder why sailors spend so much time hanging out on the side of the boat like a pack of birds, seemingly doing nothing, so I explain to them that sitting on a rail is an important part of being a sailor, albeit hardly the most exciting one (well, doing anything in over 30 knots of wind is fun, including sitting on the rail but those are fairly extreme conditions). If the only thing you are allowed to do is to move from one side of the boat to the other through each tack, it can be relaxing – but might get frustrating if you want to get better at say, trimming sails.

Each boat has several distinct crew positions. They can vary depending on the size of the boat: a bigger boat might require a couple of management roles to coordinate the crew and relay the messages from the back of the boat to the front (always a challenge) while on a 26 foot boat a couple of people can multitask. Still, the basic positions are still essentially the same.

If you are a relative beginner and you don’t sail on your own boat or a boat of a friend who trusts you way too much, chances are, you are not going to be a skipper/tactician (in club races it’s usually the same person – the person who owns the boat). You might get involved in navigation looking for buoys and laid marks so not being short-sighted comes in handy.

The next position is a mainsail trimmer. That role generally requires physical strength as well as extensive knowledge about adjusting the mainsail. If you are a small(ish) girl like me who doesn’t look like Hulk and you are not sailing on a boat with electric winches, you are probably not going to be asked to fill in that position. The stronger the wind is, the more strength you are going to need to bring the sail on. That’s why strong looking men, even when they don’t know that much about sailing, have a much better chance of being asked to be on the mainsail. Not being able to sufficiently ease the mainsail in time can get a boat into a lot of trouble.

Headsail/jib trimmers are in charge of the sail in front of the boat. That is my usual role. A lot of people start with this position as it looks deceptively simple at first – let the sail off on one side and pull it on the other side through tacks, adjust the sail on the reach and downwind. In reality, this role also requires physical strength on boats with big overlapping headsails (unless you are sailing on a bigger boat with so called coffee grinders and someone else does all the grinding for you) and, more importantly, a lot of skill. Generally speaking, the headsail has a lot of influence on the speed of the boat.

Comment: if you are confused by the term “coffee grinder”, don’t be. If you are really interested, read more about different types of winches here. Otherwise, here is the nitty-gritty: on most boats I sail on (roughly up to 40 foot) winches look like this. Generally the same person who adjusts (trims) the sail have to grind (turn the handle that is inserted into the top of the winch as fast as possible). On bigger boats the winches look different – there are two handles, and a dedicated person (usually a big strong man) keeps grinding according to the trimmer’s orders. This kind of winches are called “coffee grinders”.

The same people are usually controlling the sheet and brace for a spinnaker if that sail is used in the race, and that is the next stage in every beginner’s education. Using a spinnaker requires smooth cooperation between several positions on the boat and can get very messy unless everyone knows exactly what they are doing. That’s why beginners are often excluded from the entire process apart from grinding and helping with getting the spinnaker down on the deck (or down the hatch).

Another important position is strings (also called pit). The person on strings is placed in the middle of the boat near the mast and pulls on more ropes than anyone else on the boat  so it’s usually someone who knows the boat fairly well.

And last but not least, there’s a foredecker, a person on the bow. That is usually the lightest person on the boat. Becoming a foredecker can be a steep learning curve. You have to do a lot of things fast – get sails up and down, change them if required, jibe the spinnaker pole and – everyone’s favourite – skirt the big genoa (make sure that the sail is not stuck on the rail while being pulled on). That’s a lot of stress for a beginner.

Some people stick to one position on the boat at all times but trying everything on the boat makes you a better sailor. On the other hand, racing is by definition competitive. Experienced sailors usually love winning (who doesn’t?) so they prefer other experienced people in all positions. There is a Catch-22 kind of situation right there: to get better you need experience and to get more experience you need to be good. Gaining trust of the boat’s tactician and the rest of the crew can be a long process. And a lot of the time it requires a very thick skin.

I remember being upset for days when someone on a boat implied that I wasn’t experienced enough to trim the jib in one of the final races of the series. Another time, I got on a boat where one of the owners didn’t trust me at all. On one of the tacks I couldn’t get the winch handle out in time and the sheet wasn’t let off fast enough – so he took me off the job and put me on the rail where I sat in a deep sulk, stewing in my own disappointment. Later during the same race I was helping the same owner to get the spinnaker down and in the process his elbow connected with my eye, adding an injury to an already received insult. I vouched not to sail on that boat again and I kept my word for about a year.
It does get better though.

Part 3