At a recent seminar on seamanship that I led in San Francisco (one of a series sponsored by North U, the education arm of North Sails), a woman came up at the break and reported that something I had said was stimulating a decidedly favorable reaction among a certain circle.
"You told us that most boats heel too far," she said, "and on that all the women here agree that you’re absolutely right." When I passed this example of the gender gap on to the whole audience, there was much laughter and cheering—and not only by the sopranos and altos in the room. Everybody was acknowledging a fundamental disconnect.
Of course it’s true that when the wind is up, many boats are allowed to heel much too far, meaning more than 20 degrees for beamy boats or 25 degrees for narrow ones, whose lines are not distorted as radically when they go over on their sides. Less precisely, too much heel means that the leeward rail is wet and the crew likely frightened, and that the helmsman must fight for control against a rudder that is a more effective brake than a steering device. Such a reeling, rocking boat stands out in a fleet of well-sailed vessels like a drunk in a church. Able, experienced sailors know when and how to decrease heel by dumping the traveler, pinching up, and shortening sail. But a sailor (female or male) does not have to be experienced to sense that something’s probably wrong when the boat is lying on its side.
There is a gender gap in sailing, no question about it. Most boats are owned and commanded by men, often with a rigid authority that allows little room for women to develop into able, all-round sailors. As an indication of the historic entrenchment of gender roles, note the new, successful Suddenly Alone educational program, which trains crews to take over if their captains are incapacitated. Suddenly Alone was created by the country’s most prestigious cruising organization, the Cruising Club of America, in large part to train wives and other female crew to assume responsibilities that they have been observing from a distance for many years or decades. Now, the membership of the CCA (I count myself as a proud member) is somewhat gray-haired, which means that there is at least a possibility that a similar focus is not needed by younger sailors who have been raised in the gender egalitarianism that, happily, has come to rule shoreside America over the past quarter century.
Speculating about a gender gap can be risky. Generalizing about the capabilities and limitations of groups of people is a minefield, and for very good reasons. The two most dangerous words in the English language are "we" and its sidekick "they," which together barricade people behind walls of the status quo and intolerance. All the same, there is no question that when it comes to boats, certain behaviors often seem to be related to relative allotments of testosterone. To put it plainly, many male sailors can be macho. Besides insisting on making sailing uncomfortable and also on keeping women from taking responsibility, the macho mentality is hyper-competitive. For this I cite the experience of my mother. Raised inland in Texas, she did not start sailboat racing until she was in her 30s, and when she did she was appalled by how a Saturday afternoon sailboat race could transform courteous men into savages. "All that shrieking and yelling at each other—I never believed your father was capable of it," she once told me. I’m afraid to say that she was later just as surprised to see her son capable of it, too—but I now like to think I’m reformed.
It’s not that women cannot be competitive. As I wrote two months ago in the case of Beryl Smeeton (Sailing with a Master Mariner), and as we know from the examples of Ellen MacArthur and Dawn Riley, women can enjoy physical challenges, too. If male voices today are heard most loudly and often on crowded starting lines, it is often because most male voices carry farther than most female voices. Yet in my experience even competitive women often are better at tasks for which traditional cowboy machismo is the worst possible aptitude. These jobs include patiently steering or trimming sails in fluky winds, fitting into a team with the crew and the boat, sacrificing ego for cooperation, and (yes) quickly recognizing that when water pours over the lee rail, something's wrong.
It's not that men can't do the job; rather, men often have to shed some attitude in order to accomplish it. No individual can muscle a boat larger than a small dinghy through the water. All the sailor can do is help it along
, and that means allowing the boat to sail as the designer intended, which means pretty much on its bottom in an orderly fashion, with about four degrees of weather helm. Like anything else, if a boat is to work properly, it should look and feel comfortable, in balance, and in control.
If any one part of the boat seems to inspire a high level of gender gapism, it is the spinnaker. Alongside the storm and the shipwreck, the chute is the most recognizable symbol of sailing chaos, and therefore it is a friend to sailors who are macho and an enemy to those who are not. It needn't be that way. No crew, female or male, should allow one or two bad experiences with a flogging spinnaker to stop them from learning how to master the sail. A well-controlled spinnaker (set with a snuffer or other sock-like device) can be handled as easily as a mainsail while adding two or more knots to a boat’s speed in light or moderate wind, thereby extending a day’s cruising range by 10 to 20 miles. All it takes is a little patience, teamwork, and practice among the men and women on board, always alert to the feel of the boat under them.
Thus as visible as the gender gap is, in fact it is not as significant as the gender mirror. There's nothing exclusively feminine or masculine about sailing a boat under control and well. The two sets of values that, in the old days, were traditionally identified either with women (sensitive, adaptable, process-driven, orderly) or with men (focused, aggressive, goal-driven, structured) are, in fact, complementary upon the sea, and coexist side by side in the best sailors. Put them together and you have the characteristics of good seamanship.
Women and Cruising by Sue & Larry
Ladies Only by Kristin Sandvik
The Best Tips from Women on Board by Kathy Barron
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