Why is sailing such a gotta-have-testosterone thing? Is it just my imagination? Or is it just my club where the majority of women who take the helm do so only out of necessity, to put the boat on the trailer or go long-term cruising? It is much more pronounced in the racing club, were except for Hot Flash (the women’s boat), just a few gals work on the foredeck.
Today I noticed in a popular sailing magazine there were men, and more men, tons of guys pictured racing sailboats. There were men sailing everywhere. I took a tally, counting only the faces I could positively see were men. I discounted several dozen broad shouldered forms in silhouette and too small to absolutely determine as male. I came up with 137, without-a-question men. Only five women were pictured. Three sailing — none at the helm. The editors tossed in a photo of an adoring wife, a voluptuous woman in scanty over-crowded bra, Brazilian Carnival feathers and beads. And in the back pages, a woman was shown hauling a waterlogged fellow being lifted aboard with a halyard. The caption for that dramatic action photo where the woman was a hero, “I think the new guy on our crew has a crush on me…” Oh brother! The other two photos with women aboard boats — were in ads. Of course! Women are great shoppers, spenders of men’s money. I was miffed!
Don’t get me wrong. I love men. My husband, Ed, is a guy. I love him enough to have stuck with him for 36 years. My only child is a man, and of course I love him. I only have brothers, and I am sort of fond of them, too. As a matter of fact, many of my friends are guys. So when I declare I am a feminist, and that women don’t get equal chances, don’t get the wrong idea. I just want a fair shake, not to reduce men to eunuchs by kicking them off their boats.
Flipping back and forth in the not-targeted-at-me magazine reminded me when I was learning the basics of sailing. Ed and I took a lesson together. To the male instructor I was an afterthought, an appendage to Ed, who, having a pair, deserved his full attention and the male privilege to learn to sail. In Teach’s mind I was capable of fetching a drink or coiling lines, if I paid attention. This was in spite of the fact Ed and I both paid him equally generous amounts to be taught to tack and jibe. During the lesson we encountered rather large rollers. I was delighted when Ed suddenly overwhelmed by mer de mar spewed over the transom, leaving me as the only vertical student. As he laid out in the cockpit to collect himself, I gained the instructor’s attention.
Taking the helm I asked my first pent up question, “How can I tell if I am on a collision course with that guy?” I pointed to a boat on starboard tack nearly a quarter-mile away. “Er, well.” I could hear the caveman gears cranking hard, searching for a way to explain this concept to a woman. “Its like when you are pushing a cart in the grocery store. You can just tell if you are going to run into someone. Usually you let the woman on the right go if you are about to bump.”
“Ooooh, I see.” I replied pondering how, without ever thinking about it, I had never had a cart-sinking-crash on Aisle 8. Still I did not knowing how to avoid a bump and grind in San Diego Harbor. While I still learned quite a bit, that analogy has always stuck in my mind.
So I sailed along for years thinking of the boat as a grocery cart — certainly not something to race. In spite of that, with Ed’s encouragement, I tried sail racing over decade ago. I did some practice races on Bliss, my Santana 23. Although I was supposed to be the skipper, I was easily bullied by the crew, who insanely wanted me to make the boat go fast. Then not satisfied, faster! The same season I was asked to be the “bow maid”, setting the pole and doing the bidding of a lack luster elderly skipper. It was neither gratifying nor fun — but familiar — much like pushing an over ladened cart while in an after work rush to get dinner started. Although my skipper was a sweet heart, I noticed there was a lot of hollering on the course. That was an unwanted source of added stress in my already stressful life. I was baffled by it all, only knowing vaguely the point was to following the faster boats around big yellow balloons. It made me nervous, too, not understanding what the heck all the yelling was about or why we collided with so many boats so many times. Did my skipper never visit the grocery store? Maybe it was me! Surely the fleet’s wrath would be aimed at me if I unknowingly caused another t-boning. After a few bruising races I stepped off the boat convinced racing was not for me. It was silly to try to make a slow boat sail fast.
Diane helped change all this. After four years of racing with boom-voiced guys, she was tired of being bossed around on the foredeck. She got her own race boat — only women allowed on board. She was sure a women crew could race with civility. She asked me to crew on her spiffed-up Santana, Hot Flash. Liking Diane and seeing her scaled-down, bright and shiny version of Bliss, it was hard to say no. After a few races acting as crew, I was thrown into the role of being the helmsman. She needed someone really small to keep the stern of the light-weight boat out of the water. Hot Flash proved to be a lithe version of Bliss, a powerful big sister. Then Diane invited Lynn to join the crew, a sailing instructor, a woman sailing instructor.
It was like I had a book of sailing secrets all along, and I finally opened it. I had sailed for fifteen years becoming a pretty good sailor, and was comfortable in a role acquiescing to Ed as the expert at the helm. From what I saw in the sailing world it was my proper place. Meeting and sailing with Lynn changed my perspective. She not only encouraged me, explained things so I understood, then corrected me so I learned from my many mistakes, but she showed me that sailing is not just a man’s sport and the boat is not to be treated like a shopping buggy. Racing sailboats is a sport more men are good at than women — only because more men get more chances to practice. They don’t necessarily take the helm from us, we just let them take it and keep it, especially when things get challenging.
When you look at your favorite sailing magazine, look for the women at the helm. Women sailors are out there and some editors make an effort to show the females. Women can get a fair shake and can learn to sail with the best of them. And a sailboat can go fast. Believe me, the last thing on my mind as the boat speeds around a mark is how well I can push a shopping cart.