Sail like a Woman by Liesl King

In a way I sort of fell into sailing by accident. Some of you may remember the first Rookie diary entry, where I had been invited to hop on a boat by my sailing friend.  “Come sailing, it will be fun”, was the precise terminology used. I didn’t come from a sailing background, nor did I grow up near the ocean.  My parents were both avid mountaineers and hence my childhood and teenage years were spent in the mountains. Even back then climbing and hiking was not a man thing. There were as many women climbing and dangling from ropes as there were men. In essence climbing and hiking is a sport where the only requirement is passion, the rest can be taught.

Ann Davidson, the first woman to sail single-handedly across the Atlantic

That first sail may have started off badly, yeah, I was frightened to death the first time my dear Rolls Royce heeled, and I found myself staring straight down at the choppy dark blue water. Yet when I saw my fellow crew all nonchalantly standing on the deck admiring the view, I realised that perhaps we were okay, and death wasn’t quite so imminent.  Being told to scoot from side to side every time the boat heeled, didn’t endear me that much to sailing either.  The view wasn’t bad, neither was the company, but I wasn’t hooked.

Nonetheless, six months later I became a member of RCYC.  So what happened to the girl who thought sailing was okay, but not really anything special?  A man in whose debt I will forever be, is what happened. A man who didn’t think I was there to make up the numbers and who didn’t want me there to add a touch of femininity.  A man who saw a potential sailor and who allowed me to experience what sailing was all about, even though it was my first time on a boat. My skipper that day, saw something in the way I enjoyed the wind in my hair, saw something in my grin. And once we had entered the harbour, he handed me the wheel and told me to steer us home.

A moment I will never forget. The moment I took that wooden wheel in my hands, turned it slightly and started steering a Compass 47 in the general direction of the marina. That was the moment I was forever hooked. All it took was a man prepared to give me the chance to experience the joy of being at the helm of a glorious boat. It has been almost three years since that first sail.  The Rookie Diaries have charted my path as I learned to sail, to deliver boats and even to race on a Cape 31.  I have come quite a way since that very first time that I held a wheel in my hands and there is still a lot to learn! Possibly even an ocean crossing in the future.

The one thing that has struck me though, is that I am still in the distinct minority when it comes to sailing. It is still very much the man’s world it has always been. Yet there have been some incredible women holding their own in years gone by. Fifty nine boats took part in the very first Cape To Rio Race, attracting the who’s who of sailing with illustrious names such as Robin Knox-Johnston, Eric Tabarly and Kees Bruynzeel in the starting lineup. Also on the start line was a boat called Sprinter with an all-female crew of five skippered by Molly Warr. It was the first time that a South African all-female crew would be competing in an ocean race between two continents.

Molly and Ken Warr

The British Royal Naval Association yacht Ocean Spirit, skippered by Robin Knox-Johnston and Leslie Williams won the race, finishing in 23 days and 42 minutes, while the South African entry Albatross II won on handicap. Sprinter crossed the line in 44th place and was greeted with a special three gun salute to mark the historic occasion. When the race was changed to Uruguay, Kate Steward skippered an all-female crew on Foschini Girl in 1979, while Trisch Reiss did the same on Tal Gal in 1985. Since then Marion Cole skippered Kelly Girl in the 1996 race with an all-female crew, racing to Rio.  Interestingly, the first woman to sail single-handedly across the Atlantic was aviator Ann Davidson, who made the crossing in 1952/53 on her 23’ wooden sloop Felicity Ann.

The door had been opened almost 70 years ago and yet I somehow feel like little has changed.  Just over a year ago I was part of an all-ladies team competing in the RCYC Ladies Race on CuAl6.  Sadly we were the only all-female team. When I mentioned to fellow sailors that we were planning on sailing the Cape 31 with an all-female team, I was surprisingly met by lots of reasons why it wasn’t a good idea.  We were not strong enough – it was a very physical boat that required men to sail it – we wouldn’t cope if something went wrong.  Yet our skipper Heidi Burger never wavered in her steadfast belief that it was perfectly possible.  Her answer to the naysayers was simple, “Of course we can do it. We are not going to sail her like men and hence we don’t need to be super strong, we are going to sail her like women.”

Trisch Reiss and Tal Gal crew

And sail her like the ladies we were, we did.  Just for the record we came third overall and beat the only other Cape 31, with a mixed crew, home.  What struck me the most about that whole episode though was the fact that instead of encouraging us and saying “Go girls, you can do it”, the reactions from some of the men were rather to discourage us, explaining why we shouldn’t attempt it.  There will always be a first time for new things to be attempted. I am sure there were plenty of people who told Ann Davidson and Molly Warr that they were crazy and yet they resolutely believed in themselves and in their crew. Hell, someone has to be the first at everything, right?

Interestingly of the entire Cape 31 fleet only three have women as crew, CuAl6, Nemesis and MB Racing.  Yet when the foiling Nacra 17 was introduced as an Olympic Class, it was as a mixed boat. Now of all the boats, in the Olympic Classes, this one is probably one of the fastest, craziest, most dangerous boats out there.  And having seen one become completely uncontrollable, launching skywards directly at the photo boat in its path, I tend to agree. Yet they are sailed by a mixed team of two.  So where does that leave us?

For me, as a woman who sails and who came to sailing late, the answer is rather simple. Encourage us, invite us, introduce us to that magical world of yours and most of all believe in us. Hand the wheel to that newbie on the boat, let her steer under safe conditions and ignite the passion that will bind her to the wonderful world of sailing for life. Share your dream.





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