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Women on Water revitalise club sailing

by Sarah Desjonqueres 29 May 14:00 BST
Ladies That Launch at Highcliffe SC © Highcliffe SC

There is a fresh and confident breeze blowing through women's sailing in the UK today, a real can-do attitude is in charge and it is changing the dynamic of sailing clubs up and down the country.

Ever since Tracy Edwards defiantly ignored the establishment by fighting for and racing with an all-female team in the Whitbread race of 1989, the sailing world has been treated to some phenomenal women in action and some inspirational multiple gold medal winning performances by female sailors such as Shirley Robertson, Sarah Webb, Sarah Ayton, Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark. Importantly too, it is no longer uncommon to read about women sailors ripping up the rule book or smashing through barriers; Ellen Macarthur's solo circumnavigation of the globe broke the world record in terms of time and more recently grandmother, Jeanne Socrates, successfully completed her single-handed sail around the world at the age of 76. Kudos to everyone.

But this current fresh and confident breeze is not driven by past glories and subversion of patriarchal rulebooks; this sailing revolution is organic and simple. The fundamental elements underpinning a new and enthusiastic uptake of women's sailing are simple factors that appeal to all women; fun and friendship.

Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of Ladies Only sailing groups, at club level, providing a relaxed, pressure free environment for women to learn to sail, share experiences and build confidence. These semi-sailing, semi-social gatherings have hit the sweet spot in terms of attracting more and more women out on the water, but most importantly, their success has fostered a continued participation in what seems sometimes to be a dwindling, often male dominated sport. No longer dutifully manning the Club galley whilst the chaps go racing, women all over the UK are ditching the dishes and donning the neoprene, and with it, breathing fresh life into sailing clubs.

Like women themselves, these groups come in many shapes and sizes, some are more training orientated, others more social sailing, but all share a common model of camaraderie and confidence building. Cathy Bartram of Chew Valley SC runs Lake and Cake, meeting once a month as an all ability women's sailing group. The format for the sessions is always relaxed with a RIB on watch, and makes use of fun learning games, occasional group training, but more often than not, sees the women simply potter around together. "Importantly" according to Cathy "the sessions are not competitive. Many of our members are intimidated by club racing; Lake & Cake gives a safe environment for them to enjoy the sport. The 'Cake' half of the afternoon is equally as important. Women want to develop friendships and not just go sailing for the sake of sailing." From a handful of women attending 5 years ago, Cathy now regularly welcomes a turnout of around 20 women.

The non-competitive element of these groups is important, many women cite aggression at marks and argy-bargy on start lines by their male counterparts as a major deterrent from racing and often find themselves alienated from post-race chit chat in the Club. It is fair to say that most sailing clubs historically centred their on-the-water activities around racing, offering few opportunities for those seeking a less competitive sailing experience. With no other obvious options, the 'race or watch' approach in turn saw few women venture out on the water. It therefore comes as no surprise that, women, now presented with the opportunity to learn the ropes the more 'chilled' way are jumping at the chance.

That said, the informal approach is not the only successful formula for these groups. At Hayling Island SC, Linda Stokes originally set up Women On Water (WOW) as a trial to provide a more structured training programme for those with previous sailing experience. At HISC, the women only approach has proved so popular, that by last year, the intake had reached 48 ladies and had moved on to a broader programme welcoming every level of sailing skill from total beginners to advanced racers. Despite taking a less social, more learning structure to her sessions, it is clear to Linda however, that "most ladies do it [WOW] for confidence building, the camaraderie and the relaxed manner that it runs in. Some want to race, others simply want to know how to sail'. Like many of ladies sailing group organisers, Linda is keen to see the women progress, she says of the groups "the biggest issue now is to get them to join the racing on the weekend'. She plans to talk to the other WOW groups in the harbour about hosting a wow regatta at HISC in the autumn.

The WOW regatta is an idea already in place just up the road at Highcliffe SC, home of the Ladies That Launch. Building on previous ladies only racing ventures with neighbouring sailing clubs Christchurch and Mudeford, the women of Highcliffe SC have decided to extend the invite this year to all women sailors in the area who may wish to race, hosting their first ever Ladies Open Meeting in the middle of June. They hope that this will present an opportunity for women to take their newly built confidence and freshly learned sailing skills and combine this with a fun approach and bring it all to the start line.

Motivation to run these groups is not in short supply either, the natural enthusiasm which abounds within them is quietly seductive, bringing along its own set of rewards. On the South Coast at Keyhaven YC, Nicky Jones has recently assumed the mantle of running their Women On Water group. Being chief energiser and organiser, it has offered up the opportunity for her to show her three daughters that women 'can' can sail, can drive RIBs, can handle tough conditions and can meet the challenges of being out on the water. Nicky's last outing of the WOW group at Keyhaven had over 25 attendees, twice the number found on the club racing start line most weekends. These groups are not to be sniffed at.

In fact, groups are springing up all over the country, Felpham SC WOW group regularly has over 25 women attending sessions including a follow up meal which keen participant Catherine Helmsley says brings "a social/friendship aspect which is as important as the sailing". Over at Lymington Town SC their recently formed Ladies@LTSC is all about promoting and encouraging women in sailing. The goal is to provide women with the opportunity to helm the keelboat, the dinghies and the RIBs. Group organiser and participant Clare Sleigh is working with Abby Ehler, founder of the Magenta project and Jenny Bennett, both highly experienced sailors. Clare says "The group is about encouraging our female members to get Sailing. We noticed that some women joined as part of the family membership, and then never went near the water. Others joined and then never quite plucked up the courage to put their boat in the water. The group gives the chance to network and set up connections for sailing in the future". Another informal, relaxed and popular women's sailing group - simple and successful.

A major boost behind the rise of these groups has been the availability of club dinghies to hire. Not so long ago a major barrier to sailing for women was low boat ownership, but most sailing clubs now offer a fleet of dinghies for rent at reasonable daily rates, immediately making sailing accessible and affordable. For cash strapped, time deficient women, this gives them the key to exploring a sport that was once out of reach. With ladies sailing groups providing rigging help and full training, we now see more and more women buying their own boats as they gain in confidence. With lightweight, comfortable, multi-rig dinghies like the RS Aero on the market, the options for women to go sailing on their terms just keep expanding.

Remarkably it is women of all ages and backgrounds who are lining up to show that they 'can'. The demographic of the women's only sailing group is mostly post forty, these are women either returning to sailing after a break for family or career, women who are looking to learn new skills and challenges, women who are recovering from illness and want to make the most of life, women who were dragged along by their friends... the reasons for joining are endless and varied but their volition to sail, share and socialise is undoubtedly unified. With the perfect combination of camaraderie, confidence and no competition, it is no wonder women are queuing up to join in their local Ladies Sailing group.

With organisations out there today like the Magenta project dedicating themselves to the promotion of women in sailing and Tracy Edwards film Maiden set to inspire another generation of women, there has never been a better time to get out on the water. Contact your local sailing club and give it go!

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