Women’s Sailing at CSC and on the Bay
No need to be an experienced sailor to notice that sailing may not be the most egalitarian sport when it comes to gender. Some attribute it to a difference in physical strength, less recklessness or, at a professional level, difficulties for women to convince sponsors, but certainly, there is a strong cultural dimension to it.
Isabelle Autissier, the first woman to sail singlehanded around the world in 1991, already highlighted the complexity of the issue: “First of all, you are not taken seriously because you are a woman. But then, when you prove you can do it, you are put higher up than the men.” Even though the disparity is not as extreme as in the ’90s, sailing remains a male-dominated sport. The Berkeley-based volunteer-run Cal Sailing Club is no exception, but CSC is making a point of changing mentalities.
Earlier this season, Christina Polito Halter, a CSC senior skipper, put together two afternoons of introduction to dinghy sailing for local Girl Scout troops. Using a dinghy in the yard, the Girl Scouts learned the basics of vocabulary and safety during maneuvers before being paired up with their skippers and casting off in the club RS Venture and Quest dinghies.
Summer days in the South Basin can be challengingly breezy, especially when sailing with children. But instructors were unanimous: The girls were all very brave, some of them going back on the water for multiple rides. No matter how long they sailed, all the girls had a huge smiles on their faces at the end of the day. This is what motivated Christina to organize these events for the second year. “[The girls] are just happy to be here,” she said. “Even those who didn’t fall in love with sailing, they are still excited to be around with their friends and discover new things.”
Christina’s concept for the event arose after a Boy Scout sailing day was held at CSC. She had wondered whether the Girl Scouts were given the same opportunity, remembering that when she was a kid, “Too often, the girls were watching the boys having fun!” Christina decided to be the change she wanted to see by offering the girls the opportunity to try new activities. Most CSC volunteers are very supportive of these events.
Besides the Girl Scout initiative, another advanced CSC sailor, Caryl Woulfe, has been organizing women’s clinics for more than 10 years to “encourage women to be more confident and brave” on the water. The clinic topics are voted in by female sailors who then get taught by fellow female members. One topic that comes back year after year is capsize recovery, and how to get back onto the boat after righting it. The class explains how to improvise a ladder with an extra line to climb back in more easily, and has proven to be a game changer for many sailors in the club. Other topics span safety maneuvers, like man-overboard drills, crew management on keelboats and even technical repairs.
But more than techniques, these clinics aim at demonstrating that all women can sail! In Caryl’s experience, “Once women sailors see other women righting a dinghy by themselves, sailing in heavy weather, or screaming downwind flying the gennaker, they become more confident that they can also do these things.” The goal is to ultimately have more women progressing through the club ratings. That would mean more female instructors, more female skippers for the club monthly open houses and, generally, a more gender-balanced face of our sport to welcome newcomers in our discipline.
Other opportunities and events exist for women sailors around the Bay. The Amazing Grace Cheney Cup, in memory of ardent female racer Grace Cheney, will be held on November 3 at Richmond Yacht Club. Caryl took part in this female-skippers-only regatta last year, and felt very empowered among this female-helmed fleet of 18 boats. The annual Northern California Women’s Sailing Seminar was just held in September, and other organizations around the Bay, like the Club Nautique, the San Francisco Yacht Club or Modern Sailing, have instruction and sailing programs dedicated to women.
By putting women sailors in the spotlight, CSC and all these Bay organizations contribute to changing the image of our beloved discipline. If we are still far from parity when it comes to boat ownership or professional sailors, more and more women undertake sailing training — a third of the new students last year were women, according to the American Sailing Association, and parity is expected for next year.
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