This article was originally written by Isabelle Joschke who is a French-German skipper (Generali-Horizon Mixité.). She has raced 7 times in Solitaire du Figaro and is sponsored by MaxSea.
For me it seems that women representing the sport of sailing has become one of the images of our modern society. Women and of course girls are signing up and taking part in leisure sailing in the same numbers as men. However, when the level of competition rises, the gender ratio staggers towards men. In competitive racing as a whole, we, the women, represent only 5-10% of competitors.
2008. 470 World Champions Erin Maxwell and Isabelle Kinsolving sailing upwind (Source: wikipedia)
So this poses the question of why are we so few on the big stage. And why is this so much more blatantly obvious for the Olympics? Is it as so they say that the progression for these girls is side-tracked due to the difficulty and the risk, being supposedly less able to confront such challenges? This is certainly not my opinion. I feel that there are multiple explications and for certain girls, it is quite evident.
One has to factor in the question of age. In the different Olympic categories, such as the mini 6.50, the average age sits at around 30 years. However in the Figaro or the Open 60, the proportion of women rises and in these events, the average age is around 35 or even higher. Or is this due to certain athletes putting their careers on hold to start a family.
But that doesn’t explain everything as there is a seeming advantage for male athletes under the age of 30. In my opinion, one of the factors is that female athletes are in need of female sailing stars to identify with, in contrast to the male athletes who have an abundance of stars they look up to and try to emulate. Another factor is that it is ingrained both at home and at school that it is easier for boys to compete than girls. This then leads to girls deciding not to dare to compete in a sport judged to be too physically tough for them. We enjoy illustrating this sport as virile and that also has an impact. More recently however, there has been a growing interest in female sport, such as women’s football which had always been a passion reserved for men.
My experience of racing on the whole has left me convinced that the sport is far from being solely for men. To start with, women are often very much welcomed. In the training facilities our presence is appreciated, considered as adding to the spirit of the group. From the sponsors’ side, they are actually just as interested in female athletes as their male counterparts: the few female athletes stand out and brandish themselves and have a clear advantage when interacting with national and international media.
Of course it is not always easy for any sailor to get beaten by a woman, but I feel that this will soon change once the ratio of women increases. As for the physical question, we can’t deny that there is a difference in strength between men and women of the same size. Personally being of small stature, I get tired quicker when performing manoeuvres than my competitors and so they take me longer to carry out. But the fact that there can be big differences between any two men and any two women shouldn’t be forgotten either. And, especially in off-shore, manoeuvres are just one of many important factors such as managing isolation, stress, resistance, strategy and the general technique of managing the boat, all of which put the importance of physical strength into perspective.
It would seem pretty clear to me, women, have every chance of succeeding in spite of the physical difference because we have qualities that can make the difference. Our challenge, is to dare to do without falling into the trap of measuring our abilities against men. In parallel to this, for me it seems evident that every woman and man needs to take part in changing the general mentality because the number of women in sailing will not grow without a real change in society.