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Woman At the Helm – We’ve Come a Long Way Baby!

At first glance, it might seem ridiculous that a petite woman weighing in at ninety-five pounds would willingly choose to work on a boat. Historically, and presently, the sea has always played host for the male population…and indeed I might agree, after working on boats for two years, that the sea is no place for a woman.  Or rather it’s not a place for just any woman—because the sea’s harsh conditions have not hindered me or many other strong-willed women from spearheading their way into the industry. 

Dilemmas that women face in this daunting business range from blatant chauvinism, unusual living conditions, and intense physical challenges to the perils of the weather.  So how do women make their places in the sailing world and how are they accepted by the men that dominate it?

Fortunately, women have come a long way in the past century since the rise of feminism just as men have evolved their way of thinking and helped them progress.  Women have been more inclined to enter fields that were once considered a man’s occupation and within the world of sailing, a vast majority of the male population readily accepts women on board.  Women holding titles of captain or engineer are still a rarity and, more often than not, a woman’s place is still often found in the galley or tending to the cabins.  However, I know a few certain women who not only hold their captain’s license and can shimmy up a mast when need be, but who also slap on some lipstick and a pair of stilettos at the end of the day to maintain a feminine aura. 

Prior to writing this article, I quizzed some women on what they found to be the most difficult factor in the sailing industry.  Their answers all came out to be the same—that at one point in time they clashed heads with a man who found them unfit for the job.  I can recall an experience of my first captain who sent me into tears on a weekly basis because he admittedly and pompously referred to himself as misogynistic. 

Let me reiterate that most men do not embrace this mentality.  Since my first captain I have worked with numerous men who are willing to teach and be taught equally and do not discriminate according to gender.  In fact, my last captain preferred working with women as he felt testosterone and pride often unnecessarily challenged his decision-making on the boat.  To a certain extent, a ship’s rule can be considered a dictatorship and it is absolutely essential that both the captain and his/her crew live in harmony through mutual respect.

Other issues of boating livelihood can test one’s sanity.  Living with others in such a small living space is a lot like being in a relationship.  Sacrifice, personal space, and respect are crucial for the dynamics as a whole.  Living on a boat is a simpler way of life because numerous material possessions and certain personal behaviors must be left behind, simply because there isn’t enough room on board.  It takes a certain kind of outlook to adhere to this and women must adapt to a bachelor’s way of life, if you will, to compliment the ship.  

The physical tests of working on a boat can also be intimidating.  Strength is of utmost value when working on a boat but oftentimes determination can override this factor.  As a small woman, I can most certainly attest to this; I can’t count on how many occasions I pushed myself farther than my average physical limit. 

Lastly, the wrath of Mother Nature is not only unpredictable but can also be terrifying; but Mother Nature does not gender discriminate.  To a certain extent, the weather might be the last thing that a woman has to fear.

Ultimately, a woman enters into a job market just like a man.  There is a desire to learn, to persevere, and to offer what she or he can to better the situation.  The notion of discrimination, be it race, class, or gender, is an archaic philosophy that is gradually being replaced with a more open-minded way of thinking.  Fortunately, it is no longer unusual to see a woman not only working on a boat but making the boat work.

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