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Empowering Women in Sailing: Girls for Sail Leading the Way

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Continuing our series Women at the Helm, we talked to Karen Harris of the Girls for Sail sailing School. The school have made it their job to get more women out on the water and behind the helm in what is still predominantly a male dominated sport.

Exclusively for women by women, Girls for Sail accepts that potential students may shy away from sailing fearing they lack the physical strength to handle the heavier boat gear. The school destroy this argument by referring to some of the world’s great female round the world sailors like Ellen MacArthur, Dee Caffari and Tracey Edwards.

“Women are fantastic to sail with,” says Harris, “and though they may not always be physically as strong as men, they have great potential to sail brilliantly using technique, tactics and great teamwork.”

Noting that sailing doesn’t have to be an endurance test, Girls for Sail tweak their events to give ladies the space and confidence to develop their sailing skills.

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“It’s all about learning the correct way to do things and about team work. Good tuition is crucial. Boats are designed so that much of the equipment can take the load if used properly and with know-how.”

Being fit is important for anyone thinking of taking up sailing but, according to Harris, age isn’t that much of an issue and several ladies in their 70s have made an Atlantic crossing with the school.

Macho BS can be a real problem for women learning to sail as part of a male crew and is one of the reasons that some women quit the sport. Harris was quite polite when discussing the subject saying only that problems can arise thanks to “certain men with certain beliefs about what women can and can’t do on boats.” This lack of support can put paid to a woman’s hopes of ever enjoying the sport of sailing.

“Women need to gain confidence through encouragement, practice and a good support system to assist in developing the same self-belief about their sailing skills as many men,” says Harris.

Female instructors and crew remove the threat of male bullying, which as editor of All At Sea I have come across only too often in my own sailing career.

Like men, women take up sailing for many different reasons, the sport is diverse and offers something for everyone.  Some women take courses to increase their enjoyment of simply messing about in boats, cruising alone or with family. Others have used the school as a first step into serious yacht racing including round the world regattas. A few students have followed a career in the marine industry, gaining various licenses and tickets and even becoming instructors in their own right, which goes to show that what the guys can do, the girls can do and (dare I say it), do even better.

Is there a down side to all this positive seagoing exuberance? Well, of course there is and no matter what your gender sailing isn’t for everyone. Harris says students should be prepared to face the challenges found on a small boat at sea.

Yes, They Can! Empowering Young Women

Offshore during the Fastnet race
Offshore during the Fastnet race

“Sailing and working with a group of people in a different environment will often take you out of your comfort zone but can be totally empowering. The weather won’t always be good and although the school boats are clean and comfortable, they are not five star hotels,” she says, adding, students are unlikely to have their own space during courses.

The school offer a variety of courses from basic crewing to Yachtmaster offshore and beyond. If it’s an RYA course then students are taught/taken though the syllabus by the skipper and should expect to spend most of their time on-board sailing or maneuvering.

Sophie - Chief instructor
Sophie – Chief instructor

For the more adventurous, courses take students across the ocean as part of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) and the RORC Transatlantic Race. Harris says next year will mark the twelfth time that the school as participated in the ARC and this is something they are very proud of.

“We have safely taken over 75 girls across the Atlantic – a truly life-changing experience for many and undoubtedly something that will stay in all their memories forever. We have trained thousands of ladies from our international bases in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, and on the Caribbean island of St Lucia.”

She adds, “We are really very experienced. We are all qualified RYA instructors having crossed oceans before and are well versed in all aspects of sailing.”

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Gary Brown
Gary Brownhttp://garyebrown.net
Gary E. Brown is the Editorial Director of All At Sea Caribbean. He is a presenter on Island 92, 91.9 FM, St. Maarten, and the author of the thriller/sailing adventure Caribbean High. For more information, visit: garyebrown.net

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