Women of the Volvo Ocean Race

While doing research on the history of the Volvo Ocean Race I noticed the absence of any women participating in this year’s race. I started to wonder about women sailors and the role they have played in the history of the race.

Since the inception of the race as the Whitbread Race Around the World in 1973-74, a total number of 111 women have competed in it. During the first race Paquita Carlin accompanied her husband Ramon, who owned and skippered the winning yacht Sayula II. Eleven more pioneering women joined that first race: Nicola Egger on Pen Duick III, Wendy Hinds on Second Life, Constance Imbert on CS e RB, Kerstin Jensen on Keewaydin, Carla Malingri on CS e RB, Michele Meda on CS e RB, Christina Monti on CS e RB, Zara Pascoli on Tauranga, Iwona Pieknawa on Otago, Yvonne Van der Byl on Jakaranda/Sayula II, and Sylvie Vanek on Grand Louis.

The 1977-78 race, in which 15 yachts entered, included a female skipper for the first time in the person of Britian’s Clare Francis. With two other women crew members on board her Swan 65 ketch ADC Accutrac, they were seen as strong contenders and finished in 5th place.

In the 1985-86 race British sailor Tracy Edwards (one of only 5 women in a race featuring 250 men) started the race sailing on board Norsk Data GB as the cook, but jumped ship to Atlantic Privateer in Cape Town. In the following race (1989-90) she was back. This time not as cook, but as skipper of the first all-women team. The biggest criticism leveled against an all-women team was that women were simply not physically strong enough for a race as physical as this one.

It was a difficult project to get off the ground, as no sponsorships were forthcoming. She had to sell her house to buy Pierre Fehlmann’s old 18 metre Disque d’Or III and outfit it. A last-minute deal eventually secured an £800,000 sponsorship from Royal Jordanian Airlines,  guaranteeing enough money to complete the race. She re-named the boat Maiden and managed to raise the campaign’s profile by inviting the Duchess of York, who was then the wife of HRH Prince Andrew, to christen the  boat. Despite the publicity her critics didn’t let up and no-one thought they would manage the race, let alone produce any significant results.

How wrong they were! Tracy Edwards and her crew not only finished the race, but came second in their division after winning two of the legs in the race, including what most call the toughest leg of the race to date (1989) through the treacherous Southern Ocean. It wasn’t all plain sailing though and many difficulties plagued them, including colliding with a whale and then being spun 360 degrees by a waterspout!

In 1993-94 another all-women crew were ready to take on the rigors of this around-the-world race. Named US Women’s Challenge and led by Nancy Frank it would turn out to be an eventful race with them running out of money and Nancy Frank leaving the boat after the first leg. The crew decided to continue to participate with new skipper Dawn Riley. Dawn was part of Tracy Edwards’ crew that sailed on Maiden in the 1989-90 race. On the second leg a clew of their spinnaker was wrenched out and their mainsail split in two. It took two days to repair in a violent snowstorm, but good news came in the form of new sponsor Heineken, which enabled them to finish the race.

The only South African woman to ever sail in this race, Lynnath Beckley, a marine biologist took a year off work to join the all-female crew on board EF Education in the 1997-98 race as navigator.

The 2001-02 race saw another all female entry with American skipper Lisa MacDonald on Amer Sports Too, while her husband Neal Macdonald skippered Assa Abloy in the same race.

Australian sailor and expert navigator Adrienne Cahalan competed in the 1993-94 race on board US Women’s Challenge/Heineken and was the last woman to date to participate in the race in 2005-06 on board Brasil 1, but finished only leg 1. A battle of words ensued after the first leg with Brasil 1 eventually confirming that Cahalan had been dropped from the sailing crew. Their statement said that it was only for the physically taxing Southern Ocean legs, with skipper Torben Grael reasoning that the “extreme physical strength” needed to sail a Volvo Open 70 in the Southern Ocean meant Adrienne, the only female sailor in the fleet, was not “appropriate” for the position.

Yet Adrienne was the navigator and only female on board 125ft maxi catamaran Cheyenne which broke the Round the World Speed Record on 5 April 2004 in 58 days, 9 hours, 32 minutes and 45 seconds. This record (held by Franck Cammas in recent years), interestingly enough, has been broken a couple of days ago by French skipper Loick Peyron on Banque Populaire V with onshore router Marcel van Triest who in 2005 replaced Adrienne on board Brasil 1 as navigator.

At the end of my research I am wondering: “Where have all the women gone?” Is it simply true that the Volvo Open 70’s require strength that women don’t have and that they are not ‘appropriate’ to be part of crews on these boats? The Southern Ocean most certainly is notorious and many sailing stories will confirm this. It is also true that women may not be physically as strong as men are, but what then of those women sailors like Dee Caffari and Ellen MacArthur that have sailed these seas not only alone, but have also broken records doing so set by males?

I am standing in awe of all these women and salute their achievements!

I also have a new reading wish list that includes the following books:

  1. Tracy Edwards’ autobiography Living Every Second
  2. Dawn Riley and Cynthia Flanagan’s Taking the Helm
  3. Around the buoys – Champion Yachtswoman and Navigator by Adrienne Cahalan (autobiography)
  4. And the following three books by Clare Francis: Come Hell or High Water; Come Wind or Weather; The Commanding Sea
  5. Dame Ellen MacArthur’s two autobiographies Taking on the World and Full Circle
  6. Against the Flow by Dee Caffari (autobiography)