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Women on the water

The Royal Yachting Association (RYA)

Loretta Spridgeon, RYA Communications Manager, celebrates the increasing number of women and girls who are taking to the water

The number of women and girls getting afloat is on the rise. There is no doubt that sailing and motor boating are among the most gender-inclusive sports around. But how do we help even more females seize the opportunities that are increasingly available, and increase the representation of women in the sport?

This girl can

‘Not all women need a helping hand to find their way in the sport, but creating environments where women feel safe and reassured, and which ensure that their goals, whatever they may be, are met, can make a real difference,’ comments Susie Moore.

Susie is the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Regional Development Officer for the South and works with clubs and RYA Training Centres in the region to get more people boating.

A lifelong water baby, Susie grew up sailing with her family on the Isle of Wight. She believes a renewed focus on getting more women active, driven by initiatives like Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, is being reflected in sailing. Importantly, the research that campaigns like this provide gives staff and volunteers in clubs and centres around the country better information to help them put on the right kind of activities or deliver them in more innovative ways in order to get and keep more women involved.

Hurdling the barriers

According to Sport England, there are currently two million fewer women than men regularly playing sport in England, yet 75% of women between the ages of 14 and 40 say they want to exercise more.

Susie continues: ‘Women-only sessions and groups have been around for a number of years, but because of the extra focus on female participation, more clubs and centres are offering or thinking about this style of session. The research in these areas is also helping them be more targeted about what sessions they could put on, for which groups, when, and how to reach out to these people.

‘If they have space between 10.30 am and midday on Mondays, for example, could they target retirees, mums who’ve dropped the kids off at school, or part-time professional females?

‘Many women put barriers up for themselves; they fear being judged and don’t see themselves as strong enough, or fit enough, worry about making a fool of themselves or are self-conscious about appearance etc.

‘These women need more reassurance and confidence building, to move them from not participating to trying the sport and then towards becoming lifelong participants. More clubs are providing this through women-only groups, with the social side being key.’

Ladies who launch

RIB and powerboat handling

RIB and powerboat handling is among the wide range of watersports and boating skills covered by the RYA. Photo: RYA

This is certainly what Rutland Sailing School have found as they celebrate five years of their Ladies Who Launch group. This twice-weekly group now attracts around forty regulars, with a mailing list of over a hundred women wanting to know what’s going on.

Fiona MacDonald, group spokeswoman, explains: ‘The social side is a huge part of the success of Ladies Who Launch – including aftersession buffets, walks, organised pub lunches, and even weekends yachting on the Solent.

‘After each session one of the sailors writes a blog, which is sent by email to our mailing list and posted on our Facebook page. This keeps everyone up to date so they feel they can just drop in to a session when they can, regardless of experience. All the women learn in a very encouraging, non-competitive, non-judgmental environment – which, while they become very competent sailors, boosts their confidence and self-esteem.’

Meanwhile, Earlswood Lakes Sailing Club near Birmingham and Felpham Sailing Club in Sussex are among many clubs already seeing success from their new women-only groups.

A lifetime journey

Opportunities for more women to get into boating are increasing, but so are the opportunities to do more in the sport once they have been bitten by the bug.

Susie Moore is just one example of a woman who’s made the sport she loves her career; there are countless others in high-profile and very diverse roles.

Rachel Andrews, Chief Instructor for Motor Cruising and Power, holds a senior position with boating’s national governing body, the Royal Yachting Association (RYA). The RYA is the national body for all forms of recreational and competitive boating under sail or power. It represents dinghy and yacht racing, motor and sail cruising, RIBs and sportsboats, powerboat racing, windsurfing, inland cruising and personal watercraft.

At the helm of the organisation is Chief Executive Officer Sarah Treseder, who has been involved in cruising and racing boats all her life. Sarah’s varied experience both in business and out on the water undoubtedly helps the RYA connect with the sport at all levels, from grassroots programmes to the higher echelons of the racing community.

Everywhere, women are pushing the boundaries – from powerboat racing champion Shelley Jory-Leigh to the all-woman crew of Team SCA, who competed in, and won a leg of, the 2014–15 Volvo Ocean Race. Also blazing a trail are the numerous female sailors, coaches and support staff of the British Sailing Team.

Sporting success ...

Charlotte Dobson and Sophie Ainsworth

Charlotte Dobson and Sophie Ainsworth, who raced for Britain in the new 49erFX class at Rio 2016. Photo: RYA

If proof were needed, you need look no further than the recent success of Olympic gold medallists Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark and their dominance on Guanabara Bay in Rio.

They won three of their initial ten races and never finished outside the top eight – a brilliantly consistent set of results on a stretch of water rated as the most fickle and unpredictable in world sailing. But the duo mastered the tricky conditions and mastered the fleet, going one better than the silver they clinched in Weymouth four years ago.

Managed by the RYA, the British Sailing Team has ensured that Great Britain was the top sailing nation at each of the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2016 Olympic Games and at the 2012 Paralympic Games.

... and career opportunities

Windsurfing coach and trainer Ali Yates is another whose name has become synonymous with her sport. Having spent money saved for Bros concert tickets on an old windsurfer from a car boot sale, and teaching herself to windsurf using a book borrowed from her school library, Ali thinks the horizons are stretching all the time.

‘I do think females come at things with a different perspective, and often have more natural empathy, which, from my experience, many people find refreshing. I ended up in this career almost by accident, but that happens less now. People definitely see career pathways in watersports, girls just as much as boys. It’s a proper industry.

‘I coach a lot of the RYA Zone and National Junior squad windsurfers and have had a number of girls at sixteen do their Level 2 Race Coach or instructor qualifications as they want to work overseas or earn some money during holiday times. At Zone Squad level particularly we’ve got a lot of female coaches who used to be racers themselves.

‘I’ve never really thought about what I do in the context of being a woman, but I do remember a time when I had to get permission to enter a men-only room at a sailing club, which shows how much attitudes have changed. I do think we will keep seeing the numbers of women in the sport growing. It’s an epic lifestyle. I love what I do!’

Find out more about the RYA at www.rya.org.uk